The Fictioning Horror Sale

Reviews From


The New Republic Online
Thursday, December 11th, 2003


A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love

by Richard Dawkins

The Ethics of Belief

A review by Simon Blackburn

Richard Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford, and one of the best-known scientists and writers of our time. His works explaining biology and evolution, including The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, and The Blind Watchmaker, are deservedly classics. The title of his chair at Oxford fits him perfectly, since he must have done more to increase the public understanding of his own science, and indeed of science in general, than anyone else of his generation. The only writer on similar themes who came close to him was Stephen Jay Gould, to whom several of the papers in this sparkling collection are addressed. But Dawkins is a more reliable evolutionary theorist, I think, than Gould was.

This collection contains many of Dawkins's thoughts about the significance of science, as well as some eulogies, prefaces, and topical contributions such as a piece on the Sokal hoax. Some, particularly the eulogies for two of his heroes, the science-fiction writer Douglas Adams and the great biologist W.D. Hamilton, and also the correspondence with his supposed opponent Stephen Jay Gould, show a remarkably warm and generous side to Dawkins. So does his wonderful encomium to an inspirational teacher, the headmaster Sanderson of the famous school Oundle, a maverick who could no longer exist in a culture dominated by bureaucratic controls and demands.

Other essays show more steel. They concern the interpretation of science, and the relationship between science and culture. They say less about biological science itself, although one essay in particular, "Darwin Triumphant," is a marvelous statement of the methodology and the status of current evolutionary theory. Indeed, it is the best such introduction I know, and it ought to be the first port of call for know- nothings and saloon-bar skeptics about the nature and the power of Darwinian theory. In it Dawkins shows his uncanny ability to combine what might seem light and introductory material with heavyweight contributions to theory. He moves seamlessly from introducing "core Darwinism" to answering a professional question left open by Francis Crick. The clarity of his writing is astonishing. This is his description of core Darwinism: "the minimal theory that evolution is guided in adaptively nonrandom directions by the nonrandom survival of small random hereditary changes." Every word counts; none could be omitted, and for the purposes of definition no more are needed. It is immediately obvious that core Darwinism is compatible with random genetic drift (where no adaptive advantage accrues because of a change) or with external catastrophic interference, as in the destruction of the dinosaurs, yet much ink has been spilled on misunderstandings of these things. Consider also a part of his answer to the question that Crick raised, asking why Lamarckian inheritance, the inheritance of acquired characteristics, could not be as efficient as natural selection: "If acquired characteristics were indiscriminately inherited, organisms would be walking museums of ancestral decrepitude, pock-marked from ancestral plagues, limping relics of ancestral misfortune." Almost any page will show similar gems.

The "Devil's Chaplain" of Dawkins's title comes from Darwin: "What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature." Dawkins does not flinch from the depressing picture of the evolutionary process that so horrified many Victorians. Nature is clumsy and wasteful and blunderingly low and horridly cruel, or at least horridly indifferent. Creatures live on others in sickening ways, and nature erupts in terrible arms races in which predator and prey provoke each other to more complex and more fiendish devices. But the accumulation of tiny accidents and the winnowing process of the evolutionary sieve can result in marvels, whether it is a swallow's flight or the running of a gazelle or the ingenuity of a scientist. For one of the marvels is the human brain, with its capacity for taking control, for planning, for cooperating with others, or for manipulating the environment. The question of how it should do these things takes us to ethics. The question of how it got to be so that it can do these things takes us to evolutionary science.

Dawkins unashamedly and gloriously delights in science. If anything is sacred to him, it is truth and the patient road to it. He loves the methods of science and its self-correcting nature. He loves the amazing world that it reveals — a world far more amazing than any that human beings could invent out of their own heads. A quotation that he provides from Douglas Adams fits him exactly: "I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day." In the last essay in the book he expresses this love in a moving letter to his ten-year-old daughter, extolling science's reliance on observation, evidence, and the testing of hypotheses, and contrasting them with the ways by which falsehoods come to grip the human mind: by authority, and tradition, and the inner conviction called revelation.

Still, Dawkins can seem surprisingly unperturbed by the forces that unsettle public confidence in science. Writing to Tony Blair about the furor over genetically modified crops, he contrasts the "gut reactions" of the green movement, which he despises, with a "rational plea for rigorously safe testing," which he endorses. But he thereby bypasses the Greens' fear that in a world where universities are beholden to big agriculture, there is no such thing as rigorously safe testing, or at least no way for the rest of us to know if it ever takes place. Dawkins does not write as if distorted observations, bent peer review, the demand for results from industrial sponsors, and the corruption of the medical profession by pharmaceutical companies are much of a problem. He reminds his daughter that even if we take scientific facts on trust, we can in principle go and look for ourselves, repeating whatever experiments are necessary. But he is, perhaps, a little too quiet about the practical impossibility of doing any such thing.

The betrayal of science that does arouse him to fury comes from religion. Dawkins is an atheist, a strenuous and militant and proud one. He thinks religious belief is a dangerous virus, and that it is a crime to infect the mind of a child with it. He believes that "only the willfully blind could fail to implicate the divisive force of religion in most, if not all, of the violent enmities in the world today." He calls religions "dangerous collective delusions," and he thinks that they are sinks of falsehood (most of them have to be, since only one can be true). He especially regrets their public influence. He is made apoplectic by the pontifications of religious "leaders" on such questions as whether human clones would be fully human, made in blissful ignorance of the fact that identical twins are clones of each other.

Religion in England is not terribly demanding. It is not typically to be thought of in terms of, say, the Kansas School Board or the teaching of "creationist science," things about which any educated person should be deeply disturbed. Nor in its native form is English religion a matter of clerics telling you what you can eat or whom you can marry. It is not even a matter of oily frauds on television fleecing the poor and the stupid of their savings. It is seen largely as a set of marginal but aesthetically pleasing rituals: the King's College carol service, a stroll around Salisbury or York, watercress sandwiches and a bit of Elgar. And so it is not really done to dump on English religion too heavily; better to raise your hat to a vicar than raise your fists to him. This puts Dawkins in the somewhat paradoxical position of being an evangelical atheist in a country where evangelicals of any kind are largely mistrusted. At least until recently, his crusading seemed to many people in England a little bit over the top, a touch embarrassing. Surtout, pas de zle: Talleyrand's excellent motto, goes down well in England, yet Dawkins is zealous.

But he has a good excuse. The religious virus is a cunning enemy, and recent years have actually seen creationist schools creeping into the United Kingdom, while our prime minister, who together with his wife is the beneficiary of a marvelous gene that enables him to believe absolutely whatever he would like to believe, has set up an influential committee for increasing religiosity in the workings of government. (Although nominally a Catholic, Cherie Blair goes in more for New Age nonsense, but as far as I am aware the government has not yet been instructed to consult crystal balls.) Dawkins thinks, and I agree with him, that we cannot afford to be complacent. Even if we have little religious zealotry at home, we do not have to go as far as America or the Middle East to find it. We only need to look across the sea to Northern Ireland to be reminded of what happens once the religious virus takes hold. And Dawkins has a further reason for his zeal: evolution and biology have been and still are frequent targets of those infected by religion. They are areas where what we are — large primates — conflicts most sharply with what such people would like to think of us as being: children of God, little lower than angels, specially anointed. When wishful thinking collides with science, it is generally wishful thinking that wins, and Dawkins is right to be driven wild by it.

Yet I wonder whether religion and science relate to each other in quite the way that Dawkins envisages. He thinks of religious belief as simply true or false, like other beliefs, and then overwhelmingly likely to be false, since they are either inconsistent with or unsupported by our best evidence about the way the world works. Religion is superstition, like astrology, alternative medicine, and the rest. He likes an example of Bertrand Russell's in which we consider the hypothesis that there is a china teapot in its own orbit around the sun. Someone might believe it, but there are many reasons for supposing it false and none at all for supposing it true. Dawkins is right that it would be simply silly to set store by the fact that the belief cannot be disproved. It may depend on your standards of proof, but in any event the hypothesis is as unlikely as can be, and as unlikely as any of the infinite number of equally outlandish possible beliefs that we all ignore all the time.

It might seem not to matter if someone convinces himself that there is such a teapot. But Dawkins might side, as I would, with the Victorian mathematician W.K. Clifford, whose famous essay "The Ethics of Belief" excoriated our "right" to believe pretty much what we like:

In like manner, if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery.

But the real and present danger lies not so much here but in what the belief in the teapot waits to do. To become anything worth calling a religious belief, a belief needs to connect with our form of life, our way of being in the world. Perhaps out of its spout come instructions on how to behave, whom to shun and whom to persecute, how to eat and what to wear. Now the teapot becomes an object of veneration, and of controversy. It needs interpreting. It needs a dedicated class of people (usually men) to give authoritative renderings of its texts and their meanings. In short, it has become a religious icon, and dangerous.

It has also stopped being a teapot, or merely a teapot (just as Duchamp's urinal stops being merely a urinal: it is the audience's interpretation of it that matters). It will have started to be a sin not to believe in this teapot, although normally it is no sin to doubt the existence of anything. The teapot may have become eternal, although natural teapots are not. In fact, at this point we can forget the teapot qua teapot, and look straight at the institutions that it supports and the instructions and the way of life into which it gets woven. The factual component is not the bit that does the work. The teapot is merely a prop in the game, and an imaginary teapot serves just as well.

The same is true of the great or wise Architect of the eighteenth century, or the Intelligent Designer who is so important to the good people in Kansas. If you use evidence from the wonderful contrivances of nature to ascend to a designer, what then? There is no immediate practical difference between living in a world with such-and-such natural stuff in it and living in a world with the same natural stuff in it that some supernatural being created, or even occasionally tweaks in unpredictable ways. The more extravagant account offers no new scientific predictions, and certainly no inferences as to how to behave, whom to admire, or what to fight for or against. You have to import all that yourself, from your culture or your morality. If you marvel long enough at the adaptation of bees and orchids to start thinking of intelligent design, that is just a barren scientific mistake; but if, as a next step, you begin to think that the designer has given you satisfactory authority to persecute people with bare heads or red beards, you have become religious, but you are no longer in the world of fact at all.

On this way of thinking, religious activity becomes more like dance, song, drama, or ritual. Its essence lies in what religious people do, not what they believe or say that they believe. And the question of whether it is good to go in for these dances and dramas stops being a scientific question. It becomes a political or an ethical or an aesthetic question.

For Dawkins, a sentence such as "I know that my redeemer liveth" expresses a superstitious and false belief that someone who lived two thousand years ago goes on living still, contrary to all the known processes of biology. On the Wittgensteinian view that I have just outlined, it is more like an expression of awe or fear or self-righteousness or humility. It is the saying of someone who is trying to articulate certain emotions, and who has been given this particular repertoire of expressions of them, just as he might have been given a waltz or a minuet. It is not a saying that is contradicted by the scientific truth that people do not live that long.

It is a good question whether the Wittgensteinian account chimes very well with the self-understanding of believers, and whether it matters if it does not chime with it at all. It has consequences for one problem that troubles Dawkins, which is the extent to which even atheists seem drawn to "respect" the attitudes and the beliefs of religious people. Why should anyone "respect" the belief that there is a china teapot orbiting the sun? It is just dotty, and that is the end of it. But if we see a religious tradition as a record of a culture's ongoing attempts to cope with fear and hope, life and death, gain and loss, then it certainly becomes a candidate for respect, just as much as the artistic and literary traditions of our ancestors. I recall reading somewhere that the doughty Enlightenment spirit Edward Gibbon recounted journeying past the cathedral of Chartres with words like these: "Pausing only to dart a look of contempt at the stately pile of superstition, we passed on." It is important that atheists do not have to share this attitude of Gibbon's, and I am sure that Dawkins does not share it. It is religious people, after all, who deface and destroy religious buildings.

Becoming a possible object of respect, a religious tradition also becomes a target for criticism, and Dawkins is quite capable of mounting the true criticism of most current religiosities, including that of all the monotheistic religions of the desert, which is that they are frequently cruel, misogynistic, divisive, intolerant, and life-denying, and that they warp for the worse the emotions and the practices of countless people across the globe. The function of these religions is to regulate how people behave and think, and unfortunately people regulate how they behave in the most awful ways and think the most awful things. There is no skyhook, so our teapots are no better than we are, and often bring out the worst in us.

In the popular mind, Richard Dawkins is probably associated with two influential ideas: the selfish gene and the meme. The first is associated with a particular way of thinking of natural selection, a "gene's-eye view" that, as Dawkins has always acknowledged, was heralded by W.D. Hamilton and G.C. Williams in the 1960s, or even earlier. To an outsider it now appears quite orthodox within that field, although one needs to be very surefooted to follow the mathematics and the logic behind controversies over whether evolution "operates at" the level of genes, individuals, species, or other units. Indeed, it is not always clear whether there is real rivalry here.

Thus at some points in his writings Dawkins himself has suggested that we just have different ways of looking at the same thing. In The Extended Phenotype, he uses the analogy of a Necker cube, which "flips" from being seen one way to being seen another, suggesting that the gene's-eye view and the individual's perspective are then just two different ways of looking at the same truth. In his usual, more evangelical mood he wants to insist that the gene's-eye view is better. In the introduction to the second edition of The Selfish Gene, while still admitting that the different standpoints cannot be judged by experiment, verification, and falsification, nevertheless the change of vision can "usher in a whole climate of thinking, in which many exciting and testable theories are born, and unimagined facts laid bare." New ways of seeing make their own contributions to science.

They do indeed, and spectators such as myself will have to take it on trust that this has happened here. But it is not completely obvious how. For comparison, imagine a new method of treating an injury at football, such as a sprained ankle. Suppose it is quicker and less painful than the old method, which it then supplants. It makes little sense on the face of it to argue about which is the prime beneficiary, what Dawkins calls the "optimon" or the "entity for whose benefit adaptations may be said to exist." Is it the ankle, the player, the team, the supporters, or even the doctor? More outlandishly, is it perhaps the treatment itself, a cultural device or "meme" in Dawkins's sense, which will replicate itself effectively just because it is better adapted to the football environment than the old treatment? I do not think that these are very well- formed questions, or that we do well to choose one answer over another. All that does seem clear is that there is an arrow of causation. The change in treatment benefits the spectators because it benefits the team, which it does only because it benefits the player, and it benefits the player only because it benefits his ankle. You cannot say it the other way around: it is not true that the treatment benefits the ankle because it benefits the team.

Similarly, an adaptive mutation in a gene may benefit a group because it benefits individuals, and may spread because it does so. In saying these things, at least we use "benefit" in a literal sense. If, in the football example, we go on to say that the prime beneficiary is the meme, the treatment itself, I doubt if we mean anything — except, of course, that because of its superior merits this treatment is set to become more common than other treatments. Similarly, if we say that the prime beneficiary of a mutation is the gene itself, I doubt we can mean more than that because of its superior merits in aiding the life of its host this gene is set to become more common than its allele, or less adaptive rival.

Perhaps this is all that we should mean. By now it is not seriously doubted that the random variations described in core Darwinism occur at the level of the gene. That much is not in question. Is everything else, such as the apparent personification of the gene, merely rhetorical? It is hard to be sure. Dawkins is such a vivid and powerful writer, with such a range of metaphor at his disposal, that it is not always his readers' fault if they take him to mean more. The notorious descriptions of persons as blind or lumbering robots, of human life prostituted to the selfish gene (a phrase that he takes from the late Christopher Evans), of human beings as "alone on earth" rebelling against the tyranny of the selfish replicators, is deliberately thrilling. But then comes the sobering up. "Lumbering robot" does not quite mean what it sounds to mean. It covers anything capable of learning, intelligence, creativity, and emotion. Us, in fact. "Selfish" does not mean selfish, which implies a capacity to think in terms of self, but simply means capable of replicating itself more numerously than others. I should not be surprised if somewhere Dawkins patiently explains that "prostitute" and "tyranny" have technical meanings in biology, so that the idea of ourselves as prostituted to our genes or heroically rebelling against their tyranny has simply been misunderstood by laypersons.

There is, of course, no reason at all why biology, like any other science, should not give terms a technical use. But it is important to insist that our words control us at least as much as we control them, and I am not convinced that in places such as these Dawkins is in perfect control. Consider the idea that we alone on earth can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators within us. What is the stripped-down, sober biological truth intended by such language? Like all other living things, we have genes. We also have psychologies; that is, in accordance with our genetic recipes and chemical environments, large brains have formed, so that we think and desire and form intentions and plans after we have grown into the culture around us. But what is all this about rebelling and tyranny? A tyrant may tell me to do something, and, rebelling, I do something else. What is the analogy? Perhaps an occasion when I am really tempted to do something, but control myself and do something else instead. But why describe this as a case of defying my genes? You might as well say that I am rebelling against my brain, whereas the fact is that I am using it. It is only Cartesian dualists — that is, dare one say it, religious people — who go in for opposing what nature would have me do against what I, the real me, does. And it is not even true that we alone on earth can exercise self-control. A dog may resist the temptation to take a biscuit, having been told not to do so.

The concept of cultural items such as tunes or games, beliefs or fashions, as themselves "memes" with a kind of life of their own, making use of human beings as vehicles in their pitiless Darwinian struggle with competitors, has similar problems. First it sounds perverse, but then it seems dazzling and exciting. Yes! A gunman is a bullet's way of making another bullet, and a librarian is a library's way of making another library! Like Samuel Butler, who instructed that "even a potato in a dark cellar has a low cunning that stands it in excellent stead," we suddenly think of tunes and games and accents and treatments as pursuing their own projects, plotting to invade us, making use of us to pursue their own competitive existences. Again, though, there is the sobering up. Get rid of any image of a tune or a treatment cunningly squirreling away, invading people and bringing about changes. A tune does not literally make use of people, since it is not the kind of thing that has purposes and designs. What is true is that when one lodges in people's heads, they are prone to spread it. And then we feel let down, since this is all that is apparently left when the rhetorical flourishes are cleaned off.

The upshot, then, is that for his ideas to work, there need to be three levels at which to read Dawkins on such matters. There is strict science — empirical, verifiable, and falsifiable. There is the value of the gene's-eye view or the meme's-eye view, giving us some surplus meaning: a guiding metaphor or way of thinking of things, earning its keep through prompting stricter science. And there is the merely rhetorical level, where the surplus meaning might mislead the layperson, but which is in Dawkins's view easily detachable and disavowed. I have been voicing some doubts about this last claim, but the more important question for science is what is left, or whether everything goes when the bad surplus meaning goes. I am tempted to suppose that this is how it is with memes. At the very least, it would be nice to see which real, fruitful, empirically testable hypotheses about the processes of cultural transmission have been offspring of the idea.

It would be churlish to end on a note of doubt, since memes and genes take up only a small part of this book. Richard Dawkins is too valuable an ally in the battle to keep our culture educated and reasonable to allow these refined issues to matter too much. He is a superb writer, and a great advocate for sanity, and an endlessly informative resource. He should be compulsory reading for school boards everywhere.

Simon Blackburn is professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His recent books include Think (Oxford University Press) and Being Good (Oxford University Press).

Click here to subscribeTry four weeks of the New Republic Digital absolutely free

For nearly 90 years, the New Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous examination of American politics, foreign policy, and culture. Today, we're proud to offer a faster, easier, and more economical way to enjoy the magazine — TNR Digital. Subscribe today and we'll give you 4 weeks absolutely free. That's less than 36 cents/week for every word of content available in the print version, a downloadable replica of the print magazine, and an array of special online-only features!

Click here to sign up.

  • back to top
Follow us on...

Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at