The smear continues: Dawkins accused of condoning slavery

February 18, 2012 • 9:34 am

This would be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetic.  Over at Richard Dawkins’s site, he reports a conversation with Adam Lusher, a reporter from the Telegraph who, writing a story on Richard, insinuated that he not only condoned slavery, but carried genes for slaveholding, and perhaps is still financially benefiting from slavery.  In “The sins of the fathers,” Richard tells the story:

Yesterday evening I was telephoned by a reporter who announced himself as Adam Lusher from the Sunday Telegraph. At the end of a week of successfully rattling cages, I was ready for yet another smear or diversionary tactic of some kind, but in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have imagined the surreal form this one was to take. I obviously can’t repeat what was said word-for-word (my poor recall of long strings of words has this week been highly advertised), and I may get the order of the points wrong, but this is approximately how the conversation went.

“We’ve been researching the history of the Dawkins family, and have discovered that your ancestors owned slaves in Jamaica in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. What have you got to say about that?”

I replied, “Your ancestors probably did too. It’s just that we happen to know who my ancestors were and perhaps we don’t know yours.”

There’s more:

I’d scarcely had time to re-open my lecture notes when he rang back: “Darwinian natural selection has a lot to do with genes, do you agree?” Of course I agreed. “Well, some people might suggest that you could have inherited a gene for supporting slavery from Henry Dawkins.”

“You obviously need a genetics lesson,” I replied. Henry Dawkins was my great great great great great grandfather, so approximately one in 128 of my genes are inherited from him (that’s the correct figure; in the heat of the moment on the phone, I got it wrong by a couple of powers of two).

There’s another nasty bit:

His next volley was the suggestion that I should make financial reparation for the sins of my ancestors.

And if that weren’t enough, there’s this:

His parting shot (actually it was I who did the parting) was to suggest that Henry’s ill-gotten gains [Henry Dawkins, born 1698, apparently owned slaves in Jamaica] might have been used to purchase the English “estate”, a small fraction of which my family still owns. I told him that far from being an estate, it is a small working farm, struggling to make ends meet in a bad time for farming.

This stuff may all appear in tomorrow’s Torygraph, and I’ll try to find the piece if it appears.  But the insinuations and sheer sliminess of this journalist are revolting.

Why is this happening now? People have always gone after Dawkins, but it’s usually for his godlessness, his “militant” atheism, his so-called “shrillness.”  Now, however, he’s jumped on for not remembering the long title of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and for being descended from slaveholders (remember, many Germans are descended from Nazis).

My own guess is that this character assassination stems from the new Ipsos MORI poll comissioned by the Richard Dawkins Foundation, a poll (see here and here) showing that UK Christians aren’t as religious as everyone thought, that many of them don’t even know the tenets of their own faith, and that many oppose the incursion of religion into public life.  It’s one thing for Dawkins to write books and speak against religion—detractors could argue that he’s simply crying in the wilderness—but it’s a completely different thing to show that religion is actually losing its grip on the UK.  And could it be that Dawkins has in some way helped weaken that grip?  I suspect that while Richard has had a hand in this, the increasing secularism of the UK is simply the continuation of a historical European trend that is at a more advanced stage in continental Europe than in Britain.  But the faithful have to blame someone for it, and it’s going to be Richard.

Again, I’m just guessing here, but I have no other explanation for the sudden tide of completely ridiculous vitriol that’s washing over Dawkins.  It has to be the militant secularism that’s insinuating itself into British culture.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s Torygraph.  Oh, and if you want another laugh, see Andrew Brown’s ham-handed attack on “militant secularism” at the Guardian.

Faith is on the run.

92 thoughts on “The smear continues: Dawkins accused of condoning slavery

    1. Unfortunately, that is the level of knowledge of genetics that most journalists have.

      Just look at the proliferation of articles about “discovery of the gene for ” in recent years.

    2. This is not journalism, it’s politics. Let’s be fair to the good and honest journalists out there – to condemn the field is the habit of Sarah Palin and those who hate factual reporting – which, again, is not what Lusher and the Telegraph are practicing. It’s got nothing to do with journalism.

      1. It has everything to do with journalism as it is practiced. And given the current economics of the media, there’s more to come.

    1. According to the Bible I inherited all my genes from Adam and Eve. I guess that’s why I often hallucinate that snakes are trying to force me to eat apples.

  1. The problem is this, Richard Dawkins doesn’t rant he is the master of asking the question that exposes the bigotry of poor reasoning.
    He lets the fool answer and then leaves silence do the rest. He is clearly a man of substance and a gentleman of the highest order. He doesn’t ask trick questions he merely exposes religious silliness using straightforward enquiry.

  2. They can’t match Dawkins’ learning. They can’t dismiss his books. They can’t defend their religion without looking even more stupid. There’s only one place left to go: smears.

  3. And doubtless had old Henry stopped to consider it, he would have gained comfort from the biblical authority given to owning as slaves the accursed sons of Ham. So???

      1. Don’t forget that the Church of England owned slave plantations as well. Not only did the CofE benefit from slavery, with a few notable exceptions, they opposed abolition. When the law was finally changed and the Church was forced to free their slaves, they claimed the expence back from the Government.

  4. The attacks I’ve seen on Dawkins are all idiotic, without exception. This splenetic response to the RDF poll shows unequivocally that *more* secularism is required in Britain, because the pushback is driven by the outrage that theists and faitheists alike feel at religious privilege being questioned. “How dare he?” they fume.

    Well, how dare *they* try to silence him with such mendacious smears. It’s a disgraceful spectacle.

  5. Wow. I’m used to completely stupid statements by the religious but this one is so far off the deep end I’m having trouble coming up with an adequate statement for it.


    Quoting Mark Jones: “The attacks I’ve seen on Dawkins are all idiotic, without exception”

    YES, yes, and yes !

  7. It’s not a perfect comparison but in South Africa that sort of thing is still common, with people being called on to make reparations for crimes that their ancestors committed. It is ridiculous to hold someone responsible for things that were done before they were even born or had a say in anything. The circumstances of one’s birth are just chance yet there is strong political pressure for white people, even those who were only born after apartheid ended, to make up for everything that was done in the past.

    1. I humbly submit that having society–as a society–redress wrongs and level the economic playing field is much, much different than holding a single individual accountable for something his great great great great grandfather did.

      1. Sadly, these kind of ignorant displays just make it that much harder for societies as a whole to take seriously the ideas of addressing the level to which the modern world can/should attempt to atone for past wrongs.

        Stupid ad hominem attacks on individuals, holding them accountable for the sins of their ancestors, make it all the easier for others to laugh off the idea of *any* degree of necessity for looking closely at the damage still wrought on minorities by past injustices as nothing more than the rantings of cranks and so-called ‘reverse-racism’ types.

      2. No it’s really the same thing whether it’s ‘society’ (however that gets conveniently defined) or descendants. Collective guilt is an barbaric policy which should have been ended centuries ago.

        Unfortunately this reparation mindset does poison a lot of politics–both the opportunists and those who try to assuage unearned guilt feelings that are foolish to begin with

        1. Interestingly, though, Christopher Hitchens was strongly pro-reparations about the US making restitutional payments to the descendants of slaves…a position I never agreed with, as I felt his arguments in favor of it seemed pretty weak when held up against, in particular, those arguments which pointed out the impossibility of such a plan being carried out with any degree of fairness.

    2. Next, Dawkins will be asked to make restitution for his family’s “colonial genes” that led him to be born in Kenya.

      1. Don’t say that too loudly or the wing-nuts will figure out that Dawkins is actually black secretly fathered Barack Obama.

    3. @James:

      What percentage of the White South African population was born after apartheid ended? Didn’t apartheid end in the early 1990s?

      I don’t see any comparison between the ridiculous attack on Richard Dawkins and White South Africans. Apartheid just ended in the last 20 + years. I am sure that there are scores of Whites in South Africa who are directly responsible for apartheid. Please!

  8. I’ve been told by good sources that way, way, WAY back, my ancestors had sex with fishes. Which is a bit alarming, unless one realizes that if they hadn’t, I would not be here.

    And I admit that, to this day, I like fish.

  9. my ancestors also owned slaves. i have clearly benefitted from their ill-gotten gains; i rule over a vast estate that is my two-bedroom rental house i can barely afford with my two jobs and 50 hour work week along with my 11 year old car with 185,000 miles on it. I could possible afford to spread my genetically-enhanced wealth with their descendants by buying a small french fry at Mcdonald’s

    1. Luxury! At least one of my ancestors owned slaves, and I rent a one-bedroom with a carpet consisting of 73% cigarette holes!

      Joking (true-joking) aside, I come from a supportive family that is solidly middle-class. If I wanted to buy a house, or get a PHD, of do something else requiring significant money, I would be able to count on quite a bit of help. Many people don’t have that privilege, and in many cases that lack is due to discrimination extending back hundreds of years. I would support societal reparations to groups of people that are the descendants of slaves, because I know how important familial wealth is to education, property-ownership, and consequent success in life.

  10. If you Google “Adam Lusher” you won’t find anything in the few articles he has published to suggest a religious bent. Maybe he was just fishing for a story and he (or an editor) thought the genetic thing might might be a good angle on Dawkins. No axe to grind necessarily; just stupid.

    1. Actually there is an article about his illness, where he talks about praying every night.

      More amusingly if you google the highly unusual family name of “Lusher” you will find the following. We don’t know if this charming gentleman was an ancestor of course but it is not beyond the realms of possibility. It is almost certainly a relative It comes from a magazine from 1821.
      I took a bye-path which led across our plantation, and reached Mr Lusher’s house without interruption; however he was not at home, and the servants pointed to a small building a little way of and told me I would find him there

      On entering it, the first object that struck my eyes was poor Sabrina, whom I had not seen for many weeks. She lay upon some planks which were covered with the dry husks of Indian corn, and seemed to be dying. The place had no window in it and an old negro woman sat beside her, holding a candle , while Mr Lusher and a medical man stood at the food of the bed. The doctor muttered “she’s been a fine slave – confounded pity to loose her- can’t help it though ” and then began to whistle and play with his cane.

      “What an unfortunate devil I am ! exclaimed Mr Lusher, angrily. “Hang her for falling sick – what right has a niger to fall sick”.

  11. What is not a legacy of finns and sami from northern Sweden and gaul wallons from southern Sweden, I assume it’s a fair chance that þræl/ambátt (male respectively female slave) owning vikings is part of my ancestry.

    I mean, what are the chances one has no one slave owner in the ancestry, at least in the former christian world? Incidentally, the last swedish law on slaves held that those born of christians could not become slaves, a sure way of ensuring the power of the new religion.

    1. More likely, your ancestors were the Amazons of the Karelia region. These Amazons became pregnant by sipping water, and if the offspring was male, it had the head of a dog, and could be found, howling, for sale in the Muscovey slave market.

      So say the Christian chroniclers of ca. 1000 AD about the mysterious “northeastern lands”. See Eric Christiansen, ‘The Northern Crusades’

    2. @Torbjörn Larsson, OM

      I mean, what are the chances one has no one slave owner in the ancestry, at least in the former christian world?

      I have a modest proposal in the spirit of Swift and in view of the above quote. Given that it is probably true that in the former Christian world a lot of us will have ancestors who were slave owners, what can we do to eradicate this slave-owning gene and promote a fairer world for future generations?

      I suggest that we kill all white European types who, in all probability due to historical miscegenation and rape of balck female slaves, share a common surname with Caribbeans and black Americans; regrettably this would even include me, for, despite having an Irish surname, not one from the imperialist countries, I have met a Jamaican guy with the same name.

      This might go some way to atoning for the terrible crime of slave-holding and to attenuating the demographic, nutritional, energy and ecological time-bomb of the next 40 or so years. It will have the additional advantage of significantly reducing global-warming, as a huge percentage of it is caused by those white Europeans and Americans. Furthermore, it will get the Kyoto agreement firmly back on track and make those targets very much achieveable.

  12. There’s never a good enough answer for sanctimonious fervor. The politically correct have no shame. And, “reporters” such as this are nothing more than hyenas at a carcass. It must be assumed that their intentions are dishonorable from the start. The only answer is to not talk with them. And, I do feel that we all pay reparations every day of our lives by having to listen to self-righteous snots like this reporter whine, ad infinitum, about their contrived version of racism. However, this story does rather make me feel like getting a microphone, amp and a little black shoe polish, then sing a little heart rending version of “Mammy”. Ceiling Kitteh could be my back up.

  13. It sounds like libel and slander to me. If the Tele publishes, it wouldn’t be the first time they lost a lawsuit.

  14. As for the sudden tide of vitriol, personally, I think that the sanctimony of political correctness has reached a critical mass in the media wherein they think they can say anything and attack anyone to any degree as long as it gets attention … just a newer version of yellow dog journalism energized by the feigned piety of the new Fariseezez.

    (article spell checked by Ceiling Cat)

    1. I gave up long ago assigning any meaning to the expression “political correctness” except “something the speaker doesn’t like”. Does its use above mean anything more than that?

      (For a long time it was used to smear inclusive language like “chairperson” and the like, but that battle is pretty much won. The smear continues with no particular target.)

      1. I disagree. The problem is alive and well, there are constant attempts to control language, and more importantly opinion.

        Some of the real silliness (\like the artificial construct ‘chairperson’ (other than when applying to a position undefined by occupant) is fading away. People are less afraid, finally, of the terms man or woman. but it exists all over the place. The ones who don’t see it are generally so immersed that the code words du jour seem normal to them.

        1. replying to myself, oh my.

          A humorous example of this conditioning was in an article about vintage slide rule devices (yes I’m a slide rule geek) where there was a description of a device for doctors calculating pregnancy due dates.

          The blurb described operation of the device but in EVERY instance the patient was referred to in gender neutral terms (‘person’ etc). The writer of the blurb did not even seem to realize the depth of his immersion.

  15. Actually, I think that this whole thing is quite funny. The humor comes at the expense of Lusher’s pathos. The poor fellow is incapable of cogent thought, and thus, he goes on and on perusing this inane fragment of an idea he had.

  16. Maybe the godbots are warming up to contain the damage if the Archbishop of Canterbury comes off badly in his public conversation with Dawkins next week…

  17. My ancestors from the 1700s were slaves, I need to check if any of them were imported from Jamaica so I can go after Dawkins estate.

  18. WTF??? My distant ancestors raided Britain, Ireland, and as far south as Northern Africa.

    They were…Vikings.

    Oddly enough, I’ve never once thought of getting a large rowing ship and going off to plunder Santa Cruz, Pacifica, Bolinas, or Coos Bay.

    So much for the idea that pillaging and sacking towns is hereditary. LOL

    1. Comment 104 by FomalhautB, Sins of the Fathers thread at

      It wouldn’t surprise me if some of my ancestors were exploited or abused by some of my other ancestors. Having ancestors is a tricky thing and not to be recommended.

  19. I agree with the last line in the email: “Faith is on the run.” The onslaught is gaining momentum, and by more than simply by better arguments. The truth, science, and realism of the materialistic world is slaying the mythology of the supernatural ideologies on many many fronts, at many many locations. Youth has unprecedented access to the realistic world, and this is key to the withering of religion. I personally keep questioning the date: 2024? 2020? 2030? By some close future point in time, religion will become like astrology: no longer a major factor in our lives, but mere entertainment.

  20. “His parting shot (actually it was I who did the parting)”

    I predict that that will come out as

    “Unable to face his horrific past and its implications, the great scientist hung up me.”

  21. When I was a believer, I used to hate Richard. I of course knew nothing about him, but I read that he was the enemy. I am so glad I escaped from that and he was in fact a big part of that. But I see this hatred in believing circles toward him and many others, lightly concealed as simple disagreement. You can rest assured, whenever Richard makes any public mistake, they will pounce. And apparently some hate him so much as to discredit his ancestors.

  22. Why now? Why thus?

    The timing is obvious: after the Origins lapsus, it’s open season on Richard Dawkins, even in mainstream media. Some of it may be self-organising; much of it bears the hallmarks of a campaign.

    The slavery angle needs a little more explanation, but that’s not too difficult. The main thing is to bear in mind that most journalists, contrary to their self-advertising and to popular myth, are not particularly good at research. Nor are they especially original. Mr. Lusher, to judge by his sparse work available online, is hardly at the pinnacle of his profession. But journalists tend to be good trend hounds. They pick the obvious scent and follow it. So what would be such an environmentally floating odor?

    BBC One recently broadcast a number of episodes from their long-running series, “Who Do You Think You Are?”, in which celebrities investigate their families and ancestry. One episode that caused much public stir featured the ancestry of Sebastian Coe. The Lord Coe KBE, as he is formally styled, a former middle distance runner, fourfold Olympic medalist, Tory politician and life peer, traced his ancestry back to plantation slave-owners on Jamaica. His five-times great grandfather, George Hyde Clarke, fathered at least one daughter with a slave mistress and endowed her as a beneficiary in his will. (Parallels with Thomas Jefferson are inevitable, but were not emphasised…)
    Coe’s seven-times great grandfather, George Clarke of Hyde, was Lieutenant Governor of New York, during what is now known as the ‘Conspiracy’, but used to be termed bluntly as ‘The Negro Plot’, or ‘Slave Insurrection of 1741’. Clarke was instrumental in brutally suppressing the insurrection, at the end of which 17 blacks and 4 whites were convicted and hanged, 13 blacks were burned at stake, and 70 blacks were banished from New York.
    The BBC One link:
    The Telegraph’s 🙂 reporting:

    WordPress won’t let me insert more than two URLs without placing my post indefinitely in limbo, so I’ll just quote some exemplary titles of other reports on Seb Coe’s ancestry. You can easily google “Seb Coe Jamaica ancestry” if interested.
    The Daily Mail: “Lord Coe’s shock as he discovers he is descended from a philandering Jamaican sugar baron who had sex with his slaves”
    Eastman’s Online Genealogy: “Lord Coe’s Ancestor was a Sex Abuser of Slaves in Jamaica”
    The Jamaica Gleaner: “Coe Discovers Sordid Details Of Ancestor’s Past”
    Yahoo News: “London Olympic chief Sebastian Coe’s ancestors owned 279 slaves”
    See the pattern?
    If this worked with Lord Coe, who after all embarked voluntarily on this journey of discovery, why not pull the same trick on Richard Dawkins, by stealth and surprise?

    And now off with the Calumny aria from Rossini’s Barber of Seville:

    Calumny is a little breeze, a gentle zephyr, which insensibly, subtly, lightly and sweetly, commences to whisper. Softly softly, here and there, sottovoce, sibilant, it goes gliding, it goes rambling…

  23. Meh. Some of my ancestors mercilessly killed the Aztecs. Some of my other ancestors cut out the hearts of other human beings and offered them to the Sun God.

    One of my wife’s grandfathers was a KKK member.

    We are responsible for what WE do (though I do support social justice programs for those who come from families that have been unfairly discriminated against by societies).

    1. OK, I’m sure atheism would be happy to detach itself from Mettyx.

      Richard Dawkins has somewhat more to contribute, methinks.

    2. The only place where atheism is attached to a single person is in the minds of religiously-minded critics who project a hierarchical mental model on to us. They think atheism is like the Catholic church. It ain’t. We don’t have a Pope.

  24. The deeds of the dead belong to the dead, it is an illusion that anyone is responsible for what their forefathers did.

    1. What absolutely awful gutter journalism. Lusher has completely manufactured this piece of “news”. I’ve long suspected that the Telegraph is just a tabloid pretending to be a broadsheet. This confirms it.

    2. Absurd! I want reparations from Norway for the viking invasions & the brutality & slavery that resulted. And the Italians for the Romans… etc etc….

    3. Predictable smear, following the predictable pattern I outlined above.
      Leaving aside the absurdity of the charge against Richard Dawkins, Lusher is either wilfully ignorant of, or wilfully distorting, salient facts of British history. And as long as the Telegraph has editors, they must be held accountable of distortion or ignorance, too.

      – Wilberforce and the abolition of slave trade:
      The staunchest force against slavery and slave trade in Parliament was the longest-serving Prime Minister himself, William Pitt the Younger. With Pitt at the heights of his powers, in 1791, the bill to abolish slave trade was still comfortably defeated by a ratio of 2:1. The progress of the abolitionist movement from 1787 to the Slave Trade act of 1807, when it secured the support of the political establishment and was pushed through by a short-lived all-parties coalition is just staggering. Singling out a Dawkins ancestor as a decisive factor in the defeat of the 1796 bill is at least disingenuous. In view of parliamentary history, I’d call it intentionally deceitful.

      – ‘Catholic relief’:
      The Test Acts of 1673 and 1678 (full title: “An act for preventing dangers which may happen from popish recusants”) prevented the access of Catholic commoners or peers to public office [technically, an Oath of Allegiance 🙂 and the recusation of the doctrine of transubstantiation were required].
      In Ireland, the infamous ‘Penal Laws’ progressively disenfranchised Catholics (and for good measure, Presbyterians too) in political, legal and civil matters during ‘Protestant Ascendancy’.
      Pitt the Younger passed a first, tepid Roman Catholic Relief Act in 1791. He further promised Catholic Emancipation, at least in Ireland, as the political price for the Act of Union of Irish and British Parliaments in 1800. King George III opposed this, and when the Act of Union passed in 1801 without concomitant repel of discriminatory laws against Catholics, Pitt resigned.
      Almost every single new MP after 1807 spoke out in favour of Catholic Relief laws, but the moves were blocked by the House of Lords, until in 1829 the joint onslaught of Lord Wellington in the Lords and Sir Robert Peel in the Commons prevailed.
      Again, singling out a Dawkins ancestor as an anti-Catholic diehard is disingenuous. Etc. etc. etc.

      This paper flaunts two perennial key ingredients of the yellow press: prejudice and ignorance. The Telegraph knows no shame.

  25. Yet more ridiculous; but throughout this latest pile-on-RD paroxysm I’ve kept having the thought, “if he were American, he’d be receiving death threats…”

    Be thankful, UK, that your loonies are still somewhat civilized…

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