How dull our lives would be without Richard Dawkins! Like grit in an oyster, the author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion and Britain’s foremost militant atheist keeps producing one pearler after another. After writing, haranguing, and tweeting for years against the villainy of God and religion, he is now taking the battle to the last bastion of “supernaturalism”: fairy tales.
“Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are? Or should we be fostering a spirit of scepticism?
“I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism … Even fairy tales, the ones we all love, with wizards or princesses turning into frogs or whatever it was. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it’s statistically too improbable”.
As if any child in his audience couldn’t tell him that fairy stories are wonderful precisely because they have nothing to do with statistical improbability.
For years, Dawkins has been trying to demonstrate the equivalence of the supernatural with superstition. But now he has plainly gone one step too far. It would serve him right if all the characters of Grimm’s Fairy Tales invaded his country estate, just as they invaded Shrek’s precious swamp.
Is Dawkins, in his zeal for the cause of science, succumbing to the paranoia of fundamentalism? What comes next? Santa Claus? Sadly, it may come to that. Let’s wait until the Christmas decorations go up later in the year to see.
In the meantime, allow me to use this opportunity to leaf through a wonderfully entertaining but perceptive analysis of the work of Dawkins and his colleagues, Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution. This is a posthumous book by the eminent Australian philosopher David Stove, published in 1995 and republished in 2007. If you haven’t heard of him, he comes with high recommendations. “Stove was undoubtedly the most stylish and witty writer of all philosophers of the last one hundred years, if not of all time,” wrote a colleague in one academic journal, The Review of Metaphysics.
No, by the way, Stove is not a believer. He accepts evolution and natural selection. But he is a savage critic of scientific irrationalism. He gives his credentials as follows:
“I am not a “’creationist,’ or even a Christian. In fact I am of no religion … [But I] have both 40 odd years’ acquaintance with Darwinian literature and a strong distaste for ridiculous slanders on our species. These are evidently not ideal qualifications for criticizing Darwinian views of man. But on the other hand, Darwinism is not yet so arcane a branch of science that criticism of it by an outsider can be automatically assumed to be incompetent.
Stove’s thesis is that Dawkins, particularly in his book The Selfish Gene, has recourse to concepts which find no foundation in science. The main focus of his attack is the concept of purpose. Like sprinkling fairy dust over things in order to keep the narrative interesting, Dawkins has to invest genes with purpose when any self-respecting Darwinist knows that there can be no purpose in biology or in evolution. If a superbug arrived on the scene tomorrow and wiped all the humans out, it would not be a tragedy or a comedy, it would just be a fact.
Evolution says that survivors survive. Full stop. Evolutionists’ explanations for living beings go along the lines of “this particular organ means that this particular animal survived because it was better adapted to its environment”. This is a useful explanation of some aspects of living beings but to invest it with a purpose which is some sort of end to which living things are striving is to invest it with a teleology which Darwinists debunked years ago.
But Richard Dawkins not only invests his living beings with purpose, he personifies them. And even makes them impish in their deviousness. The following is from The Selfish Gene,
“[The] gene …. does not grow senile; it is no more likely to die when it is a million years old than when it is only a hundred. It leaps form body to body down the generations, manipulating body after body in its own way and for its own ends, abandoning a succession of mortal bodies before they sink in senility and death. The genes are the immortals.”
Just replace the word “gene” in this passage with the term “soul” and you have a near-perfect description of reincarnation. Except that it lands you back in religion and … well, let’s not go there.
This, Stove believes, is delusional. Selfish genes are the fairies at the bottom of the garden.
“Genes are to him what demons were to Calvinist theologians in the sixteenth century, or what ‘Zurich gnomes’ used to be to socialist demonologists of our own century. That is, they are beings which are hidden, immoral, and invested with immense power over us: power so great, indeed, that we are merely their helpless puppets…”
Even more fairy-like are “memes”, a concept invented by Dawkins. He proposes their existence to explain how culture spreads, why people believe in God, or the Pythagorean Theorem. In the words of one of Dawkins’s disciples, which were, says Stove, “heartily endorsed by him”:
“Memes are living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.”
Stove, as a philosopher, is bemused by this. A meme is a material structure which no one has ever seen, which no one can see, and for which there is no evidence. Yet it is responsible for the development of all of human culture. Hmmm. This sounds less like science and more like the Bolshevik-Zionist-Masonic-Rothschild-Illuminati Conspiracy which pulls the strings of the world’s politics and economy. Or, perhaps more plausibly, like leprechauns.
“It is impossible to read these words without feeling anxiety for Dr Dawkins’s sanity. I try to think of what I, or anyone, could say to him, to help restrain him from going over the edge into absolute madness. But if a man believes that, when he was first taught Pythagoras’s Theorem at school, his brain was parasitized by a certain micro-maggot which, 2,6oo years earlier, had parasitized the brain of Pythagoras, … what can one say to him, with any hope of effect?”
Yet, like the four-year-old who believes ardently in Santa Claus, Dawkins will never retreat or change his mind, Stove says.
“Indeed, even if the Supreme Gene of all genes were itself to say to Richard Dawkins, ‘You have, perhaps, somewhat overestimated the intelligence and power of us genes,’ it would not do any good. Dawkins would at once recognize this communication as just another instance of selfish manipulation by genes, and would merely feel surer than ever that he had not overestimated the intelligence and power of those superior beings.”
When it comes to believing in fairy tales, Richard Dawkins and your four-year-old have far more in common than you ever thought. But your four-year-old will grow out of it.
Martin Fitzgerald is a teacher at Redfield College, in Sydney.