richard dawkins a devil's chaplain

sunday telegraph, 16 february 2003

I agree with virtually everything he says', a journalist wrote in a recent newspaper profile of Richard Dawkins, 'but I find myself wanting to smack him for his intolerance'. It's a typical reaction. We can't question Dawkins' rationalism, many people feel, but does he really have to be so upfront about it? Does he have to be quite so rude about religion or nasty about alternative medicine? Why can't he loosen up a bit?

A Devil's Chaplain will do little to assuage such sentiments. A collection of essays and reviews from newspapers and magazines spanning three decades, it covers many familiar themes: genes and memes, Darwinism and Creationism, religion and morality. There are also more personal, even tender pieces: a letter to his daughter on her 18th birthday; a lament for his friend, the author Douglas Adam; a eulogy at the funeral of the biologist William Hamilton. 'Those of us who wish we had met Charles Darwin can console ourselves: we may have met the nearest equivalent that the late twentieth century had to offer', Dawkins said of Hamilton.

At the heart of this collection, however, is Dawkins' unswerving defence of science and reason and a contempt for mysticism of any kind, whether New Age or religious. For Dawkins, ideas are like organisms: only the fittest should survive. Every idea must prove itself in the public arena; none should be accepted simply on faith. That is why he is incredulous that so many people 'meekly acquiesce in the convenient fiction that religious views have some sort of right to be respected automatically and without question'. 'If I want you to respect my views on politics, science or art', writes Dawkins, 'I have to earn that respect by argument, reason, eloquence or relevant knowledge. I have to withstand counter-arguments. But if I have a view that is part of my religion, critics must respectfully tiptoe away or brave the indignation of society at large.'

There is an abstract quality to Dawkins' concept of reason that sometimes leads him, paradoxically, in an irrational direction. In an essay originally written for the Great Ape Project, Dawkins claims that arguments against 'ape rights' are absurd because there is no biological discontinuity between humans and other primates. 'The discontinuous gap between humans and "apes" that we erect in our minds in regrettable', he writes. It is 'arbitrary', the result of 'evolutionary accident'. Ethical principles, he concludes, should not be based on 'accidental caprice'.

But those of us who think it irrational to accord rights to apes do so not because we believe there is a biological discontinuity between humans and apes, but because we think there is a moral and political discontinuity. Humans are moral agents, in a way that apes are not, and rights are linked to our possession of agency. It is quite possible to believe that humans and apes are continuous in one sense and discontinuous in another. As Dawkins himself wrote in The Selfish Gene humans 'alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators'.

Perhaps the most poignant section of A Devil's Chaplain is collection of essays and reviews about the late Stephen Jay Gould, the only other modern biologist of comparable public stature. Dawkins and Gould were united in their defence of Darwinism against Creationism. Yet there was also deep hostility between them because of Gould's scepticism about the idea of the 'selfish gene' and Dawkins' contempt for what he saw as Gould's politicisation of science. Both Dawkins' respect for Gould as a writer, and his bitterness at what he regards as Gould's betrayal of the cause, shines through here.

Gould was a far greater essayist than Dawkins, because he possessed a broader mind - he was as much a historian as a biologist. But narrowness of vision has its own virtues - Dawkins has been proved largely right in the debates about evolutionary theory. He is also right in his intolerance of unreason.

There are many issues on which I disagree with Dawkins, and there are times when his fixations lead him astray. But in an age in which the British Prime Minister takes part in New Age ceremonies, and the American President blocks medical advances because of his reading of the Bible, an obsessive concern with reason seems to me to be a virtue not a vice. We could do with a few more obsessives like him.