Cover Page

Contents

Encountering Dawkins: A Personal Account

1  The Selfish Gene: A Darwinian View of the World

Introducing Dawkins

The New Approach: Charles Darwin

The Mechanics of Inheritance: Mendel and Genetics

The Discovery of the Gene

The Role of DNA in Genetics

Dawkins’ Approach: The Selfish Gene

River out of Eden: Exploring a Darwinian World

2  The Blind Watchmaker: Evolution and the Elimination of God?

Natural Science Leads Neither to Atheism Nor Christianity

God as an Explanatory Hypothesis

The Case of William Paley

The Religious Views of Charles Darwin

The Christian Reaction to Darwin

3  Proof and Faith: The Place of Evidence in Science and Religion

Faith as Blind Trust?

Is Atheism Itself a Faith?

Christian Faith as Irrational?

The Problem of Radical Theory Change in Science

The Rhetorical Amplification of the Case for Atheism

4  Cultural Darwinism? The Curious “Science” of Memetics

The Origins of the Meme

Is Cultural Development Darwinian?

Do Memes Actually Exist?

The Flawed Analogy Between Meme and Gene

The Redundancy of the Meme

God as a Virus?

5  Science and Religion: Dialogue or Intellectual Appeasement?

The “Warfare” of Science and Religion

The Poky Little Medieval Universe of Religion

The Concept of Awe

The Mind of God

Mystery, Insanity, and Nonsense

Conclusion

Acknowledgments

Notes

Works Consulted

Index

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Encountering Dawkins: A Personal Account

I first came across Richard Dawkins’ work back in 1977, when I read his first major book, The Selfish Gene. I was completing my doctoral research in Oxford University’s department of biochemistry, under the genial supervision of Professor Sir George Radda, who went on to become Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council. I was trying to figure out how biological membranes are able to work so successfully, by developing new physical methods of studying their behavior.

Although it would be some years before The Selfish Gene achieved the cult status it now enjoys, it was obviously a marvelous book. I admired Dawkins’ wonderful way with words, and his ability to explain crucial – yet often difficult – scientific ideas so clearly. It was popular scientific writing at its best. No surprise, then, that the New York Times commented that it was “the sort of popular science writing that makes the reader feel like a genius.”

It would also be some years before Dawkins’ reputation as “Darwin’s Rottweiler” would become established. Yet even in this early work, traces of a markedly anti-religious polemic could be discerned. While a schoolboy, I had once, like Dawkins, believed that the natural sciences demanded an atheist worldview. But not any more. I was naturally interested to see what kind of arguments Dawkins would develop in support of this interesting idea. What I found was not particularly persuasive. He offered a few muddled attempts to make sense of the idea of “faith,” without establishing a proper analytical and evidential basis for his reflections. I found myself puzzled by this, and made a mental note to pen a few words in response sometime.

I had loved the natural sciences since I can remember loving anything. When I was about ten, I built myself a small reflecting telescope so that I could study the wonders of the heavens. I found myself delighted by shimmering images of the moons of Jupiter and the craters of the moon. I was entranced by the sense of peering into a vast, awe-inspiring and mysterious universe, and not a little overwhelmed by the experience. An old German microscope, given to me by a great-uncle who was once head of pathology at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, opened up the world of biology for me (it still sits on my study desk). By the age of thirteen, I was hooked. There was no question of what I would do with the rest of my life. I would study the marvels of nature.

A change of school in 1966 injected new energy into my vision. The Methodist College, Belfast had recently constructed an entire new science block, and equipped it lavishly by the standards of the day. I threw myself into the study of the sciences and mathematics, specializing particularly in chemistry and physics. It was a labor of love, more than amply rewarded by the mental excitement it generated. At this stage, it was self-evidently true to me that the sciences had displaced God, making religious belief a rather pointless relic of a bygone age. However, my views on this were sharpened up significantly by the events of the late 1960s.

A surge of anti-religious feeling was sweeping across the face of Western culture. Tom Wolfe caught this cultural mood well in his essay “The Great Relearning”: everything was to be swept aside in a frenzy of dissatisfaction, and rebuilt from ground zero.1 Never before had such a radical Promethean reconstruction of things been possible. It was time to seize the moment, and break decisively with the past! Religion would be swept aside as the moral detritus of humanity, at best an irrelevance to real life, and at worst an evil, perverse force which enslaved humanity through its lies and delusions.

As the rhetoric of that last sentence will make quite clear, I was inclined to the worst case scenario. The natural sciences suggested that God was not required for the explanation of any aspect of the world. Yet, like many in those heady days of optimism and revolutionary fervor, I had drunk deeply at the wells of Marxism, and had come to see religion as a dangerous delusion. It was a particularly easy conclusion to reach in the midst of the religious strife of Northern Ireland at the time, and I duly drew it without much difficulty or reflection.

I now had a new reason for loving the sciences. I came across an Arab proverb that seemed to sum things up perfectly: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Not only were the sciences intellectually fascinating and aesthetically delightful: they also undermined the plausibility of religious belief, and hence opened the way to a better world. Religion was just an idiotic “medieval superstition” which no lover of the truth or morally serious person could tolerate. And it was on its way out. A brighter, godless tomorrow would soon be dawning. Atheism was the only option for anyone confronted with the facts. I saw my future – rather arrogantly, I fully concede – in terms of bringing light and joy through preaching the gospel of scientific atheism, and even tried (unsuccessfully) to establish an Atheist Society at my school.

I decided to study chemistry at Oxford University as a means to this end. Oxford’s chemistry course was the best in the land, and I set my sights firmly on getting there. This involved staying on for an extra term at the Methodist College to receive special coaching in advanced chemistry, in preparation for the Oxford entrance examinations of December 1970. Just before Christmas, I learned that I had been offered a place at Wadham College, Oxford, to study chemistry. My cup of joy was full to overflowing.

But I was not due to go up to Oxford until October 1971. What could I do in the meantime? My schoolfriends who had also sat the scholarship examinations drifted off to travel the world or earn some serious money. I decided to stay on at school for the rest of the year, and use the time preparing for Oxford. I would learn German and Russian, both of which would be useful for reading professional chemical journals such as Zeitschrift für physicalische Chemie or Zeitschrift für Naturforschung. It would also allow me to read the works of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and V. I. Lenin in their original languages. In addition, I would have time to consolidate my reading in biology, which I had neglected through concentrating so heavily on physics, chemistry, and mathematics.

After a month or so of intensive reading in the school science library, having exhausted the works on biology, I came across a section that I had never noticed before. It was labeled “The History and Philosophy of Science” and was heavy with dust. I had little time for this sort of stuff, tending to regard it as uninformed criticism of the certainties and simplicities of the natural sciences by those who felt threatened by them – what Dawkins would later call “truth-heckling.”2 Philosophy, like theology, was just pointless speculation about issues that could be solved through a few decent experiments. What was the point?

I took out a title, and began to read it. I now know that L. W. Hull’s History and Philosophy of Science: An Introduction (1959) is a rather poor introduction to the field, noted chiefly for holding views that were fashionable way back in the Victorian period. But it got me interested, and led me on to greater things. By the time I had finished reading the somewhat meager holdings of the school library in this field, I realized that I needed to do some very serious rethinking.

Far from being half-witted obscurantism that placed unnecessary obstacles in the relentless place of scientific advance, the history and philosophy of science asked all the right questions about the reliability and limits of scientific knowledge. And they were questions that I had not faced thus far. I was like a fundamentalist Christian who suddenly discovered that Jesus had not personally written the Apostles’ Creed, or a flat-earther forced to come to terms with photographs of the planet taken from space. Issues such as the underdetermination of theory by data, radical theory change in the history of science, the difficulties in devising a “crucial experiment,” and the enormously complex issues associated with determining what was the “best explanation” of a given set of observations crowded in on me, muddying what I had taken to be the clear, still water of scientific truth.

Things turned out to be rather more complicated than I had realized. My eyes had been opened, and I knew there was no going back to the simplistic take on the sciences I had once known. Like many people at that stage in their education, I had enjoyed the beauty and innocence of a childlike attitude to the sciences, and secretly longed to remain in that secure place. Indeed, I think that part of me deeply wished that I had never picked up that book, never asked those awkward questions, and never questioned the simplicities of my scientific youth. But there was no going back. I had stepped through a door, and could not escape the new world I had now entered.

Studying chemistry at Oxford was an exhilarating experience, as I expected, broadening my mental horizons and creating new challenges. As things turned out, those horizons expanded in a direction I never would have anticipated. In my first term at Oxford University, late in 1971, I began to discover that Christianity was rather more interesting and considerably more exciting than I had realized. While I had been severely critical of Christianity as a young man, I had never extended that same critical evaluation to atheism, tending to assume that it was self-evidently correct, and was hence exempt from being assessed in this way. During October and November 1971, I began to discover that the intellectual case for atheism was rather less substantial than I had supposed. Far from being self-evidently true, it seemed to rest on rather shaky foundations. Christianity, on the other hand, turned out to be far more robust intellectually than I had supposed.

My doubts about the intellectual foundations of atheism began to coalesce into a realization that atheism was actually a belief system, where I had assumed it to be a factual statement about reality. I also discovered that I knew far less about Christianity than I had assumed. As I began to read Christian books and listen to Christian friends explaining what they actually believed, it gradually became clear to me that I had rejected a religious stereotype. I had some major rethinking to do. By the end of November 1971, I had made my decision: I turned my back on one faith, and embraced another.

In September 1974, I joined the research group of Professor George Radda, based in Oxford University’s department of biochemistry. Radda was developing a series of physical methods for investigating complex biological systems, including magnetic resonance techniques. My particular interest was developing innovative physical methods for studying the behavior of biological membranes, including the use of fluorescent probes and positron decay to investigate temperature-dependent transitions in biological systems and their models.3

But my real interest was shifting elsewhere. I never lost my fascination with the natural world. I just found something else rising, initially to rival it, and then to complement it. For what I had previously assumed to be the open warfare of science and religion increasingly seemed to me to represent a critical yet constructive synergy, with immense potential for intellectual enrichment. How, I found myself wondering, might the working methods and assumptions of the natural sciences be used to develop an intellectually robust Christian theology?4 And what should I do to explore this possibility properly? I spent the summer of 1976 working at the University of Utrecht, made possible by a fellowship awarded by the European Molecular Biology Organization, and gradually came to the conclusion that I could only do this by studying for an undergraduate degree in theology, followed by advanced research in the relation of theology and science.

Happily, I had just been elected to a Senior Scholarship at Merton College, which allowed me to continue my biophysical research, while at the same time studying theology. By June 1978 I had gained my doctorate in biophysics, and an honors degree in theology, and was preparing to leave Oxford to do some theological research at Cambridge University. To my surprise, I then received an invitation to lunch with a senior editor at Oxford University Press. Oxford is a very small place, and gossip spreads very quickly. The Press had heard about my “interesting career to date,” he explained, and had an interesting possibility to discuss with me. Dawkins’ Selfish Gene had generated a huge amount of interest. Would I like to write a response from a Christian perspective?

By any standards, The Selfish Gene was a great read – stimulating, controversial, and informative. Dawkins had that rare ability to make complex things understandable, without talking down to his audience. Yet Dawkins did more than just make evolutionary theory intelligible. He was willing to set out its implications for every aspect of life, in effect presenting Darwinism as a universal philosophy of life, rather than a mere scientific theory. It was heady stuff – far better, in my view, than Jacques Monod’s earlier work Chance and Necessity (1971), which explored similar themes. And, like all provocative writers, it opened up debates which were both important and intrinsically interesting – such as the existence of God, and the meaning of life. It would be a wonderful book to write. Only a fool, I remember thinking at the time, could resist such an invitation.

Well, that’s me. After much thought, I wrote a polite note thanking my colleague for lunch, and explaining that I did not yet feel ready to write such a book. There were many others better qualified, in my view. It would just be a matter of time before someone else wrote a book-length response to Dawkins’ ideas. So I headed off to Cambridge to do research into Christian theology, followed by ordination in the Church of England. After a period working in an English parish, I found my way back to Oxford. Although I was no longer able to undertake scientific research, Oxford University’s excellent library resources meant I was able to keep up and develop my reading in the history and philosophy of science, as well as follow the most recent experimental and theoretical developments in the field.

But I had not forgotten Dawkins. His Selfish Gene introduced a new concept and word into the investigation of the history of ideas: the “meme.” As the area of research I hoped to pursue was the history of ideas (specifically, Christian theology, but set against the backdrop of intellectual development in general), I had done a substantial amount of background research on existing models of how ideas were developed and received within and across cultures. None of them seemed satisfactory.5 But Dawkins’ theory of the “meme” – a cultural replicator – seemed to offer a brilliant new theoretical framework for exploring the general question of the origins, development, and reception of ideas, based on rigorous empirical scientific investigation. I recall with great affection a moment of sheer intellectual excitement, sometime late in 1977, when I realized that there might be a credible alternative to the stale and unpersuasive models of doctrinal development I had explored and rejected at that stage. Might this be the future?6

As I knew from Darwin’s work on the Galapagos finches, it helps to approach the evidence with at least a provisional theoretical framework.7 And so I began to explore using the “meme” as a model for the development of Christian doctrine. I shall report more fully on my twenty-five year evaluation of both the “meme” concept and its utility in a later chapter. Suffice it to say at this stage that I was perhaps somewhat optimistic concerning both its rigorous empirical grounding and its value as a tool for the critical study of intellectual development.

In the meanwhile, Dawkins went on to produce a series of brilliant and provocative books, each of which I devoured with interest and admiration. Dawkins followed The Selfish Gene with The Extended Phenotype (1981), The Blind Watchmaker (1986), River out of Eden (1995), Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), Unweaving the Rainbow (1998), and finally the collection of essays A Devil’s Chaplain (2003). Yet the tone and focus of his writing changed. As philosopher Michael Ruse pointed out in a review of The Devil’s Chaplain, Dawkins’ “attention has swung from writing about science for a popular audience to waging an all-out attack on Christianity.”8 The brilliant scientific popularizer became a savage anti-religious polemicist, preaching rather than arguing (or so it seemed to me) his case.

I find fundamentalism of all kinds equally repugnant, religious or anti-religious, and was deeply distressed at this development in someone I had admired. Dawkins’ account of religion tends to amount to little more than freak-pointing, with the extreme portrayed as the typical. Religious people were dismissed as anti-scientific, intellectually irresponsible, or existentially immature – on a good day.

Yet while Dawkins’ atheism became more strident in its tone and more aggressive in its assertions, it did not become noticeably more sophisticated in terms of the arguments offered. Religious folk are demonized as dishonest, liars, fools, and knaves, incapable of responding honestly to the real world, and preferring to invent a false, pernicious, and delusionary world into which to entice the unwary, the young, and the naive. It is a line of thought that has led many to suggest, not entirely without reason, that Dawkins might have fallen victim to the kind of self-righteousness that biblical writers associated with the Pharisees. The writer Douglas Adams recalls Dawkins once remarking: “I really don’t think I’m arrogant, but I do get impatient with people who don’t share with me the same humility in front of the facts.”9 Yet the awkward fact, which Dawkins seems reluctant to concede, is that there are many sane and intelligent individuals who draw conclusions which differ completely from his through precisely that same humble engagement with the scientific evidence. Perhaps they are mad; perhaps they are bad; but then again, perhaps they are neither.

Dawkins writes with erudition and sophistication on issues of evolutionary biology, clearly having mastered the intricacies of his field and its vast research literature. Yet when he comes to deal with anything to do with God, we seem to enter into a different world. It is the world of a schoolboy debating society, relying on rather heated, enthusiastic overstatements, spiced up with some striking oversimplifications and more than an occasional misrepresentation (accidental, I can only assume) to make some superficially plausible points – the sort of arguments that once persuaded me that atheism was the only option for a thinking person when I was a schoolboy. But that was then. What about now?

Having wrestled with the implications of the scientific method for belief in God throughout my late teens, I was more than a little puzzled by the quality of the arguments offered for atheism in Dawkins’ writings of the 1980s. It clearly seems self-evident to Dawkins that the natural sciences must lead to an atheist worldview on the part of any honest, intelligent person. Those who believe in God are therefore dishonest, deluded, or stupid. Yet the arguments he proposed in his published works of the late 1970s and 1980s simply did not lead to that conclusion. Dawkins’ atheism seemed to be tacked onto his evolutionary biology with intellectual velcro. I had hoped that his writings would produce a new, intellectually reinvigorated atheism – something that would be really exciting and engaging. Instead, I found the same plodding rhetoric and tired old clichés that I knew well from my schoolboy days. Dawkins was preaching to the choir, recycling rather than renewing the case for atheism.

Disappointed, I duly waited for the works of the 1990s, hoping to see new and more persuasive arguments developed. Instead, I found the same stale old atheist equivalents of the “mad, bad, or God” arguments used by some Christians to prove the divinity of Christ,10 linked rather tenuously to some interesting developments in evolutionary biology. It became increasingly clear to me that the grounds of Dawkins’ atheism might ultimately lie beyond the sciences, not within them.

The year 2003 dawned, and with it came the publication of A Devil’s Chaplain. It is not one of Dawkins’ best works, not least because it consists of a collection of essentially unrelated essays, often so brief as to be quite inadequate to deal properly with the questions under consideration. In any case, the book exudes intellectual weariness, as if its author had run out of intellectual steam. Yet still no book-length response to Dawkins had appeared, apart from a helpful introduction to the differences between him and Stephen Jay Gould on evolutionary issues.11 Finally, in the summer of 2003, twenty-five years after the possibility was first mooted, I decided that it was time to pen a response.

Some might expect this book to be a religious rebuttal of Dawkins. They must look elsewhere, for it is nothing of the sort. The real issue for me is how Dawkins proceeds from a Darwinian theory of evolution to a confident atheistic world-view, which he preaches with messianic zeal and unassailable certainty.12 As the title of the book indicates, there are some important questions to be asked about what sort of god Dawkins declares to be redundant or discredited.13 What god is being rejected? Does this god bear any relation to rival concepts of divinity, such as the God of Christianity? And is this rejection actually warranted on the basis of the arguments Dawkins offers?

It is therefore important to appreciate from the outset that this book is not a critique of Dawkins’ evolutionary biology. I do not propose to engage with Dawkins’ specific views on the theory of evolution, but the broader conclusions that he draws from these, particularly concerning religion and intellectual history. His opinions on evolution must be judged by the scientific community as a whole; my concern – and the field in which I am competent to pronounce – is supremely the critically important and immensely problematic transition from biology to theology.

It is widely held that the scientific method simply cannot adjudicate on the God-question. The general view is that people tend to arrive at their religious views on other grounds, and then use their scientific ideas as retrospective validation of those views. The science is thus made to fit the worldview, and proves capable of accommodating both theist and atheist viewpoints with remarkable ease. But this received view may be wrong, and Dawkins may be the one who demonstrates that this is the case. The issues he raises are so important that they cannot be evaded, or dealt with by the sound bites or superficial pot shots that are typical of media-driven discussion. They merit full and extended discussion. What I hope to encourage is an exploration of the place of the natural sciences in shaping the world of our minds and the culture in which we live, based on Dawkins’ published writings.

Dawkins holds that the explanatory force of Darwinism on the one hand, and the aesthetic, moral, and intellectual failings of religion on the other, lead the honest person directly and inexorably to atheism. Humanity has come of age. It has left its delusions behind. We can “leave the crybaby phase, and finally come of age.”14 Although I shall interact with the substance of Dawkins’ religious views on occasion in this book, my interest lies primarily in why he believes them to be correct, rather than what they are in themselves. This book is a critical engagement with Dawkins’ worldview, which sets out to ask whether his famously aggressive atheism is actually warranted on the basis of the arguments he presents.

Dawkins’ hostility to religion is deep-rooted, and not grounded in one specific concern. Four interconnected grounds of hostility may be found throughout his writings:

1  A Darwinian worldview makes belief in God unnecessary or impossible. Although hinted at in The Selfish Gene, this idea is developed in detail in The Blind Watchmaker.
2  Religion makes assertions which are grounded in faith, which represents a retreat from a rigorous, evidence-based concern for truth. For Dawkins, truth is grounded in explicit proof; any form of obscurantism or mysticism grounded in faith is to be opposed vigorously.
3  Religion offers an impoverished and attenuated vision of the world. “The universe presented by organized religion is a poky little medieval universe, and extremely limited.”15 In contrast, science offers a bold and brilliant vision of the universe as grand, beautiful, and awe-inspiring. This aesthetic critique of religion is developed especially in his 1998 work Unweaving the Rainbow.
4  Religion leads to evil. It is like a malignant virus, infecting human minds. This is not strictly a scientific judgment, in that, as Dawkins often points out, the sciences cannot determine what is good or evil. “Science has no methods for deciding what is ethical.”16 It is, however, a profoundly moral objection to religion, deeply rooted within Western culture and history, which must be taken with the greatest seriousness.

So which of these is the real basis for Dawkins’ atheism? Which are core hypotheses, and which auxiliary, to borrow the language of empiricism? In his own reflections on his intellectual development, Dawkins tends to present his atheism as arising naturally from his growing conviction of the total explanatory power of Darwinism – a development which began even during his final years at Oundle School. But what if Dawkins’ atheism is actually grounded in moral considerations, and then read back into his scientific enterprise?

So why write such a book? Three reasons may be given. First, Dawkins is a fascinating writer, both in terms of the quality of the ideas he develops, and the verbal dexterity with which he defends them. Anyone who is remotely interested in ideas will find Dawkins an important sparring partner. Augustine of Hippo once wrote of the “eros of the mind,” referring to a deep longing within the human mind to make sense of things – a passion for understanding and knowledge. Anyone sharing that passion will want to enter into the debate that Dawkins has begun.

And that thought underlies my second reason for writing this book. Yes, Dawkins seems to many to be immensely provocative and aggressive, dismissing alternative positions with indecent haste, or treating criticism of his personal views as an attack on the entire scientific enterprise. Yet this kind of overheated rhetoric is found in any popular debate, whether religious, philosophical, or scientific. Indeed, it is what makes popular debates interesting, and raises them above the tedious drone of normal scholarly discussion, which seems invariably to be accompanied by endless footnotes, citing of weighty but dull authorities, and cautious understatement heavily laced with qualifications. How much more exciting to have a pugnacious, no holds barred debate, without having to worry about the stifling conventions of rigorous evidence-based scholarship! Dawkins clearly wants to provoke such a debate and discussion, and it would be churlish not to accept such an invitation.

I have a third reason, however. I write as a Christian theologian who believes it is essential to listen seriously and carefully to criticism of my discipline, and respond appropriately to it. One of my reasons for taking Dawkins so seriously is that I want to ask what may be learned from him. As any serious historian of Christian thought knows, Christianity is committed to a constant review of its ideas in the light of their moorings in scripture and tradition, always asking whether any contemporary interpretation of a doctrine is adequate or acceptable. As we shall see, Dawkins offers a powerful, and in my view credible, challenge to one way of thinking about the doctrine of creation, which gained influence in England during the eighteenth century, and lingers on in some quarters today. He is a critic who needs to be heard, and taken seriously.

But enough of such preliminaries. Let’s get on with it, and start delving into the Darwinian worldview which Dawkins has done so much to explore and commend.

Alister McGrath
Oxford

1

The Selfish Gene: A Darwinian View of the World

Why are things the way they are? And what does this tell us about the meaning of life? These two questions, naive yet profound, have played a decisive role in shaping Western thinking about the world. From the beginning of human civilization, people have wondered what explanation might be offered for the structures of the world – like the stars in the night sky, natural wonders such as a rainbow, and the mysterious behavior of living beings. Not only do these wonders evoke a sense of awe; they also call out for explanation.

The earliest Greek philosophers – the “pre-Socratics” – argued endlessly about the nature of the world, and how it came to be as it is. They insisted that the universe was rationally constructed, and that it could therefore be understood through the right use of human reason and argument. Human beings had the ability to make sense of the universe. Socrates took this line of thought further, identifying a link between the way the universe was constructed and the best way for human beings to live. To reflect on the nature of the universe was to gain insights into the nature of the “good life” – the best and most authentic way of living. Reflecting on the clues provided in the structuring of the world thus leads to an understanding of our identity and destiny.

For many, the answer lay in the divine origins of the world – the idea that, in some way, the world has been ordered or constructed. Many have found this idea to be spiritually attractive and intellectually satisfying. Isaac Newton comes to mind. So does John Polkinghorne, who famously resigned the Chair of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University in 1979 in order to study Christian theology. For Richard Dawkins, however, the advent of Charles Darwin has shown this up as “cosmic sentimentality,” “saccharine false purpose,” which natural science has a moral mission to purge and debunk. Such naive beliefs, he argues, might have been understandable before Darwin came along. But not now. Darwin has changed everything. Newton would be an atheist if he had been born after Darwin. Before Darwin, atheism was just one among many religious possibilities; now, it is the only serious option for a thinking, honest, and scientifically-informed person. To believe in God nowadays is to be “hoodwink’d with faery fancy.”

Once upon a time such religious beliefs would have been understandable, perhaps even forgivable. But not now. Humanity was once an infant. Now, we have grown up, and discarded infantile explanations. And Darwin is the one who marks that decisive point of transition. Intellectual history is thus divided into two epochs: before Darwin, and after Darwin. As James Watson, the Nobel Prize winner and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA put it, “Charles Darwin will eventually be seen as a far more influential figure in the history of human thought than either Jesus Christ or Mohammed.”

But why Darwin? Why not Karl Marx? Or Sigmund Freud? Each of these is regularly proposed as having brought about an intellectual earthquake, shattering prevailing assumptions and ushering in radical new ways of thinking which lead to the bifurcation of human thought. The theories of biological evolution, historical materialism, and psychoanalysis have all been proposed as defining the contours of humanity come of age. All, interestingly, have been linked with atheism, the movement that the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries hoped would prove to be an intellectual and political liberator. So why Darwin? To ask this question is to open up the issues which so deeply concern Dawkins, and which have such wider implications.

Introducing Dawkins

But first, let us introduce Dawkins. Clinton Richard Dawkins was born in Kenya on March 26, 1941, the son of Clinton John and Jean Mary Vyvyan Dawkins. His religious background, he tells us, was traditional Anglicanism, although there are hints that he was intrigued in his youth by the ideas of the French Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin concerning the relation of evolution and spirituality.1

After attending Oundle School, he went up to Balliol College, Oxford, to read zoology, in 1959. After graduating in 1962, he went on to undertake research in Oxford University’s department of zoology under the supervision of Professor Niko Tinbergen (1907–88), joint winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for 1973.

Tinbergen and his Austrian colleague Konrad Lorenz (1903–89) pioneered ethology – the study of whole patterns of animal behavior in natural environments, stressing the analysis of adaptation and the evolution of patterns. Although Lorenz may be argued to have laid the conceptual foundations for the discipline in the 1930s, Tinbergen’s patient and detailed observational work is widely credited with its later conceptual and practical development, especially through his landmark work The Study of Instinct (1951).2 Dawkins’ doctoral thesis, entitled “Selective Pecking in the Domestic Chick,” stands firmly within this tradition. Its subject was tight and well defined: what mechanism may be proposed to account for the way in which a chick pecks at the stimuli around it?

Dawkins relates how his research was inspired by a lecture he had heard from Professor N. S. Sutherland (1927–98), who left Oxford in 1964 to found the Laboratory of Experimental Psychology at the recently established University of Sussex. His work focused on developing a “Threshold Model” which might account for a detailed series of experimental observations concerning the timing and orientation of chick pecks at small hemispherical spots, presented in pairs. His data was processed using an Eliot 803 machine – an early computer, which relied on punched tape for its data. The thesis was submitted in June 1966, and accepted later that year.

Plate 1 Richard Dawkins (born 1941) © Rex Features

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Dawkins then spent a year doing postdoctoral research, along with some lecturing in the department of zoology. Tinbergen was on sabbatical leave during the academic year 1966–7, and asked Dawkins to cover some of his lectures, while at the same time writing up his thesis for publication.3 Dawkins’ lectures allowed him to explore some aspects of W. D. Hamilton’s theory of kin selection, including the question of how certain apparently cooperative forms of behavior arise.4 An individual behaves in such a way that the reproductive capacity of another individual is enhanced, even to the detriment of its own selective capacity. The phenomenon may be observed in aspects of the social, parental, and mating behavior of animals. So how could this have evolved?

Dawkins came to the conclusion that the “most imaginative way of looking at evolution, and the most inspiring way of teaching it,” was to see the entire process from the perspective of the gene. The genes, for their own good, are “manipulating” and directing the bodies that contain them and carry them about. Throughout his writings, Dawkins has developed the rhetoric of a gene’s eye view of things – not simply of the individual, but of the entire living world. Organisms can be reduced to genes, and genes to digital (not analogue) information.

Life is just bytes and bytes of bytes of digital information. Genes are pure information – information that can be encoded, recoded and decoded, without any degradation or change of meaning … We – and that means all living things – are survival machines programmed to propagate the digital database that did the programming. Darwinism is now seen to be the survival of the survivors at the level of pure, digital, code.5

In effect, Dawkins was arguing that we should extrapolate from Hamilton’s theory of kin selection, and apply it to every aspect of social behavior. Animals were to be seen as “machines carrying their instructions around” with them, using their every aspect as “levers of power to propel the genes into the next generation.” Because kin groups share the same genes, the sacrifice of an individual may still increase the likelihood of those genes surviving within the gene group as a whole. Dawkins can be regarded as the first, and still the most systematic, ethologist of the gene. It is this central theme which has been so decisive to his way of seeing the world, and we shall explore it in much greater detail presently.

The Selfish GeneThe Blind Watchmaker.