Richard Dawkins-God's own atheist-has become an academic celebrity thanks to his vigorous defence of classical science. Andrew Brown reviews his recent work and argues that his DNA-determinism merely substitutes one God for anotherby Andrew Brown / June 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in June 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
The reaction against Darwin in this century has taken two religious forms. One is to reject his theory. The other is to ransack it for objects of worship. It seems almost impossible to hold clearly in our minds the idea that we may not matter-as if it were logically impossible that anything capable of thinking and feeling unimportant should in fact be unimportant. The clearest illustration of this is to be found in the work of Richard Dawkins.
The Selfish Gene was a book about genes, but almost everyone read it as a book about people. What it said about people is not scientific. It is a religious message: we are unimportant wisps of matter, at the mercy of an omnipotent power. This has no necessary connection to biology or genetics. One of the finest expressions of this message is found in a writer whose style could not be further from Richard Dawkins’: in Russell Hoban’s great mud-soaked post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker, civilisation, technology and even English have all been smashed to bits:
You know Riddley theres something in us it don’t have no name… Its looking out thru our eye hoals. You dont take no noatis of it only some times. Say you get woak up suddn in the middl of the nite. 1 minim youre a sleap and the nex youre on your feet with a spear in your han. Wel it wernt you put that spear in your han. It puts us on like we put on our cloes. Some times we dont fit. Some times it cant fynd the arm hoals and it tears us a part…
Hoban does not name the something that controls us. Dawkins calls it DNA. “DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music,” he wrote in his worst book, River Out of Eden. “We are survival machines… blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”
It may seem unfair to concentrate on this sort of rhetoric against the bracingly clear scientific exposition that Dawkins does so well. But it is, I think, the rhetoric and not the science that has made him famous. Dawkins did not reach his present eminence as God’s own atheist by preaching evolution. There are plenty of practising Christian Darwinians, such as Sam Berry, professor of genetics at University College London. What makes Dawkins unique is not merely the vigour of his style but the fact that his metaphors, like Virginia Woolf’s imagination, are fitted with an accelerator but no brakes.