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