Tuesday, 29 July 2014

richard dawkins ramble

Ah Richard Dawkins, the great keyboard warrior of our time. Today he is causing controversy on Twitter by discussing varying levels of rape for seemingly no other reason than winding people up a bit. Is Dawkins a misogynist? I don't doubt that; here you can see Martin Robbins criticising Dawkins' less than female-friendly reaction to a girl complaining about sexism in the sceptic community. If Dawkins is bad, his fans are worse, who can be found on Twitter uttering phrases such as "I despair for the stupidity of humanity!". As notable theoretical physicist Peter Higgs says, Dawkins is somewhat of a fundamentalist, and he draws followers who are adherents to the worst kind of scientism, an appeal to authority which is basically "but a scientist said so, it must be right". The comments on that Martin Robbins article, for example, is full of fanboys telling the author that his writing is complete gobshite, but none of them really seem to have a reason why.

So last month I went to visit my sister up in Durham and during the 1,838,373 hours I spent on the coach getting there from London, I finished Jurassic Park and needed to borrow another book for the way home. On my sister's bookshelf filled with mostly undergraduate anthropology textbooks, "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins was probably the only one which would have been interesting for someone who isn't a course-mate of my sister, so I did something radical and picked it up - and now I kinda feel like writing a review:

This book surprised me. The first thing to note is that the title "the Selfish gene" is somewhat of a misnomer and Dawkins acknowledges this in the foreword (I usually skip these and I'm glad I didn't). I assumed and I'm sure many others have assumed too, that the book was about a particular gene that makes people selfish, as opposed to what it is about - that genes in general want to ensure their survival and are responsible for certain behaviours that maximise an individual's fitness. As Dawkins points out in the foreword, The Immortal Gene might have been a more appropriate title.

The other day I read an article about altruistic kidney donation in the Guardian which stated "Yet perhaps the most common criticism of Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene is that it failed to explain adequately the altruism that we encounter in everyday life, let alone gestures such as kidney donation to unknown strangers." and you have to wonder if the journalist has actually read the book. The Selfish gene is not so reductionist as to try and explain every single action through genes - saying failure to explain genuine altruism is a major criticism of his book is akin to saying the biggest fault of the television series Come Dine With Me is that it doesn't tell me how to work my food processor. I hope the point I am making is clear. Richard Dawkins stresses throughout that the book is not a justification for acting selfish, instead that we can and must learn morals. Additionally, he points out in the end notes that if we were under complete control of selfish genes, we would not be able to use contraception. This is in line with a view I already held, that "it's natural" is a pretty shoddy justification for behaviour as several unpleasant things can be observed in nature such as disease, paedophilia, extreme weather, and we can and must strive to avoid the full brute forces of nature. Indeed as a vegan I view eating meat as "natural" yet cannot justify eating it; interestingly Dawkins himself finds it hard to morally defend eating meat, despite the fact he does himself.

The Selfish Gene theory, whether you subscribe to it or not, is very well argued and is good at explaining lots of phenomena in nature that he details throughout the book. The book is very educational too, you will definitely learn a lot about genes, natural selection and lots of generally interesting facts about living things. For example, did you know that male bees are from unfertilised eggs and have 16 chromosomes, whereas girl bees have 32? In addition, I previously found it very hard to understand how simple gene mutations can cause such variety in nature but this book goes a long way to explaining it.

So to conclude, I enjoyed this book a lot and it is frustrating to see someone like Dawkins go off the rails and ruin his hard work by acting like a total douchebag on Twitter. I'll close with this flowchart made by Twitter user @garwboy :

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