The Guardian tries to pwn Dawkins

September 7, 2010 • 7:56 am

In his blog On Art in today’s Guardian, Johnathan Jones, whoever he is, makes an invidious and ill-informed comparison between Dawkins and Darwin:  “Natural selection: Give me Darwin over Dawkins any day.

To Jones, Darwin was the moderate Victorian gentleman, presenting evidence without bashing creationism, while Dawkins (of course) is strident and arrogant, putting off his biology audience by touting atheism.  This is Mooneyism at its best:

Darwin is the finest fruit of English empiricism. His modest presentation of evidence contrasts, I am sorry to say, with the rhetorical stridency of Richard Dawkins. Visit the famous atheist’s website and you will see two causes being pushed. Dawkins is campaigning with other secular stars against the pope’s visit to Britain. Meanwhile he is touring the paperback of his book The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. The trouble with this book is that it lacks Darwin’s empirical style. Where the Victorian writer presented masses of evidence, and let his astonishing, earth-shattering theory emerge from common-sense observations of nature, Dawkins lacks the patience, at this point in his career, to let natural history speak for itself. He has become the mirror image of the theological dogmatists he despises.

He just can’t separate science from the debate he has got into with religious people.

I don’t know what book Jones read, but it’s not the same one I reviewed in The Nation. The Greatest Show on Earth has chapter after chapter of solid biology, natural history, genetics, evo-devo, and the like. Yes, Dawkins takes some slaps at creationists, but Darwin wasn’t dealing with a 150-year history of entrenched religious opposition to his ideas.

Jones apparently hasn’t read The Origin, either, since Darwin by no means let the data “speak for itself.” Over and over again, Darwin contrasts the data with what one would expect under creationism, showing that the religious “theory” was grossly wrong.  If Darwin published this today, he’d surely be accused of insensitivity to the feelings of the faithful. (Remember all those people, like Josh Rosenau and Michael De Dora, who said that while it’s okay to tell people that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, it’s not okay to tell them that this shows that the Earth isn’t 6,000 years old?)

Let’s take just a few examples from one chapter—Chapter 12, on biogeography.

In St. Helena there is reason to believe that the naturalised plants and animals have nearly or quite exterminated many native productions. He who admits the doctrine of the creation of each separate species, will have to admit, that a sufficient number of the best adapted plants and animals have not been created on oceanic islands; for man has unintentionally stocked them from various sources far more fully and perfectly than has nature. . .

This general absence of frogs, toads, and newts on so many oceanic islands cannot be accounted for by their physical conditions; indeed it seems that islands are peculiarly well fitted for these animals; for frogs have been introduced into Madeira, the Azores, and Mauritius, and have multiplied so as to become a nuisance. But as these animals and their spawn are known to be immediately killed by sea-water, on my view we can see that there would be great difficulty in their transportal across the sea, and therefore why they do not exist on any oceanic island. But why, on the theory of creation, they should not have been created there, it would be very difficult to explain. . .

The naturalist, looking at the inhabitants of these volcanic islands in the Pacific, distant several hundred miles from the continent, yet feels that he is standing on American land. Why should this be so? why should the species which are supposed to have been created in the Galapagos Archipelago, and nowhere else, bear so plain a stamp of affinity to those created in America? There is nothing in the conditions of life, in the geological nature of the islands, in their height or climate, or in the proportions in which the several classes are associated together, which resembles closely the conditions of the South American coast: in fact there is a considerable dissimilarity in all these respects.

This is surely not letting the facts speak for themselves: it is using the facts as a club to beat back the most prevalent alternative theory to Darwin’s, creationism.  Yes, Richard uses language a bit stronger than Darwin’s, but the intent is precisely the same.  And let us not forget Darwin’s bulldog—T. H. Huxley—whose  vociferous and “strident” attacks on religious opposition to Darwin went a long way to promote acceptance of evolution in Britain.

And the accusation that Dawkins’s biology is devalued by his atheism is completely unfair.  Has Jones read The Selfish Gene? The Extended Phenotype? The Blind Watchmaker? If he has, I don’t know how he can accuse Dawkins of “patronising his audience.” This is popular science writing at its best: it carries the reader along step by step, but never talks down to her, and when you’ve finished one of those books you’ve absorbed an amazing amount of biology.  But I needn’t tell you that.

Jones is clearly out of his element here, which is writing about pictures of dogs playing poker. In his haste to defend faith against the depredations of Dawkins, he makes a complete fool of himself.

h/t: Matthew Cobb

43 thoughts on “The Guardian tries to pwn Dawkins

  1. I’m really psyched that Dawkins is coming to the US (and even by my neighborhood). Reports of his stridency (and indeed, any ‘angry atheist’) need to consider that we are bombarded with religious people telling us we’re wrong for reasons that even the religious people don’t understand. So when Dawkins (and you too, for that matter) put out an argument that makes sense and is convincingly argued that religious people have no answer to, they get upset and point fingers because that is the only way they feel that they can fight back.

  2. I have soft spots for all Richard’s books, but The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype are extraordinary. I was a kid when I first read them and they blew me away. They are equally potent all these years later. The idea that these books could be arrogant or patronising falls over on page one of either.

  3. I think the point of Jones’s “review” is much like somebody recently pointed out is the point of most apologetics: to reassure the faithful.

    Yes, what Jones wrote has no bearing on reality. And anybody who cares to go to the original sources will quickly discover that that is indeed the case.

    But what Jones does is save the faithful the bother of examining the original sources. A faith-head can read Jones’s “review,” see that it agrees with the general faithful consensus that Dawkins is a mean poopyhead, and therefore the caricature becomes even more cemented in the public mind.

    Goebbels would be proud….



  4. Also, everyone knows that John Jones is the Martian Manhunter. He should do a bit more crime fighting and a bit less not reading books he’s criticising.

  5. Why is it that people like Johnathan Jones are not embarrassed by their own incompetence? Don’t they realize they will be made to look like the imbeciles they are when they spew this nonsense? Do they not see that anyone with even a little knowledge of the subject will see they do not know what they are talking about?

    They must either do it for political reasons and do not care about the response or they truly are stupid.

    1. Why is it that people like Johnathan Jones are not embarrassed by their own incompetence?

      Dunning-Kruger effect
      “The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which an unskilled person makes poor decisions and reaches erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to realize their mistakes.”

        1. Ah, the number of idiots I’ve met over the years who firmly believe that everyone else on the planet is an idiot … they really don’t know who the idiots are.

  6. I think Prof. Dawkins has carried on the British science-writing tradition, of which Darwin is one of the greatest examples, rather well.

    I doubt Dawkins would bother bashing religion if, 150 years after Darwin’s Origin, it did not exert such a powerful and destructive influence in public affairs. Eventually one has to confront the “enemies of reason” directly.

  7. ” . . . writing about pictures of dogs playing poker . . . ”

    Oh my, tarring him not as a bad art critic but a critic of bad art.

    I’m not going to tut-tut about how atheists should unfailingly display perfect patience and decorum in the face of flimsy, personal attacks but, well, an art critic comically out of his element is not necessarily a velvet Elvis enthusiast.

    Nagging accomplished, I’ll now point out that Jones seems to be using the tired, “You’re not going to convince creationists that way.” argument when Dawkins has said, on this very blog, that he considers that task impossible. The faithful aren’t listening either way so there’s not much use in tiptoeing around them.

    1. But if you read the section of Dawkin’s webpage “The Convert’s Corner”, there are people who have become atheists after reading his books. To assume the faithful aren’t listening isn’t the right method… certainly there are some who don’t listen and delude themselves, but I think there are a great many smart people who have just never had an argument put to them against their religion. From my own experience, when a church teaches you stuff, they mention counter arguments only as ridiculous straw men. I think if they actually read The God Delusion or Candle in the Dark, or God is Not Great, the larger portion would find it hard to answer them.

  8. Good – I’m glad some one has laid into Jones. His piece is pathetic and ignorant – he is quite welcome to lay into Dawkins but he so evidently hasn’t read much Dawkins or any Darwin that he deserves a good kicking. Some of the comments are pretty ad hom too.

  9. But there are no arguments against Dawkins becoming the ‘mirror image of the theological dogmatists he despises’. I think I might agree.

  10. He just can’t separate science from the debate he has got into with religious people.

    This has become the common strategy for denying the direct applicability of the science to the debate. No respectable science would point this out.

  11. For god’s sake, Richard Dawkins has entirely energised the secular opposition to creationism in all its pernicious manifestations. He deserves a medal, not some carping fool who not so much as disagrees with Dawkins’ point as misses it completely.

  12. “He just can’t separate science from the debate he has got into with religious people”

    Pointing out the scientific facts is the POINT of the debate he has got into!
    If he separated science from that debate, the debate would be pointless.

    Who IS this clueless guy?

    1. Someone who didn’t actually read anything Richard Dawkins wrote, apparently.

      I love how he’s always characterized as being strident and arrogant, too. He may give someone a good verbal filleting, especially if they’re dumb enough to repeat some tired old creationist spiel in his presence, but he’s quite polite when he does it.

  13. To be fair to him, Jones is an excellent art historian, especially relating to the Italian Renaissance. He should reserve himself to that.

    1. I prefer the Italian name for it: Risorgimento. I think the French name “Renaissance” is not only pompous but a far poorer description of the period; there’s nothing being born-again.

      1. D’oh. I’m abusing the language. In Italian it’s “rinascimento” which is every bit as pompous and non-descriptive as the French. “Risorgimento” was a political movement much later in history.

  14. Hey now, maybe this guy can’t be both an observer of art and a successful commentator of science writing, but that is not the case for all of us. I’m an art historian by training, but I have no trouble engaging with science. And I’m glad this was (jokingly) brought up because it’s a point that I’ve been meaning to make for a while, a point that has only been somewhat noted and needs far more support.

    As many science writers have noted when talking about the philosophical underpinnings of science, things like biology, geology, and physics aren’t inherent systems themselves, they are part of the larger world of rational inquiry that was a result of Enlightenment thinking. The traditional science disciplines function as a result of this type of inquiry, but they are not alone. Political scientists and historians (and art historians!), if they’re working properly, if they employ thinking and logic, as they should, they too are employing reason. I’m always a little disappointed that support for reason and rationalism comes most strongly from (only) scientists. Maybe it’s the overtly empirical nature of science that makes it easier for scientists to stick up for rational logic, but I think all of us who believe in an objective reality and who believe that the way to understand that is with reason and evidence need to stand up together, to stand up for reason.

  15. I got my start in science on reading The Selfish Gene when I was barely into my teens, and since then Dawkins writing has only become more appealing and lucid. Far from being put off by his occasional rant against creationism, I actually find it quite amusing – mostly the details about the inanity we are up against. The evidence for evolution is so compelling, and Dawkins books make such a clean breast of it, that I don’t really need anybody to point out that God has no role in the natural world. However, when faced with the two pronged opposition to evolution – creationist charlatans and disingenuous politicians, one should have no compunction in taking on the role of Darwin’s Bulldog, Rottweiler or any other of those poor breeds whose extreme loyalty has become equated with ferocious.

  16. Darwin occasionally took an even sharper tone. Here’s a bit from ch. 14 of the first edition of the Origin: “These authors seem no more startled at a miraculous act of creation than at an ordinary birth. But do they really believe that at innumerable periods in the earth’s history certain elemental atoms have been commanded suddenly to flash into living tissues? Do they believe that at each supposed act of creation one individual or many were produced? Were all the infinitely numerous kinds of animals and plants created as eggs or seed, or as full grown? and in the case of mammals, were they created bearing the false marks of nourishment from the mother’s womb? Although naturalists very properly demand a full explanation of every difficulty from those who believe in the mutability of species, on their own side they ignore the whole subject of the first appearance of species in what they consider reverent silence.” (pp. 482-3)

  17. If there’s an alternate, opposing view, isn’t it a good thing to discuss how your theory compares and why yours is superior?

    Creationists do this all the time (really, their ‘theory’ is little other than critiques of evolution) yet I can’t recall a single theologian, apologist or newspaper columnist who has ever, for one sentence, chastised them for taking potshots at evolution.

  18. “Visit the famous atheist’s website and you will see two causes being pushed. Dawkins is campaigning with other secular stars against the pope’s visit to Britain. Meanwhile he is touring the paperback of his book The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.”
    Two causes being pushed?
    There are actually three banners on the top of the RDF website. One for “The Greatest Show on Earth”, one for Geoffrey Robinsons book about the Vatican and finally a banner asking for donations for Aid for Pakistan.
    Very strange that the author chose to neglect to mention the final cause, isn’t it.
    I got the feeling that the writer was not really a religious apologist but more a case of the old fashioned ‘two cultures’ war. Those in the arts side of the debate tend to have rather severe case of jealousy when uppity scientists start writing popular books and dominating the public debate.

    1. Very true, I’m increasingly fed up with all the arts graduates turned piss poor journalists who think they are qualified to spout bollocks about science, when it’s quite obvious even to those of us without anything approaching a proper education in science that they have no idea what they are on about. Hence all the rubbish about how science is just another belief system and religion is all about ‘why’ not ‘how’ blah, blah. They cant accept that their English Lit. degree or whatever doesn’t grant them instant expertise in every subject under the sun and that really bright people gravitate to the sciences.

  19. Bashing Dawkins is the new “in” thing. The way so many talk about him, it’s like he’s a fool on a mission.

    So many people clambering for the Overton Window, they are getting in each others way!

  20. Something that interests me is why the Grauniad persists in publishing this sort of piffle… There must be another Gledhill there, lurking behind the scenery, commissioning stuff from such as Mary Midgeley, Mark Vernon and Johnathan Jones and perhaps writing anonymous editorials. I can understand – to a degree – the Telegraph or Times publishing such stuff, but why the Grauniad?

  21. I always laugh when R. Dawkins is called “strident” for insisting on something which is true and backed by evidence and not agreeing that religious lies are true and an equally good substitute for the biological sciences.

    1. It’s funny, too, that people must insist that he’s bashing religion in everything he writes, even when he barely mentions it (caddisflies).

      1. To be fair, even in The Selfish Gene he was doing a little prodding. Mostly explaining the gene’s eye view of nature, but still prodding nonetheless.

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