A brain dump from Richard Dawkins

March 12, 2021 • 11:30 am

UPDATE: My friend Andrew says that this book, by paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, was pretty good (click on screenshot to buy):

I’m pretty puzzled by this short Spectator piece by Richard Dawkins, as the pudding has no theme.

Click on the screenshot to read it:

A summary of the contents:

a.) A claim that science is not a social construct, though of course it is in an important sense: The profession of science was constructed by humans, and its “rules,” such as they are, were also formulated by humans, though this was through trial-and-error rather than an a priori Diktat. Even Richard corrects himself here:

Science is not a patriarchal instrument of colonial oppression. Nor is it a social construct. It’s simply true. Or at least truth is real and science is the best way we have of finding it. ‘Alternative ways of knowing’ may be consoling, they may be sincere, they may be quaint, they may have a poetic or mythic beauty, but the one thing they are not is true.

The second and third sentences contradict each other. Science cannot be “true”, just like plumbing or dentistry can’t be “true.” What is considered “true” is what science finds out using empirical methods, and those truths are provisional (though some are nearly certain).  I do appreciate, though, that there are no other credible ways of knowing, for I’m arguing with Adam Gopnik at the moment (he thinks there are).

b.) Richard is baffled by Wokeness.

Strangely, when I have expressed hostility to woke nonsense, a significant reaction from American readers has been: ‘Well, people like you brought it on yourselves.’ Mystified, I dug deeper. Apparently the permissible spectrum of opinion is so all-or-none, so left-or-right, so yes-or-no that you can’t oppose both Trump and the loony left simultaneously. I’m now nursing an urgent worry: President Joe Biden needs to go out of his way to distance himself from this mental virus or he’ll play into the hands of the Trumpers in the 2022 and 2024 elections.

I agree with the last sentence. Biden has done some great stuff, and will do more, but he’s going to make some missteps in the direction of Wokeville. That doesn’t detract for a second from the vast improvement we have in him over Trump, but I anticipate that I’ll have to kvetch about some of his policies in the near future. Right now, though, I’m immensely pleased with our new administration.

Richard also gives a mixed review to Pluckrose and Lindsay’s book Cynical Theories, liking it in general but also finding it “obscurantist.”

c.) Richard has some new books coming out, including a novel. 

This week I find myself in the unusual position of putting to bed two new books at the same time, plus the audio reading of an earlier book, Unweaving the Rainbow. Of the new books, Flights of Fancy is about how animals and humans defy gravity and get off the ground. The second, Books Do Furnish a Life, is a collection of book reviews, forewords, afterwords, book-related writings in general. Some editorial voices were raised against the Powellian title, on the grounds that it sounds retrospective. Fair point, but if you can’t be retrospective when you’re rising 80, when can you?

Happily, there’s no rule against being prospective at the same time. Accordingly I’ve just started work on my first novel. Provisionally called The Genetic Book of the Dead, its scientist heroine reconstructs the genome of australopithecines. Will she actually bring a new Lucy to life after three million years? The bulk of the novel, of course, will explore the social, political, ethical, theological etc implications of such a resurrection.

Ummm. . . novels differ from popular science, and I’m worried that this one will be overly didactic. What made me even more worried was Richard’s statement after it: “This fiction business, it’s harder than I thought. How do you write convincing dialogue?”  That is something that one can improve at, but my view is that you’re either a born novelist or you’re not one. In fact, I know of no good fiction by scientists, though I’m told that J. B. S. Haldane wrote a good sci fi book.

At any rate, I’ve never seen Richard write an essay that didn’t have a theme that was coherent and eloquently espoused. In contrast, thie piece seems like a collection of random thoughts. But Flights of Fancy is the book I most look forward to, though the essay collection should also be good.

57 thoughts on “A brain dump from Richard Dawkins

      1. I agree about the novel though- it could go well or badly! But he has written a couple of pretty good pastiches of Wodehouse, satirising religion, in the past which might be a good sign.

  1. I dunno, “Francophoney” is a pretty good dig at the Derrida/Foucault crowd.

    Made me laugh to beat the band.

  2. There are a few decent scientist-novelists – unsurprisingly they generally write SF. Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen have written two SF novels (Wheelers and Heaven) as well as their collaborations with Terry Pratchett (as it happens I also commissioned a short piece of fiction from them once!). Gregory Benford and David Brin are both astrophysicists. Vladimir Nabokov was an entomologist who came up with a theory on the evolution of butterflies.

    1. Isaac Asimov was a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, although he stopped doing research early on in his career. Some of you may also be aware of the fact that he wrote novels.

      1. Thank you! He won the Hugo award in 1966 for best all-time series for the Foundation series, which really is outstanding. Not bad for a slumming biochemist. He’s reported to have written or edited more than 500 books in his lifetime.

        1. It amuses me that so few Star Wars fans are aware of how much of that was lifted from The Foundation series.

          1. Like what? I am not being sarcastic. Obviously both the Foundation and Star Wars universes involve many civilization over a fair amount of time and that will undoubtedly make them seem similar in some ways to us earth-bound humans living in the here and now, but what other parallels are there? It’s been a long time since I read the Foundation series.

            1. Yeah, I’d like to know a few as well – because I never read Foundation, and never heard this parallel before. I’ve read Asimov, but not sure any in Foundation… a series, I recall…

              Oh and – asking for a friend. Who knows Star Wars. Is why.

            2. The galactic empire and the capitol world are right out of the Foundation, light sabres=force knives, the jedi/sith are much like the Mule, the droids are much like Asimov’s robots. I recommend reading it. The stories were mostly written in the forties so they will seem dated but are still worth reading.

              1. I’ll check this out ASAP.

                Jedi are close analogs to some of the samurai in Kurosawa’s samurai movies – perhaps from Seven Samurai. Westerns used this as a model too. The Hidden Fortress has two comical figures who are precise analogs of C3PO and R2D2 – the only two figures who lead the audience continuously through the ever changing story – in both movies. Lucas seems way more of a “movie-as-literature” director than being knowledgeable of fiction, but inspiration comes from anywhere.

            1. I know the famous “opening crawl” was exactly how the Buck Rogers serials opened – and Lucas always refers to Buck Rogers as an inspiration. But the “opening crawl” is beyond safe haven of inspiration – it produces the same visual impression.

      2. His SF will eventually be (and has already been) eclipsed by the consequences of his work on the endochronic properties of triply-resublimated thiotimolene.

  3. I anticipate that I’ll have to kvetch about some of his policies in the near future.

    Such as withdrawing the DeVos reforms to Title IX procedures in universities?

  4. According to dictionary.com, science is …

    1. a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws: the mathematical sciences.
    2. systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.
    3. any of the branches of natural or physical science.
    4. systematized knowledge in general.
    5. knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study.
    6. a particular branch of knowledge


    In this sense, Dawkins is right. I don‘t see a contradiction in his text. He means by science a body of knowledge that describes reality in some way, and which constitutes information that would be true also for an alien species. True in science has the usual caveat that it is tentative.

  5. I’m not worried about it not being readable or accessible. The man has spent a lifetime writing readable and accessible books (the possible exception being ” the extended phenotype.” which is a bit dense).
    And he can go out too: take eg. his persiflage of PG Woodhouse,”what about those buses?” He can basically do anything. He’s one of the most accomplished writers I know. (More deserving of a Nobel prize for literature than some recent recipients).

    1. Agreed. I also add that his occasional nemesis, E.O. Wilson, no popular science writing slouch himself, also wrote a novel, Anthill. I don’t know how well it was received but I certainly enjoyed it.

  6. “….the loony left …. Biden needs to go out of his way to distance himself from this mental virus or he’ll play into the hands of the Trumpers in the 2022 and 2024 elections.”

    I agree he needs to distance himself, and that doing so would help the anti-Trump politicians succeed, as we hope they will.

    But surely a more fundamental reason is that all humanity should distance itself from the loons, anti-truthers, wonky wokeys (and francophoneys–good one), and Biden is one of the most influential among humans just now.

    Also 2+2=4, by the way.

    Pardon writing nothing but the obvious.

  7. At least Dawkins is being productive during this difficult time. If he can expand his writing ability to fiction, more power to him.

    Speaking of which, I should really get to reading Cynical Theories.

  8. I see RD says he’s writing a novel (with a title that I take it is a play on The Tibetan Book of the Dead). Bless his heart, and I wish him well, but I think it takes a whole different set of mental muscles to write fiction. Offhand, I can’t think of a first-rate first novel written by someone pushing 80.

    Dawkins acknowledges it’s harder than he thought, especially writing convincing dialogue. I recall a piece by Norman Mailer in The New York Review of Books in which he offered up that dialogue was the most difficult part to get the hang of for novelists who start late in life — and at the time he was reviewing a novel by Tom Wolfe, who published his first, Bonfire of the Vanities, when he was not yet 50.

    1. “Offhand, I can’t think of a first-rate first novel written by someone pushing 80.”

      Me neither, but had someone immensely talented and prolific, say a Dickens, lived to be 80 (instead of 58) I wouldn’t be surprised if they could write a first-rate novel. Tolstoy, who lived to be 82 published his last novel Resurrection while in his 70’s. I’ve never read it, but I assume it’s first-rate. I think Márquez wrote into his dotage as well, but don’t know if his later works were first-rate.

      Anyway, I’m just speculating here because I thought your offhand remark interesting.

        1. Thanks for the info. The latest of his novels I’ve read is The General in His Labyrinth. He was in his early 60’s when that was published. I thought it was a remarkable work.

          1. His The Autumn of the Patriarch, about the death of a feared dictator is also great. (No-one dares believe that the patriarch is really dead despite his very old age, because the last time he had “died” many years before it had been a ruse to flush out those who saw themselves as his successor, or who would celebrate his death – then he reappeared a few days later and had them killed).

            Somewhere in the middle, there’s an astonishing passage with a single sentence that stretches over something crazy like 30 pages, during which the narrative perspective switches about four times without causing any confusion. I remember realising part way through and having to go back to check and find the last period /full stop. It’s decades since I read it, but I can still picture the bedsit where I was when I read that section and being amazed at how he had achieved such a thing so effortlessly and without it appearing at all contrived.

            1. Yes, that was an amazing novel, and gruesome at times. Faulkner was Márquez’s literary hero, and you can tell he was influenced by Faulkner’s extremely long sentences. Faulkner was actually in the Guiness Book of World Records for a 1,288 word sentence in Absalom, Absalom!. Márquez has him beat though, and now the record is held by Jonathan Coe; a 33-page sentence in The Rotter’s Club, published in 2001. I’ve never read any of Coe’s work.

              1. I love Faulkner! According to my records, I read Jonathan Coe’s A Touch of Love in 1999, but remember nothing about it. I may have The Rotter’s Club on my shelves.

      1. Oh, I think there’ve been plenty of novelists who’ve turned out top-flight work well into their dotage.

        I just can’t think of any writer who turned out a top-flight first novel at that age. I think that makes a tall order to fill.

        1. Frank McCourt was 66 when he wrote Angela’s Ashes and Laura Ingalls Wilder was 64 when her first book was published. So pretty old for debut authors, but admittedly quite a bit younger than we’re talking about here.

          Apparently the oldest such author started writing in their 90s, but not a recognised one so probably ineligible for our purposes: https://lithub.com/is-this-the-oldest-debut-author-in-history/

          1. Angela’s Ashes is a memoir (a damn good one, too), not a work of fiction. As is ‘Tis, McCourt’s sequel.

            There’s a substantial difference, I think. Heck, the older a memoirist is, the more material he’s got to work with, and the more time he or she has had to chew it over, trying to make sense (and a coherent narrative) of his or her life’s experience. That’s different from a work of pure imagination like a novel.

        2. Aha, got you; I didn’t get your distinction and that makes all the difference. Yes, that would be a tall order.

  9. I can certainly see where science is not a social construct in the sense that it is not a tool for social and economic dominance from a western white male patriarchy. It is a social construct but not one that lurks among the things regularly accused of being a social construct.
    Or something like that.

  10. An interesting example of fiction writing by a scientist is The Dechronization of Sam Magruder by the paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson (no less!). It’s a time travel novella. Very unusual, and I rather liked it.
    One of those “this would be an interesting movie” kind of books.

    1. Unlike Obama, I haven’t heard Biden say anything against Wokism, though it is hard for me to believe he’s onboard with its overreach. Obama made his fairly mild statement against it when long out of office. Biden has to be careful not to piss off his supporters on the Far Left. I suspect we’ll mostly have to leave it to others to fight Wokism. The best we can hope for from Biden is to silently keep the crazy stuff out of his policies.

  11. ‘Richard also gives a mixed review to Pluckrose and Lindsay’s book Cynical Theories, liking it in general but also finding it “obscurantist.”‘

    Possibly this is due to their tackling a refulgently obscurantist subject and phenomenon.

    Regarding his tackling fiction at a later age, where there was a Verdi possibly there will be a Dawkins.

    1. Age 80 in the 1890s is more like 95 now ? The last Verdi opera, Falstaff, was completed at 80. So maybe we can expect masterpieces from Dawkins for another 15 years. But Verdi’s operas (inc. the Requiem!) will outlast Dawkins’ writing by a lot I think

  12. The best example I can think of of a writer / thinker on both the literary and scientific fields is C. P. Snow ( 1905 – 1980 ) He took his doctorate in the early 30s in Spectroscopy, was a prolific novelist over a period of some 40 years from the mid 30s and served in a number of positions up to Cabinet rank in several post War Labour Administrations.

    1. We read one for the Royal Institution Fiction Lab a couple of years ago – a book club where the books have to have science or a scientist in a major role, not science fiction.

      The genre is Lab Lit – see Wikipedia.

  13. Science IS a tool for social and economic dominance used by the western white male patriarchy. Western white males often refer to science when socially and/or economically dominating. Of course, so do females, people of color, etc. Science is very useful that way as it strives to reach truth as fairly as we know how to do.

  14. Science is a social construct, like religion, but with the difference that science fits reality, while religion is a fantasy story

    1. Science #1 is a body of theories and facts, or closely approximate ones, or a sequence of closer and closer such approximations (e.g. Newtonian, then.., then quantum electrodynamics accurate to about 10 digits in places, then….). Nothing to do with the buzzword “social construct”. The very fact that it exists is itself part of science.

      Science #2 at any time is the body of such above which has been discovered and accepted by scientists up to that time. Clearly a social construct, as is absolutely ANYTHING done by any group of more than a few humans, in my definition of the phrase.

      The bullshit purveyors of the phrase: many originators in France’s academia, slavish followers including large numbers of English, Sociology, Philosophy,… mediocrities in many North American university arts faculties, institutions which should have known better than to hire and tenure these ‘research phoneys’. This has produced a huge academic scam. And it’s not unconnected to the blabbers’ word ‘post-truth world’, and the major political scams in US, Brazil, etc., the second one above overtaking the first as a very non-trivial danger to humanity, in this case related to Covid.

      It seems important to keep the distinction, #! and #2, in mind.

  15. Dawkins wanted to write that novel for decades. Let him have a shot at it.

    I’m looking forward to reading the reviews from Sailer, Khan and Cochran.

  16. Dawkins wanted to write that novel for decades. Let him have a shot at it.

    I’m looking forward to the reviews from Sailer, Khan and Cochran.

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