The Enemy

This is another archival repost, originally written in september 2007.

There is a new fashion emerging from the internet, newspapers and now even books. It is fashionable to consider Richard Dawkins to be your enemy, and to believe that everything he says is personally aimed at you. I don’t wish to be constantly defending Dawkins – as I have found myself doing these past few weeks in unrelated discussions on religion and biology – after all, Dawkins is neither the leader of atheists, nor the greatest biologist of the age. I have been defending Dawkins not because I agree with everything he says, or think he is beyond criticism, but because an awful lot of people are being unfair.

By this I mean that Dawkins is constantly being accused of making straw man arguments. The theists say that creationists are not representative of their religion, or that their religion isn’t violent, and considers creation myths and concepts like hell to be allegorical. Well then, he’s not talking to you. Dawkins makes it quite clear in his writings on religion that he understands that there is a spectrum of religious beliefs. If you’re a liberal Anglican who doesn’t take Genesis or hell seriously, he has some specific things to say about your beliefs. The criticism of creationism, meanwhile, is aimed at the creationists, not you.

The biologists, meanwhile, are always complaining because Dawkins doesn’t write enough about their particular field. I think genetic drift is interesting; Dawkins doesn’t think it’s worth writing a book about (or, at least, doesn’t think he’s the right man to write such a book). Get over it. And Dawkins doesn’t ignore the role of chance in the history of life: he wrote The Ancestor’s Tale backwards precisely to emphasise the fact that if we replayed it, everything would be different. He only plays down the role of chance in producing and maintaining[1] adaptations and increasing the complexity of life. I find the topic of junk DNA fascinating, but that doesn’t mean I have to bring it up in a discussion about adaptations. When you take the arguments over chance (drift, spandrels, etc), punctuated equilibria, the gene as a unit of selection, and so on, and you remove all of the paper wasted on arguments of the form “Yes, your ideas are relevant, but mine are more interesting” vs. “Yes, your ideas are interesting, but mine are relevant too,” you’re not left with much argument at all. It’s what you get when you make such diverse interests as palaeontologists, biochemists, population geneticists, ecologists, ethologists, psychologists and philosophers discuss the same theory. Each will be criticising every other field for ignoring their favourite topics, and Dawkins makes a fantastic magnet for this.

[1] Emphasis added to maintaining: yes, mutation is interesting, but not very relevant to maintaining an adaptation.

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