Taking Down Dawkins

Fern Elsdon-Baker. The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin's Legacy. Icon Books, 2009.🔻
Fern Elsdon-Baker believes that Richard Dawkins has "effectively hijacked Darwin and distorted his legacy to champion an inflexible approach that gives the public a very one-sided view of what's really going on in evolutionary science". She has no quarrel with his atheism, as she also proclaims herself to be an atheist.

She is, however, concerned not only about the dogmatic and aggressive manner with which he promotes his atheism, but also with his views on science, scientific truth and the function of science in society.

Concerning Dawkins's "selfish gene" description of evolution, Elsdon-Baker considers it over-simplified and misleading in the light of recent discoveries in biology, although readers who consult the blogs used by Dawkins's admirers will find that they believe that their man is practically infallible in matters of science, and in almost everything else as well.

In her comments about Dawkins's and other scientists' treatment of the history of science, she identifies a common fault - the tendency to judge past actions by modern standards, the 'Whiggish' approach to history - a tendency to judge past actions in the light of modern knowledge instead of in the context of what was known or believed at the time. Some who opposed the theory of natural selection were said to be stupid for apparently failing to understand it, although in Darwin's time the Earth was thought to be much younger than it is at present estimated to be, thus leaving little time for evolution to take place.

Unlike Dawkins, Elsdon-Baker does not see that science and religion are necessarily in conflict. After all, mainstream religions did not take long to accept the general idea of evolution. She remarks: "As enticing as it might be to claim science for atheism, this stance could ultimately undermine 'science' in the public perception by reaching beyond what are commonly accepted to be its parameters". She also objects to Dawkins's tendency to portray religion in its more extreme manifestations, rather than mainstream religious activity.

Most criticisms of Dawkins are about his views on religion, but this one covers a wider range and has already enraged those who consider him a kind of Mr Toad character who knows everything worth knowing. -- John Harney

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