Richard Dawkins, Volume 2

As you probably know, Richard Dawkins’s life has been so important that it needed two whole volumes to spell out his autobiography. Recently, a puff piece appeared that talked about the upcoming second volume. It sounds a little different this time:

The first instalment of Dawkins’s memoirs had the usual chronological structure for this sort of thing: childhood, education, dawning vocation, first jobs, finishing up with the book, The Selfish Gene, that made his reputation both as a significant evolutionary theorist and as a major contributor to the public understanding of science. Brief Candle takes up the story from around the time that An Appetite for Wonder left off, but it doesn’t aim to have a storyline.

LOL. That’s because there isn’t much a story to tell. Y’see, most scientific biographies cover the various scientific discoveries the scientist has made. But with Dawkins, he has none. He got famous for writing Selfish Gene, so what storyline could he possibly tell afterward? Write about writing The Extended Phenotype? Then write about writing Climbing Mt. Improbable? Write about writing various letters to the editor? Write about producing a TV show?

Since there is no story to tell, what did Dawkins write about?

It’s a loose and multiply digressive collection of reminiscences, anecdotes, addenda, quotes from admirers, and extended quotes from himself.

I’m shocked!! Dawkins would write a book that contains quotes from admirers and extended quotes from himself?

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5 Responses to Richard Dawkins, Volume 2

  1. Dhay says:

    Not totally a puff piece; the more closely I look at the piece, the more I see that is critical of Richard Dawkins, and contains many put-downs.

    Here, the article’s author is brutal and obviously so: a vicious bit of writing, this:

    As has been said of the traditional English gentleman, Dawkins has never been unintentionally rude; and his snarling is unremitting.

    I think this epithet applies to the article’s author, too.

    Dawkins’ “public rage” is arguably what he’s like in private, too, the author seems to say:

    Commentators disagree about whether there is a mismatch between the public rage and what Dawkins is like when he is not, so to speak, “miked up”.

    Then there’s this paraphrase:

    [Dawkins] thinks of himself as driven not by fulminating hostility to religion – that’s actually incidental, he insists – but …

    I judge this to paint both that Dawkins has a fulminating hostility to religion, and that Dawkins does not deny he has a fulminating hostility to religion; Dawkins’ denial is that the fulminating hostility to religion is his main driver, which main driver Dawkins claims is “enchantment with scientific rationality and the beauty of knowledge.”

    The author paints Dawkins as limited and repetitive:

    … secured him a reputation as something of a one-trick pony …

    There’s the put-down of the reviewed book; “not Dawkins at his best” will be understood by any British Guardian reader as outright condemnatory:

    At his best, Dawkins has written with passion, urgency and clarity … But this [memoir] is not Dawkins at his best. …

    Then there’s the inclusion of the phrase, “cask-strength hectoring”:

    … he also seems aware that others – including those who would like to be counted among his intellectual allies – have long believed his cask-strength hectoring …

    And the landslide of put-downs, part-buried in less condemnatory (and occasionally praising) sentences, continues — he’s merely preaching to the converted, “gestures”, “rich stores of satirical rhetoric” (ie mostly insubstantial flaming):

    You don’t read Dawkins to be converted from faith to science – though that’s possible; you read him to be fortified in your secular beliefs and to be armed against the Dark Side with handy facts, gestures at powerful theories, and rich stores of satirical rhetoric.

    And the author ends by drawing attention to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s criticism of Dawkins for being ineffective in his role as ‘Professor of the Public Understanding of Science’, and adds his own criticism.

    It’s to Dawkins’s credit here that he gives a little space to a fellow science populariser, the American physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson … Dawkins reports that he “gratefully accepted the rebuke”, but there’s no evidence here that he recognised its wisdom.

    Perhaps more a hatchet job than a puff piece.

  2. Jim Ronte says:

    What does “Science Popularizer” mean? And is it an insult? My physics prof said that Dawkins is more of a science popularizer than a research scientist. But that can’t be right, can it? He has numerous books which he had to do research for. Now, I’m not a fan or really against Dawkins. But could someone explain to me what my professor meant?

  3. Michael says:

    Your physics prof was right. From Wikipedia:

    The Selfish Gene is a book on evolution by Richard Dawkins, published in 1976. It builds upon the principal theory of George C. Williams’s first book Adaptation and Natural Selection. Dawkins used the term “selfish gene” as a way of expressing the gene-centred view of evolution as opposed to the views focused on the organism and the group, popularising ideas developed during the 1960s by W. D. Hamilton and others

    Dawkins has never written a book about his own research. He was simply very good with coming up with metaphors to help the general public better understand certain evolutionary hypotheses.

  4. TFBW says:

    A research scientist performs original research and presents it to other scientists for review, publishing the results in conference papers and scholarly journals. A science populariser takes existing research and packages it up into book or TV format in a manner which is meant to be accessible to the general public (or at least that subset of the public with an interest in science). In producing such material, the populariser might introduce new ideas of his own (e.g. “meme” in The Selfish Gene), but any such novel content has taken an end-run around the usual scholarly review process and should be considered speculative, or at least unsubstantiated. Such popular-level speculation can, however, have a disproportionate impact on the next generation of scientists, since they may well grow up reading popular science books.

    The term “science populariser” isn’t intrinsically insulting, but it might be used in that capacity if one scientist refers to another in those terms. Last year, E. O. Wilson made it quite clear that he considers Dawkins to be a non-scientist by describing him as a “journalist”. Here’s an excerpt of his fightin’ words as reported in The Independent.

    “What else is he? I mean journalism is a high and influential profession. But he’s not a scientist, he’s never done scientific research. My definition of a scientist is that you can complete the following sentence: ‘he or she has shown that…’,” Wilson says.

    “I don’t want to go on about this because he and I were friends. There is no debate between us because he’s not in the arena. I’m sorry he’s so upset. He could have distinguished himself by looking at the evidence, that’s what most science journalists do. When a journalist named Dawkins wrote a review in Prospect urging people not to read my book, I thought the last time I heard something like that I think it came from an 18th-century bishop.”

    If your search for the terms “Dawkins”, “Wilson”, and “Journalist”, you’ll find coverage. I recommend The Independent’s article for its depth, but if I’m going to provide just one link, it will be to Science 2.0, as it has some insightful things to say about the influence of science popularisers and the role of science as a weapon in the culture wars.

  5. TFBW says:

    Writing in Nature, Nathaniel Comfort suggests that Dawkins’ science is firmly stuck in the 20th century.

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