Volume 2 of Richard Dawkins’s autobiography, Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science, is out in the UK (and Sept. 29 in the US); and though I haven’t yet read it, it is the subject of a snarky review in the latest Nature. The reviewer is Nathaniel Comfort, a professor in the History of Science at Johns Hopkins University.
To be fair, the review is a mixed one, with Comfort lauding Dawkins’s past books popularizing evolution, and praising Dawkins’s “lyrical” and “sparkling” prose. But he simply can’t help himself when it comes to the atheism bit:
In the early 2000s, [Dawkins] saltated from popularizer into evangelist. His 2006 book The God Delusion (Bantam) was an ecclesiophobic diatribe, published around the same time as Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great (Twelve, 2007) and similar books by Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. The gospels of Christopher, Daniel, Sam and Richard form the scripture of the ‘new atheism’, a fundamentalist sect that has mounted a scientistic crusade against all religion.
Is anything missing from this list of trite criticisms? I don’t think so. Evangelism? Check. Diatribe? Check. “Gospels of Christopher, Daniel, Sam and Richard”? Check. (Oy, what intemperate but telling words!) Fundamentalist atheism? Check. Scientism? Check. Note, though, the absence of any substantive criticism of Richard’s anti-theism: what we have here is pure snark.
Comfort also says this:
For a time, Dawkins was a rebellious scientific rock star. Now, his critique of religion seems cranky, and his immovably genocentric universe is parochial.
Seriously, “cranky”? What is so cranky about it? What about the substantive arguments that Richard makes? What, exactly, is cranky about them? In truth, we’re starting to see that people like Comfort simply avoid dealing with the real critique of faith by dismissing it with words like “cranky” and “evangelical.” That’s simply not seemly in a book review in one of the world’s premier scientific journals. And it doesn’t engage the arguments.
You can get a good idea of the contents of Dawkins’s book from the review, so at least Comfort does his main job. But Comfort also fails when criticizing the “selfish gene” concept, which he unfairly dismisses in a buzzwordy paragraph:
Today’s genome is much more than a script: it is a dynamic, three-dimensional structure, highly responsive to its environment and almost fractally modular. Genes may be fragmentary, with far-flung chunks of DNA sequence mixed and matched in bewildering combinatorial arrays. A universe of regulatory and modulatory elements hides in the erstwhile junk. Genes cooperate, evolving together as units to produce traits. Many researchers continue to find selfish DNA a productive idea, but taking the longer view, the selfish gene per se is looking increasingly like a twentieth-century construct.
Regardless of how “fractally modular” the genome is, genes still make their way though a species via natural selection, behaving as if they were selfish. Regardless of those “regulatory and modulatory elements in the junk that evolve together”, they evolve, if they’re adaptive, via natural selection. And that’s precisely what the selfish gene metaphor is about. If you’ve read The Selfish Gene, you’ll remember that Richard deals with the evolution of groups of genes as well.
In The Selfish Gene, and many times since, Dawkins has also dealt with how cooperation can evolve via selfish genes (this “paradox” is only a an illusion), putting the lie to Comfort’s remark in the next sentence:
Dawkins’s synopsis shows that he has not adapted to this view. He nods at cooperation among genes, but assimilates it as a kind of selfishness.
For crying out loud, it IS a kind of selfishness! Genes favored by selection for cooperation are selfish genes, for they have a replication advantage over other forms of genes that don’t cause cooperation. That’s precisely what “selfish” means. It seems as if Comfort is close to Mary Midgley in his incomprehension.
As I said, I haven’t yet read this book, and so won’t assess it now. But it is interesting to see the reviewer’s biases and errors (or distortions) paraded so flagrantly.