Dawkins on Darwin

Richard Dawkins is presenting a short Channel 4 series on Darwin. It’s mostly pretty damn good. It’s clear and enthusiastic and really enjoyable. I was really pleased to see that Dawkins opposes the faux-evolutionary nonsense that is used to justify predatory capitalism.

However, I’ve got to put in a couple of gripes, just to stop this blog being suspected of mere sycophancy:

Why does he keep referring to Darwinism? There is no Darwinism. Dawkins must be getting too many trolls and, absent-mindedly, paying attention to them.

There is also some justice in Libby Purves’ argument that Dawkins has set up too simple a choice between believing in evolution and believing in god(s). In the first programme, he addressed a collection of school students who had been led to believe that accepting evolution ran counter to the religions they were brought up in. So, they didn’t believe in it. He showed them some clear evidence and some of them felt obliged to question their faith. Libby Purves argued that this was a bit of a false example, as there are huge numbers of god-believers who accept the evidence for evolution.

Dawkins’s response seems a bit lame to me.

She goes on to say, “OK, he is provoked, as we all are, by nutters. But most believers are not creationists.” I expect it’s true that the few believers Libby Purves meets over canapés are not creationists. But “most believers”? Most believers in Bradford? The Scottish Highlands? Pakistan? Indonesia? The Arab world? South America? Indeed, North America? Polls suggest that more than 40 per cent of the British population are creationists. For the subset who call themselves believers, the figure must be considerably more than 50 per cent. Please don’t say “most people”, when what you really mean is Islington and Hampstead Garden Suburb.

Well, stop there Dawkins. “Polls suggest..” What polls? Please don’t say “polls suggest” when what you are really presenting sounds like made up numbers.

Most people know bugger all about evolution, let alone have views on it.

But, assuming that Libby Purves is talking about the UK, most people that I know who have any views on evolution take it for granted. In fact, I have never knowingly come across an outspoken creationist. And I certainly don’t live in Islington or Hampstead. Nor would I recognise a canape if it leaped off a silver salver and bit me on the nose. In fact, as a non-Islington-resident prole, I sort of resent the implication that proles are stupider than the rich.

Anglicans and Catholics don’t have any problem with the theory of evolution, for a start. So the mainstream UK religions aren’t encouraging people to doubt it. South America? Big place. Mostly Catholic, so I assume that evolution is generally accepted there.

What’s left? Basically North America and Islam. I don’t know enough about the many shades of Islam to judge on this one, although I am pretty confident that most muslims are as unknowing and uninterested in evlutionary theory as most other people. I do think I know that North America is bursting with people who don’t understand accept evolution.

I have to agree with Libby Purves when she said “OK, he is provoked, as we all are, by nutters.” I completely agree with Dawkins that there more than enough of these idiots and that they have to be opposed. But, I don’t think it’s always wise to help them talk up their anti-science madness by presenting a false dichotomy between accepting science and believing in deities. It’s accepting the terms of reference of the creationists, their idea that there is a “debate” between ID and evolution.

This “debate” can only benefit the nutters. Scientists don’t have to accommodate the creation myths of the vikings or the yoruba by constantly “debating” whether evolution or the mixture of fire and ice or the formation of dry land from water is true. (In fact, these myths seem far more logical and metaphorically “true” than the middle eastern creation myths.) Why waste too much time and effort challenging the myths that come from the middle east?

Still, whines over. Bloody good tv overall, to be honest.

5 thoughts on “Dawkins on Darwin

  1. I agree with you about Dawkins’ annoying use of Darwinism; it’s a pointless term, considering the study of evolution has far surpassed Darwin’s understanding of it.

    However I have to disagree with some of your other points. I do agree that the choice between God and evolution is a false dichotomy; religious people can by all means still believe in evolution by natural selection. However, I would put it to you that many religious, and indeed many non-religious, do not actually believe or fully understand evolution. For example, in theistic evolution it is assumed that evolution is the means by which god created life and humanity. As an extension of this it is assumed that human or human-like life was guaranteed from the get go. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution, as natural selection totally removes any idea of purpose to evolution. It just is. So the evolution which most scientists talk about is still far removed from that envisioned by theistic evolution.

    Concerning the polls, I have actually heard those numbers before and seen the polls (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4648598.stm). They weren’t simply made up by Dawkins so he could make his point. Of course you can still say there are ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’, but Dawkins still made a valid point based on that evidence.

    Onto Islam. I can find the figures, but I do remember reading somewhere that 97% or so of Muslims believe in Creationism, or some blend of Intelligent Design. I’m not sure if it really is that high, but it would not surprise me in the least. Islamic countries tend to be far more fundamentally religious than western countries and thus I would expect to see a high percentage believe in a religious explanation to life over a scientific one.

    Lastly (I promise!), the problem of debate. I agree that debating with creationists does seem to give their ideas legitimacy, especially to those that do not understand how science works. However, not taking on the challenges of creationists also shows poorly on supporters of real science, because to the ignorant masses it seems that evolution is a poorly supported theory with many gaps. I personally blame this on bad teaching of evolution in schools. I do believe more has to be done to introduce evolution in far greater detail than most schools do at the moment. The current way it is taught does not enable students to get a full understanding of the scope of evolution, or the scope of the evidence. It is merely taught as fact, with little discussion of why it is fact. This must be changed.

  2. Should I be worried my big ol’ comment up there doesn’t seem to be showing?

    No, I’ve tried to fix it now anyway.

    It is just a weird thing about posts with website addresses in. Something (I used to think it was Akismet) seems to block the content of posts with links. We are looking into this but its been going on for ages and we are no closer to a solution

  3. XanderG

    All your points are fair. I don’t really disagree with you, although I think that the idea that 40% of the UK population believes the nonsense is just a reflection of either people having no idea what they were being asked about or of a very skewed sample.

    I certainly agree that evolution teaching must be pretty rubbish if people think it’s in dispute and that the ideas of creationism must be challenged,

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