A snarky review of Dawkins’s new autobiography

September 10, 2015 • 12:00 pm

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.

174 thoughts on “A snarky review of Dawkins’s new autobiography

  1. It seems that this reviewer has a bee in his bonnet over of R.Dawkins atheism. And I haven’t read the review in full, but it appears that this person hasn’t attempted to refute Dawkins’ critique of religion, but simply mocked it. At least Dawkins’ wrote a whole book, and has given several lectures expressing his views and supporting them. All this guy has seem to have done, is expressed dissatisfaction over Dawkins’ words and views because they’re not defensive of ridiculous ideas that need and deserve to be scrutinized and ridiculed for what they are.

    1. Being human, and considering that Atheism is an outlier to the main stream believer within any given population. It is not surprising since those who promote Atheism is an enemy to that adaption. And therefor will find themselves treated poorly by the general population. Like the mouse with webbed feet. That is until the area got permanently flooded and the webs came in handy where as before it was not a good thing. Be able to swim faster and better. Now what environment is it where being an Atheist and pragmatic come in handy?

      We go into the how the human brain works. Once it has locked on a paradigm it does anything to support and protect it. That includes snarking about an author personally over their ideas. We are not logical beings after all. Wish we were.

          1. Maybe he wanted to avoid “cliché.”

            Maybe all should take an extended holiday from writing, or reduce the frequency. Else, it seems, everything said will eventually become cliché, eh? 😉

  2. Pre-ordered a long time ago.

    And what a lame bit of atheist bashing! What do they get (pleasure, money, attention, power) from doing that?

    Seems like just more fleas: Using Dawkins’ stature as a high edifice from which to shout. Not a very attractive tactic.

  3. Amazing.

    Richard’s whole schtick is comparing fantasy with reality, and marveling at the beauty and wonder of the latter and the huge disappointment of the former — especially in comparison.

    And for this he gets labeled as strident, cranky, parochial, and even militant.

    Comfort and his ilk must be truly blind to not see that the beauty of the rainbow only grows the more you unweave it, or that the Biblical faery tale of the rainbow rapidly degenerates into the most horrific evil the instant you so much as glance at it.


          1. No, he could do with a lot more of it though. It might prevent him from doing his day job.

            I always think these ankle biting attackers say a lot more about themselves than the person they’re reviewing when they feel obliged to revert to such pettiness.

    1. Read the comments section of the review if you get a chance.
      Comfort responded to a comment that pointed out his straw man arguments and how out of place they are in that publication and Comfort responded with a diatribe even snarkier than the original piece in which he equates new atheism with homophobia.

      1. I endorse bobsguirarshop’s comment. There aren’t many comments of the review, but they all pick up on how out of place Comfort’s remarks are.

        Comfort comes off sounding like he’s just jealous of a level of success he can’t hope for himself.

      2. Holy fuck…Comfort in the second comment on his review, in response to the first comment:

        Nathaniel Comfort said:

        I do say. You’re making an absurdly large leap and insulting the many atheists (including myself) who are perfectly happy to leave people alone with their views if they let me alone with mine. Dawkins, et al. are evangelists for atheism. That’s what I’m criticizing. Just as not all straight people are homophobes, not all atheists are eccesiophobes. And you can be scientific without being scientistic.

        Wow. I’ll refrain from replicating further comments as I keep reading, but…wow.


      3. It’s amazing he brought up homophobia since:

        1. He seems to advocate a version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” for atheism.

        2. He claims faith does no harm in the inner-city. I guess there are no gay people there.

        1. The comment about the inner city is misinformed at best and spurious at worst. I’ve taught students from the “inner-city” before, once was at a treatment facility run by the Dept. of Juvenile Justice. =The people in those communities are not well served by faith alone. To say nothing of the fact that there are institutionalized issues that churches just can’t address, when the most disenfranchised communities are left with nothing but religious institutions, as is often the case in blighted urban centers, we get a situation in which the communities in most dire need end up with a homophobic climate change denier who never finished the 8th grade as a community leader. I’ve seen it happen personally when Bishop Thomas Masters, a man who’s idea of fighting crime is to make baggy pants a criminal offense, was thrice elected Mayor of Riviera Beach, FL.

  4. I loved his first autobiography, so I’ll be picking this up too.

    Dawkins is a passionate scientist who seeks truth scientifically and then writes or lectures about it. Evangalists are preachers who spout fairy tales and myths as truth and try to convert others into their delusional flock. These kinds of criticisms are very worn out by now, and show a real lack of discernment.

    1. I hope so.

      I’m in the midst of reading the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. He wrote it in two volumes and I highly recommend them both.

  5. Painting atheism as a religion is really my pet peeve. Words have meaning and unlike Humpty Dumpty we can’t say words mean whatever we say they mean. The word religion implies a worldview with a connection to the supernatural (whatever that is). Atheism is the negation of that.

    And it’s obviously pure hypocrisy as well. If Nathaniel Comfort paints atheism as a religion to make atheism look bad, surely he agrees then that religion is a bad thing? Well, that’s exactly the point the ‘new atheists’ try to make!

    But, as the XKCD cartoon says, the important thing is that he found a way to feel superior to both. https://xkcd.com/774/

      1. Yes, since that is how they think. To them it must be a religion for they cannot conceive of there not being a religious belief. Their brains cannot or refuse to process it as anything else.

        It is so common it is tiresome. What, again? Just as with opening salvo, “Evolution is just a theory” kind of truism as they tell it.

    1. Atheism is not a religion:

      1. It is not a system of beliefs. Disbelief in any gods doesn’t constitute a religion any more than disbelief in fairies or trolls does.

      2. Atheism does not include belief in anything supernatural. We use the word religion to indicate belief in the supernatural: that is its function.

      3. Atheism does not involve worship of any sort.

      4. There are no “priests” or “church” hierarchy in Atheism.

      5. There is no training or “confirmation” needed to be an atheist.

      6. There are no: creed, catechism, holy books, oaths, or liturgy associated with atheism in any way.

      7. There are no rituals, rules of conduct, taboos, ceremonies, or any other social hallmarks of atheism, as there are in religions.

      8. Atheism doesn’t splinter into multifarious “sects” of atheism each devoted to their own particular opinion on the correct way to not-believe in the supernatural, each denouncing the others and perhaps even killing each other over fine points of disbelief.

      1. You’re completely right of course, and even when it’s laid out as clearly as this, a lot, maybe even a majority still don’t get it. They’re so wedded to their worldview, they can’t imagine any other way to be.

      2. Very good but in the end they will deconstruct to catch you till it is nonsense. At the end they will accept anything as being religious! Be sure to lay that 16 tons on their pointed heads.

      3. You’re completely correct. Yet, as Heather Hastie said, a lot still don’t get it. Sye ten Bruggencate for example said in a debate with Matt Dillahunty: “People say sometimes, ‘You know you’re atheistic towards all those other gods.’ No, I’m not. There are no other gods. I’m not an idolater.” It boggles the mind.

      4. Yeah! But calling it a religion means it’s wrong because it’s a religion because er… religions are… er… Hang on!

        Let’s try again. You need a lot of faith to be an Atheist so it must be wrong because faith is a bad thing… um… Oops!

        You know, this trying to smear Atheism thing is harder than it looks.

  6. Here’s a place for HumanGeneism! HG is the church of the Human Genome. What is Good and Holy is the extension of the Human Genome (and derivatives) through time. Being able to survive the heat death of the universe would be the ultimate Good.

    Our Creed:

    Actions are choices. Choices which extend the time which the Human Genome exists are Good. Choices which decrease the time which the genome exists are less Good.

    Of course we _can’t_ possibly know the ultimate Good until the last bearer of the human genome dies, but it is okay not to know. Well, some actions are easy to judge in a negative manner.

    *I just threw the ‘Holy’ in there for the hell of it. Maybe it should be ‘HGoly’? pronounced ‘golly’.*

    1. Us HDs strive to avoid false certainty. Religion is a prime purveyor of false certainty.

      Some think that religion is an artifact of outdated definitions of reality. Bronze age goat herders define Good based on their understanding of reality and then humans are guest won’t just won’t let it go. *The Church of HD does not take a position on the cause.*

  7. Yes of course, Richard Dawkins is a fundamentalist. Like all fundamentalists he bases his opinions on the best established scientific knowledge, and presents his ideas rationally and carefully. Just like Fred Phelps.

    1. The term “fundamentalism” seems to have gone through an accomodationist morph so that it now means “someone who tells someone else their religion is wrong.” It’s okay — barely — to think that. But coming right out and making rational arguments directed at the people who don’t happen to believe the same way you do is JUST what a fanatic would do.

      Yes, it’s also the cornerstone of the modern Enlightenment, but that’s not the important part. The important part is that Richard Dawkins isn’t letting people be themselves.

      1. There does actually seem to be a form of accomodationist fundamentalism – not merely wanting personally to instruct the religious about where science will accommodate them, but to actively shout down any unwholesome atheist strident enough to string rational thoughts together in public, where tender religious neurons might encounter them.

        1. Yes; extremist evangelical fundamentalist accomodationism — the very worst kind of accomodationism there is.

          Personally I don’t mind a ‘live and let live’ attitude, as long as you can keep it to yourself.

          1. I’m pretty sure Dawkins doesn’t mind ‘live and let live’ Godists as much as those proposing a Caliphate. On the other hand, it’s hard to see how, even the quietly religious don’t indirectly infect society with woo. Think of how they raise there own children. Speaking out is a way to inoculate society against infection.

            1. What I meant by keeping a live-and-let-live attitude to oneself was refraining from bitching about other atheists who don’t also hold the same live-and-let-live attitude in the same way about the same things. All too often the “I’m fine with moderate Godists” types continue on to “and everyone else ought to be fine with them, too — so shut up, Dawkins.”

              I think people who do that ought to lose their live-and-let-live credentials.

  8. Do I detect a bit of ENCODE-ism in that review? “A universe of regulatory and modulatory elements hides in the erstwhile junk.” Uh-huh.

    1. Yes, I think so. He seems to be hitting all the marks.

      Anti New Atheist, check.

      Ain’t no Junk in Junk DNA and the neo-darwinist account of evolution is all wrong, check.

      Can’t get past the metaphor “Selfish Gene” to understand the actual concepts even though there was a multi-hundred page book very clearly explaining those concepts attached directly to the metaphor, check.

      1. You’re right I think it may ne his selfish ego that can’t let go of its specialness to comprehend what the selfish gene really means.
        Some people are incapable of understanding the strange inversions Dennett talks about in “Humes strange inversions”, which help to understand understandings of ‘us’.

        And typical anti atheist tripe too.

  9. Talk about fact vs faith. It is a fact that our altruistic instincts are, in the end, selfish behavior. The fact that a science historian could still be confused by this is frightening. Nathaniel Comfort obviously falls into the category of those who simply refuse to believe that their altruism is in fact selfishness. They don’t want to admit that they are selfish beings because then how would they be able to point their finger at others for being selfish. It doesn’t feel like selfishness to them so the science must be wrong. What a world when reviews like this come from a science historian. God help us.

    1. Just recall that Russian Evolutionist who wrote the book “Mutual Aid” which dealt with both human interactions and animal interaction with different species and with humans. Mutual Aid as a human means of survival. Peter Kropotkin.

  10. I’m trying to come up with a nice “scientistic crusade” song along the lines of Onward Christian Soldiers.

    Onward evidenced-based rationalists;
    Sauntering into the conference with questions based on available data…

    It isn’t going to catch on. 🙁

    1. It might catch on with a nice guitar riff and a rockin’ rhythm. Although you might need to tighten up the lyric with some monosyllables. The poly sound so too scientistic.

  11. I think snarky might be a bit of an under statement. Comfort starts laying the framework for his shots at Dawkins early in the piece with a comment about Dawkins “love of the camera.” It devolves into a predictable set of gripes from there.
    Admittedly, I cannot speak to the validity of Comfort’s criticisms of Dawkins work on genetics as I am grossly unqualified to do so, but the generally sneering tone and straw-man attacks on New Atheism are predictably, although hardly so in the pages of nature.
    Comfort saves the worst for a manifestation of Maru’s Syndrome in the comments section in which he equates new atheism with homophobia.
    Classy guy.

    1. The difference between “New” Atheists and the old ones is that they are loud and proud. We are supposed to be in that closet that Christians were told to stay in.

  12. Ben Carson is from Johns Hopkins, too. Their medical school must be a hotbed of supernaturalism. Who would have thought?

    1. Comfort claims to be one of the “good” atheists – those who live and let live when it comes to religion.

      If that’s how he wants to live, fine. As Sastra says above, he can keep it to himself. I don’t see it as appropriate for him to criticize someone who doesn’t choose to live that way in the pages of ‘Nature’ of all places.

      1. The obvious problem is that religious people don’t keep their faith to themselves, at all. And even if they did, they vote.

        Why does the effort to inform people about what’s real and true have to be justified – to a scientist?

  13. Love the site and conversation. Just to say that as an escapee from fundamentalist boyhood and a Christian college course in Christian apologetics, I have the full distaste for stupid religion and yet I also resonate to the anthropologist and sociologist understandings of how the category “religion” encompasses group-evolving ‘wisdom’ that has contributed to a whole lot of what we would call ‘progress’ in human relationships. It is his awareness of that part of his audience that the author has in mind when he uses metaphors and shortcuts to refer to the material in the book he is reviewing that simply defines ‘religion’ is dysfunctional.

  14. Look, I like a bit of snark as much as the next guy (unless the next guy happens to be “Wonkette”). But I’m really over these half-smart commentators and reviewers working the same tired old trope that atheism is just another form of fundamentalism, especially when it comes to anything Dawkins.

    Reminds me how, each time a new Tom Wolfe book comes out, every dimwit reviewer feels compelled to hawk up an imitation of the high-baroque Wolfian style — which always falls so flat, comes off so tired and insipid, that forging through it is a sure route to neuralgia.

    Like them, these atheism-as-evangelicalism bores, including this history-professor-cum-book-reviewer N. Comfort, imagine themselves to be oh so arch and au currant. But what they resemble most is the ironically unhip narrator in David Frishberg’s tune “I’m Hip.”

  15. Attacks from laymen on the “selfish gene”-meme, they are often so off the mark, seem to come mostly from people who haven’t read the book.

  16. Very snarky. But I was struck by his phrase ‘erstwhile junk’ in reference to junk DNA. An interesting and telling word choice since it basically means ‘formerly’. So, hmmm, he seems to be one of those.

  17. Why is Nature gratifying its accomodationist readership with this sophistry?

    “the scripture of the ‘new atheism’, a fundamentalist sect that has mounted a scientistic crusade against all religion” (*)

    If Comfort insists on calling new atheism a crusade, he must also confer the title to all of the constituents of the cosmological constant, all of the baryonic matter and remaining fields. For they too are against religion.

    It is time for all of humanity to stop believing in unknowable ghosts. By not supporting this effort Comfort approves of the ignorance and prejudice that are justified by faith based beliefs.

    (*) http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v525/n7568/full/525184a.html

  18. I have to admit, the first time I heard the title The Selfish Gene, I didn’t like it. I also took it to mean a ‘gene for selfishness’, which is quite incorrect. In fact I assumed it to be some neo-con ‘greed is good’ nonsense. (This was of course before I read the book).

    I think a more accurate adjective would have been ‘self-interested’, but that wouldn’t have been so catchy.


      1. Look at

        Dawkins, R. (2006) ‘The Selfish Gene. 30th Anniversary Edition [1976]’ Oxford; mult., Oxford University Press

        He admits that “The Selfish Gene” wasn’t a lucky choice. Jonathan Cape proposed “The Immortal Gene”. In his introduction to this book Dawkins discusses “The Immortal Gene” “The Altruistic Vehicle” and “The Cooperative Gene” (p. ix)

    1. I seem to remember that it was after Midgley’s criticisms that Dawkins said that he might just as well have entitled it ‘The Cooperative Gene’ – in which case, one wonders why he chose ‘The Selfish Gene’ in the first place. He also, as I recall, removed a sentence – probably one of those quoted by Midgley below – as a result of her criticisms to prevent misunderstanding. But here’s Mary Midgley:

      ‘Richard Dawkins, when he treats of human motives in The Selfish Gene, bypasses these suggestions (Darwin’s, in The Descent of Man) entirely and reverts to full-scale Hobbism. In this discussion – which is quite distinct from his account of “gene-selfishness” – he writes flatly that “we are born selfish” – we ourselves, not the genes. The word selfish clearly has its normal, negative sense here because he has just written that, if we wish to build a society in which individuals co-operate generously and unselfishly… you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then have a chance to upset their design, something which no other species has ever aspired to.

      It is surely rather surprising that we – creatures who are, as he has explained, merely lumbering robots, survival-machines entirely controlled by these super-beings – are, at this stage of our evolution, suddenly free to rise up with one bound and overpower them. Dawkins’s first explanation for this is still that of Hobbes – our extra intelligence, producing enlightened self-interest.

      We have at least the equipment to foster our long-term self-interest rather than our short-term self-interest. We can see the long-term benefits of participating in a ‘conspiracy of doves’.

      This seems to imply, rather strangely, that nobody has tried to enlighten self-interest up till now. Moreover, it suggests that intelligence is independent of genetic causes. But still more remarkable is Dawkins’s next proposal – one that would have shocked Hobbes profoundly. Dawkins writes,

      “We can even discuss ways of cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism, something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world.… We have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

      Hobbes would have pointed out pretty sharply that this is a metaphysical claim to a very strong form of free-will – a mental ability to resist physical causes. Moreover, he would have asked what could possibly be the motivation for trying to transform one’s own basic wishes so completely?

      This manifesto, prominently placed at the beginning and end of Dawkins’s book, serves to reassure readers who are shaken by the extreme egoism, fatalism and determinism of the remainder. But it might perhaps have been better to avoid those extremes in the first place. The central weakness of Hobbism is its arbitrary, simplistic, sweeping psychology. And that is surely better dealt with by giving a more realistic, more biological account of human social motivation, as Darwin did in The Descent of Man.

      1. True intellectual enquiry should not be hobbled by Hobbes’ ignorance of the basic nature of humankind, and, for that matter, “the beasts.”

        Hobbes most serious error was his conflation of his degenerate culture and his worship of it with the social behavior of “savages” of whom he knew virtually nothing. Certainly Hobbes was no doubt repelled by the behavior of the masses created by his cultured brethren, the one-percenters of his day. But it was a lousy model because Hobbes’ view was so narrow and egocentric.

        The pre-cultural “savages” about whom Hobbes speculated may have had short lives, but they were neither nasty nor brutish (competitive). Cooperation worked for them, and they were molded (genetically and behaviorally) by their contexts.

        Genes are neither selfish nor altruistic. They dance with their context or suffer or enjoy the consequences.


        1. That of course is pretty well exactly what Midgley is saying.
          Warmly agree that genes are neither selfish nor altruistic.

          1. But I do suggest that you learn a little about English history and culture, instead of trotting out what in all honesty amount to ignorant prejudices. Hobbes’s ‘degenarate culture’ – degenerated from what?

            1. Extravagant, egocentric, excess is, in my book a degenerate culture, including, but not limited to, Hobbes’. To me, all culture is degenerate, as I consider culture to be a psychopathology by definition.

              As to my ignorance, I always stand ready to be educated by my intellectual superiors.


              1. Ah! But why don’t you try to find out things by yourself? Then you don’t have to depend on those you resent.

      2. “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.”

        There is not much wrong with this except that it expresses some wishful thinking about upsetting our designs.

        Altruism and selfishness go hand in hand. As the Stoic Seneca said: helping others is helping yourself. Promoting altruism is selfish because it benefits your social status and gives you more “elbow room” in society.

        I still think helping others is a good thing 🙂

        1. Helping others may help yourself, and it may not. But if it helps others, it actually does help others. Yes, as anybody who has looked into themself (!) knows, our motives are very mixed at the best of times. Seneca’s cynicism is doubtless attractive, but makes it difficult to distinguish between the sympathy of a normal humanity and the manipulations of psycho- or socio-pathology.

          1. “Seneca’s cynicism is doubtless attractive”

            I’m not cynical, I think it’s a good strategy for humans. It seems that most humans use it.

            “Helping others may help yourself, and it may not”

            Indeed, it wouldn’t work very well in win-loose situations. But there are many other situations.

            “difficult to distinguish between the sympathy of a normal humanity and the manipulations of psycho- or socio-pathology”

            Maybe, some day, the neurosciences will solve this problem.

            1. The ‘problem’ is one created by Seneca’s cynicism, and not by anything that could be ‘solved’ by the neurosciences.

  19. “What about the substantive arguments that Richard makes?”

    Exactly. If you hide behind snark, or bogus claims about how Dawkins is ignoring “sophisticated Christians,” or tut-tutting about his “militancy,” then apparently there’s no need to bother with his substantive arguments. No matter, the substantive arguments are all there in “The God Delusion,” and they remain unrefuted. It’s not out of the question that a few readers might notice.

  20. This sort of solicited diatribe is becoming all too common at Nature. Other examples abound, including their awful position on the Hunt affair – a position taken without due consideration of all the information. As such, Nature is becoming, has become, just another outlet that has a position and finds the ways and means and people to further that position. Sir Phillip’s deft cambellian hands get looser on the tiller and the wolves of the left circle, snarl and bite.

    1. Well, I would point out that this was hardly a “solicited diatribe.” It was a book review, and the reviewer said what he thought about the book (and yes, more generally about Dawkins’ approach to atheism). The way it usually works is that the book review editor commissions the review, and unless there’s something really egregious in the review, publishes what the reviewer wrote. Jerry can tell you that it works the same way when he reviews books, and I’m sure that his views should not be confused with the views of the publication’s editors.

      Reasonable people can disagree about the atheism stuff, but (and I’ve only flipped through an advance copy sent to the journal I’m review editor for) it strikes me that it’s materially relevant to the content of the book, so fair game in the review. Of course, you don’t have to agree with it, but it seems unfair to castigate Comfort for bringing it up (and for not agreeing with you).

      I’m not at all surprised the review is negative, though. I reviewed the first volume and found it pretty bad (though not because of anything to do with religion). It was self-indulgent, slow-paced, and heavy on anecdotes about Dawkins’ illustrious forebears, idyllic colonial upbringing, and privileged education. It had little of the introspection you find in really compelling memoirs, nor the urgency of some of his best writing (Selfish Gene or Extended Phenotype).

      Which brings up a final point: it should be ok not to like someone’s book despite the fact that you agree with things they’ve said in the past, or to like what someone has to say about one subject but not another, or to agree with someone’s science while finding them kind of distasteful in other regards (Jim Watson, anyone?), without triggering a massive, knee-jerk defensive reaction. This kerfuffle is all about a book that, I’d wager, nobody on this thread has read (since it hasn’t been released yet), so perhaps some judgment should be reserved until, you know, people HAVE read it….

      1. Comfort’s apparent dislike of Dawkins reductionist, materialist world view seems to make him unsuitable to write a fair review. I think he’s rightly criticized for that.

      2. I agree with your general point about book reviews but the snark and pettiness are over the top. The fact that he despises Dawkins comes through loud and clear; makes me think that this goes beyond just the atheism.

      3. Well and sanely said, Mr Sepkoski.

        But I plagiarize. Moreover, it fails spectacularly to indulge in sandbox petulance and hero-worship, not to mention the fallacy of arguing from authority.

      4. There’s no link to the piece; apparently Nature is not open-source.

        This means that only those willing to pay or whose institution pays for a subscription have access. That means that us untouchables are shunned. If this ain’t class stratification, I don’t know . . .

      5. Dawkins is a kind of Saint for quite alot of people, mostly ignorant of biology, especially evolutionary biology. There is plenty of critique about Dawkins in the (scientific, peer-reviewed) literature. He had to write his ‘Extended Phenotype’, just because his ‘The Selfish Gene’ didn’t fare well with scientists. I see not much fault with Comfort’s review (yes, I’ve read all books of Dawkins and quite a lot of his articles …).

        I guess this scientific critique is mostly ignored because he is a ‘good guy’, fighting for enlightment, against superstition and religion.

  21. Well in defense Comfort, he is a prof in history of medicine and not an actual scientist. He does not know any better.

    1. I’m a guy who was trained in archaeology and has made his career in software development. I know better. Seems to me Comfort has no reasonable excuse.

          1. I read Michael’s comment to suggest that the quality of many of Comfort’s comments can be excused because he (Comfort) is a historian of medicine and “doesn’t know any better”. I don’t think that makes sense. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, as Bob once said.


              1. Look up “Poe’s Law” about that. If there is no indicator you must take it as straight up not as snark or sarcasm.

  22. Comfort: “Now, his [Dawkins’s] critique of religion seems cranky . . . .”

    “Seems,” eh?

    I guess it’s OK to use “seems” in such reviews. After all, it is “opinion, eh? Something surely must be so if it “seems” so to someone, or someone thinks so.

    Well, apparently for sure it’s OK, since NY Times editors apparently let reporters get by with reporting as objective fact/news how something “seems” to the reporter. (As opposed to an editorial or op-ed piece.)

  23. What bothers me most about Dawkins is his belief that evolution is “progress,” that organisms improve with time, as he stated in response to a question I asked on this blog some time ago. He did not respond to my response, which was, if I remember correctly, that I consider evolution to be driven by genes asserting themselves or fading as the context changes.

    Perhaps there was a misunderstanding, but how does one interpret the lack of a response to an assertion, however impertinent it might be interpreted to be? (I did not and do not consider it impertinent.)

    He took the time to answer the question with respect to his belief, but apparently did not have the time to respond to a questioning of his belief. Was it because he was too busy to bother with those clearly inferior to him? Did he forget? Did he not read the question? Did he stop reading or scanning this blog? I just don’t know.


    1. He did not respond to my response, which was, if I remember correctly, that I consider evolution to be driven by genes asserting themselves or fading as the context changes.

      How is that not progress? Consider especially that evolutionary changes that are more adaptable to a wide variety of environments will be more likely to survive. In the Cambrian, life was limited to shallow seas; today, there’s not an environment bursting with life. Many species can be found across hugely varying environmental ranges. Humans have taken it to the extremes; we’ve actually adapted to the point that our environment currently extends all the way to orbit, once included the moon, and may well include mars before the current generation dies. Even the microbes are more sophisticated; the flu virus can infect a wide array of hosts, jumping from one individual to another whose most recent common ancestor died hundreds of millions of years ago.

      If you truly don’t see the progress over the course of geological time…then the word must have no meaning to you whatsoever.


      1. We’ve been here for barely 100,000 years (a few million if you count the hominin line), and I’m not optimistic we’ll last another 100,000. The dinosaurs hung on for 170 million years, and it took an asteroid to stop them. I think I’ll reserve judgment.

        Progress is clearly in the eye of the beholder. A random walk beginning with small body size and wide-open ecospace will produce more complexity and diversity. Is that progress? Depends, I suppose, on what you mean by that. Progress is certainly a value-laden term, though. Cockroaches might have a very different definition than you do.

        I think the onus is on you to prove that word has meaning, and not the other way around.

        1. I think that’s correct. And, I don’t think Dawkins thinks evolution is progressive in a teleological way. Evolution leads to diversity and complexity over time but these are not progress in the sense that people often think of it. Progress is often taken to mean an inevitable direction toward more and better of something. Mainly, human ability to manipulate the world or contemplate his place in the universe. Evolution is simply blind mutation and selection by environment. It doesn’t imply a special outcome.
          I think Dawkins did say he thought if you find intelligence outside our planet, it might very well look a bit like us simply because of certain universal constraints on complex organisms.

          1. “I think Dawkins did say he thought if you find intelligence outside our planet, it might very well look a bit like us simply because of certain universal constraints on complex organisms.”

            Is this a “God delusion” or what?

            The fact that Dawkins and others define “intelligence” as “behavior like mine” bespeaks a mind out of touch with the reality that other forms of life are far more resilient than Homo sapiens (an ironically arrogant species name, eh?). Intelligence that fits the context in which the organism is capable of evolving is all that is needed. The fact that H. sap. is not bright enough to realize that is an indictment, not a validation.

            1. Eh, I think you’re being most uncharitable to Richard if you think that, by that, he meant that aliens would be green-skinned humans who played lutes.

              Of course there would be all kinds of differences.

              But you can also reasonably surmise a great deal of similarities.

              They won’t call it Newtonian Mechanics, but they’ll know it all the same — and they’ll have intuitive forms of movement that are quite adapt at expressing it.

              They won’t call it the Golden Rule, but they’ll have some sort of ethic of reciprocity and cooperation.

              They might not communicate with sound waves, but they’ll have language, and that language will have grammar.

              They won’t have fingers, but they’ll have some sort of manipulative digits — loosely including at least a pair (if not several) that are opposable.

              And so on.


        2. Well, time to break out the dictionary. Mine says:

          • forward or onward movement toward a destination: the darkness did not stop my progress | they failed to make any progress up the narrow estuary. • advance or development toward a better, more complete, or more modern condition: we are making progress toward equal rights. • Brit. archaic a state journey or official tour, esp. by royalty.

          I’ve highlighted the meaning I’ve been using. And I’ve no clue how you could reasonably argue that modern species don’t represent progress over ancestral ones.

          Of course, if you’re taking the first, teleological, definition; no. That doesn’t apply. There’s no destination, no direction. But it should also have been quite evident from context that I’m not endorsing teleology.


          1. But how do you define “better”? Even Darwin, for all his progress-talk in the Origin acknowledged that adaptation applies only to local circumstances. Are dogs “better” than trilobites? Obviously that’s silly–trilobites were extremely well adapted to the Cambrian seas.

            In some lineages, there is clearly directional adaptation–e.g. among the ungulates, which have evolved teeth, hooves, etc. that are more specialized for particular environments. But is that really “progress”? It seems to me that you’re confusing adaptation to more narrowly focused conditions with “improvement.” It seems to be the case that in many lineages there’s a trend from generalism towards specialism. But the most successful taxa (in terms of longevity) tend to be the generalists, since they’re less sensitive to ecological/environmental change, are have greater geographical range, are often r-selected, etc. Those organisms might not have big brains or opposable thumbs, but is it possible you’re imposing human standards of perfection on the rest of nature? Seriously, Ben, this sounds like the great chain of being.

            As for progress being defined as “more modern,” well, that’s just a tautology. Those organisms living today are by definition more modern than the ones that came before; I fail to see how that makes them more progressive in any meaningful sense.

            As for “more complete,” I have no idea how you’d try to apply that to biology.

            You’re perfectly entitled to have this view of nature–many, many people have, including plenty of evolutionary biologists (just read the despised Michael Ruse’s Monad to Man for examples). But I think you’d be hard pressed to justify this rigorously using biology, and you’d also find that most evolutionary biologists would strongly disagree with you.

            1. But how do you define “better”? Even Darwin, for all his progress-talk in the Origin acknowledged that adaptation applies only to local circumstances. Are dogs “better” than trilobites? Obviously that’s silly–trilobites were extremely well adapted to the Cambrian seas.

              I’ve repeatedly addressed this in this very thread, so I don’t know how much more point there is in me continuing to reply.

              If you take adaptation to the environment as your metric, humans are, far and away, the most successful macro-scale species in all of history. There isn’t an environment we don’t occupy, at least transiently.

              And pit a modern wildebeest against a lion from a few million years ago or vice-versa, and I’ll bet you that the modern version will fare far better in the hunt every time.

              Even your case of generalists…there’re more generalists with wider ranges today — compare your dog that could hunt trilobites plus eat what some of the trilobites eat, whereas the trilobites can’t even follow the dog out of the shallows.

              I mean, really. That’s the whole idea behind Evolution: that the next generation, on average, is better than the previous. Without that, there’s no engine to power Evolution in the first place!


              1. Ben, you seem to go from 0 to 100 on the aggression/condescension scale in a heartbeat (see your reply to Wayne below, which is needlessly personal and insulting). Discussions on the internet don’t have to be all about your ego, you know.

                But to address your points here:

                “I mean, really. That’s the whole idea behind Evolution: that the next generation, on average, is better than the previous.”

                Are you serious? I really hope you’re joking, because that’s not how any biologist would define evolution.

                Jerry doesn’t like excessively vituperative exchanges on his website, so I’ll just point out that a) you didn’t address any of my substantive points at all (other than to claim that you’ve “repeatedly addressed” this (which you haven’t)), and b) your version of evolution would make Herbert Spencer proud.

                P.S.: A modern lion would get pwned by a T-Rex. Just sayin…

              2. “I mean, really. That’s the whole idea behind Evolution: that the next generation, on average, is better than the previous.”

                Are you serious? I really hope you’re joking, because that’s not how any biologist would define evolution.

                Three words: “Survival of the fittest.”

                Yes, of course — an oversimplification, with more modern oversimplifications shifting emphasis to allele frequencies, which I alluded to in my ten-word oversimplification that you quoted. But the basic idea stands as tall today as ever.

                And how could you expect anything other than exasperation from somebody who, on this of all sites, has to backtrack to something so basic?


              3. You do realize, don’t you, Ben, that Darwin never said “survival of the fittest”? That was Spencer–so you make my point for me.

                Your basic idea doesn’t stand at all. I’m surprised that someone who spends so much time on this website would be so confused about basic concepts. Maybe, though, if you got exasperated a little less quickly, you’d understand evolution better…

              4. Right. So the most fit aren’t the ones statistically most likely to pass on their genes.

                The ones better at catching prey; the ones better at avoiding predators; the ones better at attracting mates; the ones better at providing for offspring…they’re no more nor less likely to survive and reproduce than any others.

                And, because each generation isn’t better than the last, there’s no progress, either.

                …and you’re not trolling, too, I suppose.


              5. Ben, I don’t know what’s got you so worked up, but I can tell you this: if you tried to present your version of evolution to any serious biologist, you would get laughed at. And I’m the troll?

                You’ve offered nothing to this conversation except the ironclad assumption of your own intellectual superiority. That’s not conversation–it’s masturbation. But that seems to be your M.O.

                Just in case there’s some part of your mind that’s open to rational discussion: BETTER INSOFAR AS IT PERTAINS TO LOCAL CONDITIONS. That’s natural selection–no guarantee of future outcomes. No progress here–nothing to see, move along, folks.

              6. <sigh />

                Let’s ask Ernst Mayer, shall we? Is he serious enough for you I’d go for something from Jerry, but Ernst is easy to find at the Talk.Origins FAQ, and I don’t feel like Googling through a decade of WEIT posts (and Mom has my copy of WEIT).

                [W]hen later authors referred to Darwin’s theory thay invariably had a combination of some of the following five theories in mind:

                Evolution as such. […]

                Common descent. […]

                Multiplication of species. […]

                Gradualism. […]

                Natural selection. According to this theory, evolutionary change comes about throught the abundant production of genetic variation in every generation. The relatively few individuals who survive, owing to a particularly well-adapted combination of inheritable characters, give rise to the next generation.

                Do I really have to keep going?


              7. Just in case there’s some part of your mind that’s open to rational discussion: BETTER INSOFAR AS IT PERTAINS TO LOCAL CONDITIONS. That’s natural selection–no guarantee of future outcomes.

                I should probably shut up at this point, myself, for Da Roolz…but you do realize, do you not, that “local conditions” persist for millions or even hundreds of millions of years, typically longer than many species? And that, far and away, the most dynamic aspect of any organism’s environment are the other organisms, including members of its own species?

                Of course no species is going to evolve to be better adapted for life on Uranus. But it’s most certainly going to evolve to be better adapted for life on Earth. Either that or go extinct — and that, quite often, because some other species has evolved to be better at eating it or some variation on that theme.


              8. No, Ben, we don’t have to keep going (although I knew Ernst, by the way–and it’s spelled “Mayr”).

                Nothing you quoted supports the notion that evolution is progressive, by the way. Just well-adapted to current conditions. Those conditions tend to change over geologic time, making the whole progress thing kind of problematic…

              9. Contrarily, early homonins probably had higher resolution sight and more acute hearing than modern H. sapiens. The “primitive” form was also a “better” tree climber, and “better” at grinding coarse vegetation. So in characteristics that matter most to many species on the planet, we have regressed more than progressed.
                In adapting to new environments, often creatures become simplified as well as specialized. They loose traits that are expensive to maintain even if it took a million years to perfect those traits in adapting to the earlier environment. Some parasitic worms for example.

              10. Yes, Ben Goren’s Panglossian view of constant progress in all things, including the arts (Beethoven an improvement on Bach, etc), is, as well as being Panglossian, simply wrong.

              11. Ben Goren,

                I guess the easiest way to understand why you’re wrong is to accept that Dawkins, using the word ‘evolution’, means ‘adaptation’ (Dawkins says this himself, I can post some quotes if you like).

        3. Well stated.

          I have suggested mapping the genome of each species is not enough. Half of the “equation” is missing–details of context.

        4. Again, well stated.

          Homo sapiens has, through avoidance of most evolutionary forces by culture, developed a high degree of genetic diversity. It remains to be seen if the resulting range of adaptation potential is great enough for some fragment to survive future change. My guess is that H. sap. hath woven a tangled web that may be too weak and too thin.

          Cockroaches lack culture (as far as I know) and are thus forced to adapt to changing context just like every other organism in the history of the earth.


        1. This is a response to something you asked above. If you are going to claim that all human culture is necessarily ‘degenerate’, then it does not make sense to say that English culture in the age of Hobbes was degenerate, since you have nothing to compare it with (whereas with your talk about the ‘masses’ and the ‘one-percent’ you clearly implied that you were making a comparison, perhaps with the modern age). The age of Hobbes was of course the age of the Civil Wars, the Commonwealth, the Restoration with the limitation of the powers of the monarch, Milton & the founding of the Royal Society. It seems, however, that you consider the whole of human culture degenerate, I suppose in comparison with some state of nature. Which is fine, though without further elaboration from you it does not seem a very compelling thesis. I don’t know whether I am your intellectual superior or not, don’t care whether I am or not, and certainly don’t want be thought of in such terms, but there are good histories of 17th-cenrury England you could read, and there is Noel Malcolm’s book on Hobbes.

          1. With respect to Hobbes’ remarks that without his culture that the lives of people would be, if I remember correctly, “. . . nasty, brutish, and short,” I challenge his assumption because it appears to me that he knew little or nothing about people who lived, before and after his time, as “savages.” I stand ready to be corrected upon contrary evidence.

            Perhaps my characterization of his culture as “degenerate” was laid down with more of a putty knife or trowel than a fine brush, but I was trying to summarize (“To illustrate a point, one must exaggerate much and omit much.” –Quoting Bageout, from memory from Eric Hoffer’s book “The True Believers, which I read well over a half-century ago . . .).

            To elaborate, I was not trying to be “snarky” (whatever that means), I was trying to be clinical. I did not mean that, in the modern idiom, that the “99 percent” in Hobbes’ time were “noble savages” or some such other romantic notion; I meant to imply that it was the morally degenerate culture that kept the landless poor in a physically and morally degenerate state, and it was the latter that were Hobbes’ model for his statement–a mischaracterization due to his ignorance of societies untrammeled by his (and other) “civilized” culture(s). That is, I suspect that he simply used a “correct” observation but applied it too broadly or generally rather than to limit the scope of his statement to the culture which he observed.

            I welcome the opportunity to learn more about the cultural context in which Hobbes operated through frank discussion here. While I appreciate and welcome your kind efforts to refer me to texts that would further enlighten me on the subject, I fear that the huge unconquered sea of ignorance that lies before me may be too vast for me to fully assimilate everything—my “bucket list” overfloweth.

            I am certain that you are far better educated on the subject than I, and I sincerely welcome your criticisms and corrections as well as your reasoned observations.


            1. No, I realise you were not trying to be snarky. And also I am not trying to defend Hobbes in any way, any more than Mary Midgley was when she compared what Dawkins was saying in The Selfish Gene to certain views of Hobbes. Hobbes was a remarkable man, and Leviathan is a remarkable book, but Hobbes was clearly wrong about human nature, and in that I agree with you. But he certainly had an profound understanding of what it was like to live in a politically dangerous world. It was not the danger from the ‘masses’ (something that would make him like a 19th-century Tory)that exercised Hobbes, but political disorder and the best way to create political order. He was reputed, by the way, to be an atheist – and almost certainly rightly. I think we need to distinguish, in the case of a writer like Hobbes, what is of value in his work, and what is not. And that is why referring to ‘his degenerate age’ as an explanation of his thought does not seem helpful.

            2. ‘Nasty, brutish & short’… I remember a joke going around among Irish friends and acquaintances during the Troubles in Ulster (and elsewhere) about life being ‘nasty, British & short.’

            3. You do realize, do you not, that penicillin, indoor plumbing, and ubiquitous Internet connectivity are essential parts of this “culture” you keep berating?

              Do you not agree that, without those three examples — let alone the countless others I could offer — life would, indeed, be nasty, brutish, and short?

              If you don’t agree…look up life expectancy rates over the ages (especially child mortality), and cross-reference with working conditions and leisure time.

              Even the poorest destitute homeless person in America today doesn’t have it as bad as the typical peasant of the Dark ages, and those in the working poor enjoy lives of magical luxury and wealth undreamt of by even the kings of yesteryear.

              That’s not at all to excuse the inexcusable injustices heaped upon the poor and destitute! We as a society can do far better at caring for our own, and damned well ought to be powerfully ashamed at how fucking bad we do.

              But your romanticism for a world without culture…well, it’s so far off the mark it’s hard to know where to even begin.


  24. I have keyword searched in vain for Dawkins’ statement. I remember that Jerry had posted a Tim Laman photo of the Himalayas, but I don’t recall the title–and apparently not enough of the text to bring it up from the archives through a search. Maybe it’s so old that it’s been retired?

    Science needs unambiguous terms. “Progress,” apparently, is too vague. The Cambridge dictionary offers this definition: “to move toward an improved or more developed state, or to a forward position:

    If Dawkins does not mean, for example, that Homo sapiens is an improved or more developed state over its predecessors, then he (or an authorized surrogate) should say so.

    My view is that virtually all of Homo sap’s predecessor’s lasted longer, so the genetic jury is still out. The way I see it, simplified, is that “success” is what we call what’s left over after all the less-fit versions have faded or drifted away, due to changes in context and the absence or inadequacy of the existing genetic compliment to adapt.

    As for H. sap., it has developed a psychopathology we call culture to “adapt” the environment to its needs, nay, even fulminated into a psychotic splurge farther and farther beyond needs to desires unlimited.

    With technological “progress,” H. sap. has largely avoided the cudgel of evolution, taking up artificial residence in a wild array of cultural cocoons, from skins to space suits, but this has nothing whatsoever to do with evolution. When its population goes critical with respect to resource depletion, who knows exactly what the consequences will be?

    The one theoretical possibility that comes to mind is that because of the widest possible variation that DNA can spin, H. sap. might—just might—contain a handful of individuals that can hack it in the changed context it hath wrought. But probably not. Who knows?


    1. My view is that virtually all of Homo sap’s predecessor’s lasted longer, so the genetic jury is still out.

      First, if you can’t see how there are nearly infinitely more possibilities open to modern humans than even those of the previous generation…I invite you to divest yourself of all modern technology, including the computer you’re typing on as well as the flush toilet, and live without any of this “culture” you hate so much.

      But to address the meaningless metric you present of number of years…not only is sheer quantity not necessarily a useful quantifier, it’s trivial to trump. By some staggering percentage (90% or so if I remember right), all humans who have ever lived are alive today. Just in terms of body count, modern humans are vastly more successful than any other. And shall we consider geographic distribution?

      You’ve got a great deal of existential angst and are quite antisocial. I get that. And that’s just fine. But you’re also letting it color your perceptions…and that, in the long run, is going to be more detrimental to you personally than your wailing and moaning.


      1. Dr. Goren,

        As I have said before, I simply don’t handle generalities well, so I hope you will understand that my interpretations of your statements may be different from what you may have had in mind. All that is necessary, if that is the case, is to correct my interpretations with specifics.

        1. Do you believe that the amount of time a species (e.g., Homo sapiens) has existed is irrelevant to the question of whether or not it is “successful?”

        1. First, I’m no doctor.

          I think the lifetime of a species can certainly be a significant metric in evaluating success…but it can hardly be the only one.

          Especially since our population, as of this writing, is still growing, not in decline. I personally think we’re at significant risk of catastrophic collapse…but I also have to recognize that we actually are doing the bare minimum of transitioning to a solar-powered economy that would forestall the worst of said catastrophe, and even propel us to becoming a spacefaring civilization. Do I think that’s likely? No. But it’s too early to write us off, yet. If, against all odds, we make it to space to the point that we have self-sustaining extraterrestrial colonies…well, at that point, it’s pretty reasonable to suggest that our species and civilization (and linear descendants) will outlast all others, maybe even outlast the Sun itself.

          Other metrics would have to include geographic dispersion, adaptability to diverse local environments, and the ability to mold environments to suit the species. Beavers, for example, are highly successful because they can alter the entire local ecosystem to their liking.


        2. ‘Do you believe that the amount of time a species (e.g., Homo sapiens) has existed is irrelevant to the question of whether or not it is “successful?”’

          This is not a meaningful question since there is no inherent definition of success. Dinosaurs were successful, they were around for a very long time. Dinosaurs were not successful, they died out.

          It all depends on what you arbitrily determine your measure of success is.

          Which is to say that the only meaningful measure of success of H. sapiens is how many bottles of Bordeaux are available to me at a reasonable price.

          1. Well, now we’re into qualitative vs quantitative measures. I hereby invoke the Goldilocks hypothesis. Some organisms (oops–population fractions!) live without wine, while some fractions require only one with a very deep gravelly soil with a slope aspect of about 20 degrees oriented to 242 degrees on the compass rose adjusted for declination and infected with the proper endomycorrhizal fungus with a pH of exactly 7.6.

            Guess which population fraction has the brightest future—at least in terms of longevity?

            But to depart from the weeds, I am going to move my responses to the end of the comments for common convenience and cite the post to which I am responding to avoid hunting backwards for new comments and to keep the text column as wide as possible (which please see).

  25. “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” __Strother Martin’s character in “Cool Hand Luke” if I remember correctly.

    Sometimes I think writing is better because one can craft one’s point without interruption. On the other hand, I sometimes wish blog discussants could all get together over a good meal so we could look each other in the eye and read each other’s body language and vocal nuances. It always mystifies me how making a statement about an issue can be interpreted as a personal affront.

    May I suggest that we confine ourselves to discussing one point at a time, in sequence, and to accept a “rule” that we all should stick to the subject, avoid presumption as to another’s meaning, and “progress” through reconciling each point to a conclusion or pair of conclusions?

    I invite any of the participants in this discussion to state or re-state his or her position on the (or one of the) most fundamental issues, and then have the rest of the “panel” discuss only that issue, kicking it back and forth until at least one resolution is reached (preferably based on intellectual discipline rather than opinion, per se).

    [Side Note: For the moment, I would like to set aside the issue of Hobbes and his culture at the time and come back to it later, even though I consider it almost as important as the issue of what evolution is and is not. It was not my intention to insult, though I can understand that the semantic alliances connected with “degeneration” could be interpreted that way. My intention was to raise an issue, but I should have kept it “cleaner” in the first place. I will try to find a more “clinical” adjective when I address this issue once we are clear of the evolution question. In any form of discourse, I consider it the responsibility of the participants to be honestly responsive to honest questions and statements; that is, evading responsibility through silence or digression is not “kosher.” I promise to live by that rule, and invite challenges any time I fall from grace–which happens frequently (“Repentance oft I swore, but was I sober when I swore?” –The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Edmund Sullivan, trans.)]

    To clarify (I hope), the fundamental issue is what “drives” evolution.

    It seems that there are two main concepts that can be summed up as follows:

    1. Evolution consists of a process by which organisms improve their ability to survive and reproduce over time.

    2. Evolution consists of assemblages of genes (“species”) which adapt to contexts that have the effect of “molding” the nature of species which exist, thrive, or die according to the capabilities that genes and combinations of genes permit.

    I invite others to re-state these concepts or replace them, accompanied by their reasoning for doing so. Once we are agreed upon the subject for discussion, we should be able to address them with arguments with respect to the subject at hand with minimal digression and misunderstanding.

    As usual, I welcome the pointing out of my specific errors.

    1. I have not been involved in this conversation, so I’ll jump right in. I think partly we’re suffering from language. It never quite manages to convey things and how ideas are phrased leads us astray sometimes.

      Nothing drives evolution. Evolution happens. It is a process by which gene populations change over time within environmental contraints. There’s no driver of this bus.

      1. I agree that evolution happens. What I mean by “drives” in this context is that the context in which an organism exists dictates the nature of the organism. For example, the genetic compliment of an organism responds to a particular complex context through the death and survival of fractions of its population; as the context changes, the organisms change accordingly–if they have the genetic capabilities for doing so.


          1. Again, I agree, again, depending upon interpretation–the “language thing” again. I hasten to add that language should be precise and consistent.

            The individuals (fraction of the population) either die before reproduction or survive to reproduce. Some (fraction) that die on one context might survive in another. Population dynamics?

            Do you believe that the term “organism” can or should be used as a collective as well as a singular noun?


            1. What I “believe” doesn’t matter. The word gets used in both ways. That leads to some consusion. In my mind, it is a singular noun and using it to refer to populations doesn’t help.

              The sad thing is that language is never precise or consistent. Then again, sometimes that is a good thing. 😉

              1. Once more I agree that what we believe does not matter; we can’t think and believe at the same time, but the conflation of “believe” and “think” may be one of the most grievous errors of usage in the language. Clarity is what matters, and I was being literal when I used the word “believe.” “Think” would have been out of order, but in my book all beliefs are provisional, space-holders until something more closely-resembling what IS comes along.

                I also agree that precision is not necessarily the ideal, but mind is kind of held hostage by language. I have suggested elsewhere (http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol5/iss2/art5/) that communication and language might yet take different forms as we struggle to understand and be understood.

                Returning to the case instant, I do believe that using “organism” to denote either an individual organism or what is widely recognized as “a species” can be clear considering the context in which it is used. Yes, what I believe doesn’t matter, but I also don’t want to get into the “species trap” either, just as I prefer “context” to “habitat,” or even environment–two terms that have been emasculated by misuse. I’ll appreciate your suggestions with respect to alternatives. I especially welcome any further participation in the pursuit of language clarity.

                I also believe that biology, and especially ecology, are very squishy subjects, and thus evade, nay, confound description. Mountains of qualifiers heaped upon terminology may compound the problem, but perhaps the right kind of qualifiers may be needed to minimize misunderstanding.

                Bottom line, I try to look at organism-groups (is that any better?) as having similar genetic makeups–similar enough to be considered “the same” (ok, species)—are, within that organism-group, diverse in their genetic makeup, the wellspring of their resilience. Genes and combinations that may not be expressed in one context may be expressed in another. (Sometime, I yet hope to learn more about clonal bottlenecks like the two forms of Pinus torreyana.) I will stop here—provisionally.

      2. “There’s no driver of this bus”
        This triggered memories of:
        “We’re All Bozos on This Bus”.
        Firesign Theater, 1971. Not sure if it’s remotely relevant.

    1. I agree, but there may be some remaining devils in the details. If there are those who disagree about the nature of evolution, as some posts appear to imply, now is the time for them to speak out. I would still like to know whether or not I interpreted Dawkins correctly or incorrectly and why, and in what respect(s).

  26. In response to: GBJames
    Posted September 14, 2015 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    In terms of the longest term of survival, at least in substantially the same form, I would guess that methanotrophs and cyanobacteria are among the oldest.

    I also will invoke my late friend and mentor, L. B. Ziegler, who once said, “Nature has shrugged off countless species in the history of the earth, and pretty soon she will shrug off Homo sapiens with no more concern than any of the others.”

    There is no need to be arbitrary, but I am open to a list of definitions, from which we can “select” the one(s?) that, as nearly as we can determine, are more true than untrue, and use that one until a better one comes along.

    And, to continue my reply most proximate to the above-cited post, I think you will find some California wines at least as good as some French wines, maybe better. This “metric” will no doubt enhance the quality of life, and to some degree the quantity, but it will only apply to the individual organism which can afford it. A study of the population fraction that can might be desirable, but I’m not aware of it.


    1. I like a great number of California wines. But that’s not the definition of success.

      Ziegler’s comment is fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. It is a nice poetic way of saying that the universe doesn’t care about anything.

  27. Just for the record: Comford edited

    Comfort, N.C. (2007) ‘The Panda’s Black Box. Opening up the Intelligent Design Controversy’ Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press

    quite a fine book against Intelligent Design. I guess Comford understands enough about biology to have an educated opinion concerning Dawkins’ scientific positions.

    BTW, Dakwins uses quite often a ‘theological’ strategy: At the beginning state the problems of your position clearly. Hope, the reader takes the statement as a solution …

  28. I plan to take up the frayed fibers of this thread as soon as I can get the time, but I’m up to my ears in alligators right now. In the meantime, I hope to hear more “evolutionary” ideas.

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