The New Statesman interviews Dawkins, concentrates on his tweets instead of his books

February 4, 2019 • 12:30 pm

Although this New Statesman piece (click on screenshot) purports to be an interview of Richard Dawkins by George Eaton, it’s not really a series of questions and answers, but rather an indictment of Dawkins’s propensity to issue invidious or misconstrued tweets. (Of the 16 short paragraphs, seven are about his tweets.) In other words, it’s more or less a hit job on the man, but of course we’re used to that.

Now I’m no fan of Dawkins on Twitter. Though I know him and consider him a friend, I’m also one of his numerous friends who have tried to get him to throttle back when his fingers are on the Twitter keyboard.  Too often, as with the “bells vs. muezzin” tweet described in this article, his tweets will rile people up, even when, or so he says, they don’t express what he means. My response is that if you can’t say what you mean without it being grossly misunderstood, stay off Twitter. (Of course, there are many who have it in for Richard, and will find a way to go after him no matter what he says.)

I wrote to Dawkins once with the advice above, and I think that’s the only email I ever sent him that he didn’t answer. It’s not just me, either: as the article points, out people like Dan Dennett have also urged Richard to lay off the tweets—all to no avail. So be it; the man is stubborn.

Read the piece, and I’ll give a few excerpts and remarks below. The occasion of the interview is the issuing of a short book with the transcribed “Four Horsemen” conversation, a book that is almost superfluous in view of the video’s public availability on YouTube. (It does have a foreword by Stephen Fry and very short retrospectives by the three living discussants.) I’ve put excerpts from the article indented below, while my comments are flush left.


The tweets:

In the digital age, reputations made over decades can be lost in minutes. Richard Dawkins first achieved renown as a pioneering evolutionary biologist (through his 1976 bestseller, The Selfish Gene) and, later, as a polemical foe of religion (through 2006’s The God Delusion). Yet he is now increasingly defined by his incendiary tweets, which have been plausibly denounced as Islamophobic.

Plausibly? That’s a knife stuck twixt the ribs! It goes on:

Dennett, an American philosopher and cognitive scientist, has since warned that Dawkins’s tweets “could be seriously damaging his long-term legacy”. The theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, another friend, has remarked: “I wish he wouldn’t do it . I told him that.”

When I put these judgements to Dawkins, he conceded: “They’ve probably got a point… I’m trying to be more careful to make sure that my sticks don’t have wrong ends.” He reflected: “The problem with tweets is that they’re too short. What I should have added, which I did in a reply, is that I love the [Islamic] call to prayer, it can be very moving, especially when done by a decent voice. But often ‘Allahu akbar’ is the last thing you hear before you’re blown up. Church bells are never the last thing you hear before you’re murdered.”

A new book:

Six years ago, Dawkins described Islam as the “greatest force for evil today”. Now, he says, nationalism is a better candidate, but he has not ceased his crusade against religion. In the autumn, he will publish a new book, Outgrowing God (“I think of it as atheism for teenagers”) and he hopes to write one for “younger children” too.

Is this not precisely the indoctrination he denounces? “I’m very keen to avoid that, of course,” Dawkins said. “The book will be loaded with, ‘Do you agree? Think about it for yourself.’” He remarked, without irony, that the reference by some non-believers to “atheist children” was “a sin” since “the child is too young to have made up its own mind”.

Eaton’s question sounds fair enough, but remember that when you indoctrinate children with religious belief, you’re indoctrinating them with lies. This book sounds more like a palliative or an inoculation against religion, so I don’t think it’s as bad as, say, The Child’s Book of Jesus. Is it really indoctrination to tell a kid to weigh the evidence for the religious views they hear? Well, I haven’t yet seen the book, so I pass on:

Brexit. Even Dawkins opponents must generally agree with his take:

Dawkins is aggrieved by Brexit (“I’m trying to learn German as a gesture of solidarity”), though he conceded with scientific modesty: “I don’t think I know enough to say much about the actual pros and cons of the European Union.

“What I feel passionately is that [David] Cameron should never have called that referendum. Cameron will be damned by history as one of the worst prime ministers ever for sacrificing the long-term future of the country for the sake of a petty internal squabble.”

He argued that, as with US constitutional amendments, a two-thirds majority should have been required for a binding result. “A simple 50 per cent majority is not good enough on an issue this important.”

Theresa May, he said, had “shown a quasi-religious impulse in her obstinate determination to see Brexit through because that’s what the British people want. It’s almost a kind of theological mantra.”

Dawkins is a long-standing supporter of the Liberal Democrats and has unsuccessfully urged them to rename themselves “the European Party” as a means of detoxifying their brand. “I’m sorry that the Lib Dems are seen as having blotted their copybook by joining the Tories.”

Death. Richard is 77, and it must be a bit galling to have interviewers ask an aging scientist how he feels about death. It’s bad enough to stare it in the face without having people hound you about it. But I like the response:

At the close of our conversation, I asked Dawkins how he viewed the prospect of death. “I find the idea of eternity and infinity frightening… Death is a general anaesthetic.” And what of his posthumous reputation? “I do derive great comfort from the thought that I’ve written quite a number of books and they’re very widely read and I hope that they will go on being read. I depart from Woody Allen’s remark: ‘I don’t want to live on in my works, I want to live on in my apartment.’”

In contrast, I adhere to Woody Allen’s remark!

How he wants to be viewed: This really should have been the centerpiece of the interview, for Dawkins’s books on evolution, as well as The God Delusion, are his enduring legacy. The tweets are the equivalent of evanescent journalism, and won’t be remembered:

Does he worry that some may first encounter him through his tweets? “That is a worry. I’d rather they read my books.”

For everyone that’s angered by one of Richard’s hamhanded tweets, there are a dozen people who have been enlightened by his popular works on evolution and some who have not only been “converted” to accepting evolution, but also deconverted from religion. Yes, people love to hate him using his Tweets as a rationale, but a lot of that is either jealousy or simple hatred of a man who wrote the best-selling book against religion of our age.

I’d recommend The Blind Watchmaker for its combination of great exposition and wonderful prose.

62 thoughts on “The New Statesman interviews Dawkins, concentrates on his tweets instead of his books

    1. Yes — as a popular audient I agree. That was the book that demolished the last remnants of spiritual beliefs which I had thought were untouchable by science. (I had thought that there might be some kind of Bildungstrieb forming species across generations in responses to their habitat. I also thought such a thing would be undiscoverable by science, and for my part remained speculative. But if such a thing were active, it would of course have left its finger prints all over the genome. The Ancestor’s Tale took that away and opened a door to something much better.)

    2. It’s my favorite. It is an excellent way to look at evolution, and to see the way all the species are related, and how they are not.

    3. Have you read the new edition, with Yan Wong? I never read the first and the new book is still sitting on my bookshelf (my “to read” pile!); I wonder how they compare?

      One of the new things is the charts from One Zoom – which I’ve found to be an endlessly fascinating interactive view of the tree of life. (At least for extant species; maybe the Phylogeny Explorer will succeed in describing every known species, living or dead.)


      1. No, I have the original. Have not looked at the new one, didn’t know it existed until you mentioned it!

  1. Good news to hear about “Outgrowing God”. The very idea of the book, the very title, will annoy the religious!

    I’m one of the few that doesn’t see anything wrong with Dawkins’s Tweeting. (I really think the brouhaha about them comes from those who, as PCC says, will object to anything he does whatever.)

    And if people do come across him first in his Tweets, then maybe they’ll move on to his books, and maybe they wouldn’t have otherwise.

    (I’ll refrain from starting an argument on Brexit.)

    1. Agree with Coel! And how is writing books, Dawkin’s style, on non-belief for children “indoctrination”? An unplanned universe is just one more view. Indoctrination is the dogmatic rote learning that youth are subject to in religion classes and Sunday “School”. And I know it well.

      1. An example in the news this week of “dogmatic rote” was a boy killed by his brother with the approval of his parents. His crime: not learning enough Bible verses well enough.

  2. Twitter is not Dawkins’s métier. It’s no place for people who think in statements qualified by dependent clauses.

      1. If Tw*tter shut down tomorrow, I wouldn’t miss it. There are plenty of other Internet sites that do cute pics of fluffy animals.

        Tw*tter is aptly named, it’s 99.9% just gossip.
        And by its format, it actually encourages tribalism and piling-on and witch-hunts.

        The occasional worthwhile post just isn’t worth the baggage.

        Youtube exists for those who have any useful information to convey. If you ignore the ‘comments’ sections.


    1. “It’s no place for people who think in statements qualified by dependent clauses.”

      LOL. There are still a few of us left, I guess.

    2. It’s rather better now than it was when tweets were restricted to only 140 characters and there was no threading.

      You can now expound a thought at greater length and with more nuance.


  3. I don’t have to worry about the tweets because I do not see them. I don’t participate in any of it. The only really bad thing is, I have to see Trump tweets repeated on the news everyday as that is apparently how he governs and communicates with the world. Just another reason not to participate. I only know Richard Dawkins by his books, his TV appearances and some of the video on You Tube. I will let others make what they want of tweeter. He is an enthusiastic atheist and there is nothing wrong with that.

  4. I also recommend “The Blind Watchmaker” as perhaps the best available introduction to the logic of evolution (as opposed to the evidence).

  5. I’m a great supporter of Richard Dawkins, but I can’t help thinking that he might have a drink problem. This is pure projection on my part, just because I tend to post ill-advised comments on social media late in the evening (or early in the morning) after imbibing somewhat too freely. I also think it is unfortunate that he might be compared with another ageing man with an addiction to Twitter, who is apparently the possessor of the world’s most selfish gene.

    1. Oh, I think that is projecting.

      Maybe he’s drunk on his own intellect … ? I’ve criticised Richard before for leaving himself open to misinterpretation by those who process tweets using System 1 only. (Which is often Richard’s point: You need to engage System 2!) But in the sage words of Ian Anderson, “And your wise men don’t know how it feels / To be thick as a brick.”


  6. Richard Dawkins is a superb writer of articles/books – he somehow finds the perfect & concise word or phrase to encapsulate an idea & he doesn’t use a long word if there’s a suitable short word to hand. When a point he wishes to make is complex he maps out the simplest journey for the reader. That’s talent – to wordsmith so apparently effortlessly & to inject his sardonic wit at the right moment.

    I’ve often wondered if he goes through many drafts to get to that happy place or perhaps the work gets done over years of lectures & conversations & then erupts onto the page.

    1. He writes prose poetry:

      We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?


  7. I also think he writes clearly because he thinks clearly. I believe those two attributes reinforce each other.

      1. It’s funny

        Just last night, I randomly poked to a page where Dawkins explains clocks ( in Greatest Show On Earth). It sounds dull. Boring. Routine. Clocks? Everyone knows what a clock is!

        I want to read the page again. It’s as if you are in conversation, and specifics are not missing – meaning the writing gracefully addresses the obvious (clocks) and suddenly reaches a depth (oscillation Of atoms).. it probably took a lot of work to produce prose like that, where it seems as if it is effortless.

  8. Tweets are what I hear outside in the bush and garden and not a lot to do with RD.
    But, The Blind Watchmaker crashed my party many years ago and the Selfish Gene finished me off.
    Viva Evolution!
    Never looked back since and no tweets are ever gonna change that.
    I will remember him by his books, which feels like 20 odd books as I was real green to biology, evolutionary biology. I read them more than once, twice, thrice if need be…

  9. I think the full Woody Allen quote is: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”

    1. Yes, I was just about to be a Woody Allen hermeneutics pedant, but you beat me to the punch line.

      Perhaps his best response regarding the contemplation of his own death: “I’m strongly against it.”

  10. I was just reading the latest FFRF news and wanted to report Steven Pinker will be doing an endorsement/TV ad for FFRF. Of course the Ron Reagan FFRF ad has been running often on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show. You know the one about not afraid of burning in hell.

    1. FFRF also has ads from a variety of people in the Scientific American magazine. We could sure use some FFRF billboards in Oregon to counteract the plethora of religious themed ones here.

  11. “Climbing Mount Improbable”. Dawkins helped me (plus friends and co-workers who’d listen) understand many aspects of descent. The clarity (IMHO) was similar to that of Asimov’s “Introduction to the Slide Rule”.

      1. Yep. He also does a great job interviewing the “loyal opposition” with calmness, patience, and an ability to keep a straight face (I can’t) when they cite their hideous anti-science mantras.

  12. “a man who wrote the best-selling book against religion of our age.”

    anyone know if it is the best-selling book ABOUT religion of our age?…

    is there a “box office mojo” for books?

      1. If you broaden the category of religion to include other more political ideologies, Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book might beat them both out.

        I wouldn’t be at all surprised if more people alive in the UK have read the The God Delusion than have read the whole Bible.

  13. Methinks there is a double standard here, along the lines of Jerry’s comments on Palestinian violence. Check out the rants of the faux feminists, SJW, BLM, antifa, et al, against white males and “inherent white racism” and poorly disguised anti Semitic remarks. Check out the attacks on other mild mannered atheists. It is always the most reasonable, informed and influential social critics that attract the nastiest attacks. However, anyone who wastes time on twitter needs to grow a thick skin.

    1. Dawkins has some good books and some awful tweets. The ranting folks you listed could not produce any text that is not awful, regardless of length and medium. So no use to scrutinize them, poor ones can only as much.

  14. One last point: I still find the the approach to inclusive fitness presented in “The Selfish Gene” to be the most satisfying. Now, by “the roolze”, I used my quota of comments on this string.

  15. I’ve never been overly impressed by Dawkins. I don’t have a Twitter account and have never knowingly checked the website, but what Dawkins’ friends say about his Twitter stream more or less is how I feel about his books. Quite damnably for a writer on evolution, his writings have never demonstrated a deep understanding of paleontology. If you think I’m wrong, I invite you to read Peter Ward’s books–“Under a Green Sky” and “Future Evolution” are two good examples.

    Then again, I was taught by one of Gould’s students, and while I have my disagreements with the man, I do find myself agreeing with him more often than I do with Dawkins. I think it’s a difference in a paleontology vs. a biology approach to the study of evolution; most paleontologists I’ve met have been lukewarm towards Dawkins’ scientific theories.

    1. I always felt that the differences between Dawkins and Gould had mostly to do with differences in which problems they found interesting. Gould cared mostly about the actual history of life and Dawkins cared about evolutionary theory. Both are valid interests, but things got dicey when Gould tried his hand (not very well) at theory, offering almost mystical explanations for “punctuated equilibrium”.

  16. “I’d recommend The Blind Watchmaker for its combination of great exposition and wonderful prose.”


    It was the first book of Richard Dawkins’ that I read, and I found exactly that.

    It also confirmed (to me) that evolution could satisfactorily explain e.g. the eye, and that G*d was therefore not only unbelievable (a conclusion I’d long since come to), but superfluous.


  17. I am delighted to learn that Richard is working on a new book. I may be too old to read it, but one day I can sneak in a copy for my grandchildren.

    His recording of We Are All Going to Die, and That Makes us the Lucky Ones” has a place of honor in my web sight for my evolution class, and I still occassionaly just play it for myself.

  18. I appreciate Richard’s tweeting. He kept in touch with everyone and that made him relatable. He was merely unfortunate that he happened to tweet during a climate of intense wokeness, when people looked for outrage and were applying most uncharitable interpretations.

    Learning German is an excellent choice. Mark Twain famously love-hated it, and I am curious what Richard will make of it, once he got an idea. Take “Wissenschaft”, science, “Wissen-“ cognate to “wise” (from indogermanic “to see, to know”) and “schaffen” cognate to shaping, creating (as in sculpting). The root for “wise” is also cognate with “wizard”, making scientists modern wizards. Wissenschaften in german is “science broadly construed”, as Jerry (and Alan Sokal) wish to have it in english too. But we germans can do this, because we can make more precise categories with our modular language, e.g. Naturwissenschaften vs Geisteswissenschaften.

  19. A mixed work for sure, of fiction(s) absolutely. Dan Barker’s latest book, “Mere Morality” has a great segment on the various Versions of scriptures that sects (cults) use depending on what their desired effects they want sheeple to experience. I couldn’t help thinking of a certain Jackson Five tune while Barker explains the uses of “wicked” and “evil” in the NIV, CEV, KJV, abc, do-re-mi, one two three…

  20. For those dissing Twitter, I find it to be the most intellectually stimulating stream of information and ideas that can be found in this world. If you don’t find it so, you’re not following the right people.

    1. I think that’s the key issue. Of all the social media platform, Twitter is the only one I use, and it’s mostly quite enjoyable. But it does depend on week you follow. I have found a mixture of scientists, philosophers, journalists, and comedians who between them share a lot of decent content. With that it’s easy to ignore the negative side of Twitter.

  21. There’s something human, I think, in the need to express yourself, which Twitter exploits so successfully. Often times I catch myself wanting to say something on the platform, which I hold back for fear of it being taken the wrong way by a prospective employer. And I’m an absolute nobody with a very small network. Yet that desire is still there to say things…

    Even with that, I’m often baffled by Dawkins’ tweets, namely because he has such scrutiny on what he says and plenty of people who are looking to dismiss evolution, atheism, or that he was ever someone who played a positive role in growing the atheist movement.

  22. hamhanded tweets,

    Not according to Dawkins, he claims they are too short and describes how people do not read his whole thread.

    My guess is that this is confirmation bias all around, which is part of social media.

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