Because the universe is beautiful enough without having to lie about it

The Genius of Charles Darwin – Review

August 5th, 2008 Posted in Biology, Creationism, Education, Religion

Professor Richard Dawkins has been at the forefront of the modern assault against religious fundamentalism for many years, culminating in his recent publication of ‘The God Delusion’, which has been translated into 31 million languages and sold over 1.5 million copies worldwide.  For me, Dawkins’s confrontational approach to scientific evangelism doesn’t always seem the best route to take, but one can’t doubt either his conviction or his ability to form devastating arguments against the opponents of logic and reason.  On the whole, I love most of what he does, but that’s what pretty much every skeptic site says about him and I never found effusive praise to be very constructive.  So, for what it’s worth, here’s what I don’t like about him – I hope you’ll take the rest as read.

In his latest series, “The Genius of Charles Darwin”, Dawkins seems to be continuing the trend that began in “Enemies of Reason” towards a slightly less aggressive tone of journalism.  He is certainly not known for his tolerance of opposing viewpoints. To be fair, he has the overwhelming evidence on his side and he knows it.  Besides, this isn’t one of those situations where there “isn’t a wrong answer”; on the contrary, there are very many wrong (and loudly publicised) answers and only one right one. That single correct theory was first published 150 years ago next year by Charles Darwin, and it was hailed by Dawkins at the beginning of last night’s programme as “perhaps the most powerful idea ever to occur to a human mind.” It would be very difficult to disagree with that premise – I can certainly only think of half a dozen or so competitors, and Darwin’s theory is right near the top. It a bizarre fact then, as Dawkins points out, that school children aren’t even introduced to this idea until they are 14 or 15 years old.  It seems rather like not teaching Newton’s laws in physics, or skipping over atomic theory in chemistry, until right near the end of the course.

Dawkins spends most of this first episode covering the history of the Theory of Evolution, and tries his very best not to explode with frustration when placed in front of a school room full of fifteen year-old schoolkids. I think the main issue I have with Dawkins’s programmes is that he really isn’t the best person to be debating people who don’t think in a rational scientific way.  Perhaps he’s just too knowledgeable.  I don’t think he’s capable of empathising with his harshest critics and you can see the genuine bewilderment on his face when a child says that, in a confrontation between rational evidence and his holy book, it’s religion that wins.

Dawkins is a hyper-rational man, which is what got him such a prestigious academic post in the first place.  Amongst scientists and the intelligent, educated skeptics of this world, he’s seen as a powerful force for reason, and his books are justifiably well regarded.  But that’s not how he’s seen by his opponents.  Intelligent fundamentalists (if that isn’t an oxymoron) see him as a fish out of water, incapable of understanding their world because of his ignorance of matters religious; they see him as cold and heartless – trying to take away from them what they hold most dear and insulting them by insinuating that, as they see it, they are ‘just animals’.  The children in the science class, though understandably awed by the opportunity to appear on TV with a celebrity, clearly weren’t ever really on the same page as the professor.

One slightly disappointing moment was near the end when the one most religious kid in class (the ‘religion trumps reality’ one) said that he was thinking hard about evolution, but never wanted to give up his religion. He saw it very much as an ‘either-or’ decision.  I was slightly worried that Dawkins is proposing a false dichotomy here that is instantly going to put so many people off Darwin’s theory.

I know it’s been said many times, but this really isn’t a choice that people have to make.  Sure, Evolution removes one of the most obvious arguments for evidence of a supernatural creator, but it doesn’t kill off that creator entirely.  Dawkins clearly believes that it does, and I’m worried that he is making this a battle of science vs. religion instead of science vs. irrational myths and falsehoods.  If Dawkins were to read some books on sales techniques he might learn how the best way to sell someone on a big idea is a little bit at a time, and by appealing to emotion and logic, not logic alone.

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