Monday, July 13, 2009

Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Genius?

The Times Online has an article by Philip Ball that is a review of the book The Selfish Genius, by Fern Elsdon-Baker, who has, it seems, a quibble with how Dr. Dawkins perceives the importance of the gene in natural selection:
She accuses Dawkins of appropriating and, in the process, distorting Darwin’s message. The selfish-gene hypothesis, which makes the gene the autonomous agent of ­evolution that seeks implacably to replicate itself, has little to do with Darwin, she says, and not just because Darwin knew nothing of genes. The common view is that, once the work of the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel pointed to inheritable character-defining factors that became known as genes, the Achilles heel of Darwinism — lack of a fundamental mechanism — was healed. Genes that confer good survival prospects in the organism get passed on preferentially.
It is true that Darwin had a dickens of a time getting people to accept that Natural Selection was the driving force behind evolution because of the common acceptance of "blending" as the mechanism. It was not until the discovery of genes that evolutionary theory could take off. Having said that, Dawkins has had an enormously important impact on the teaching of evolution, unfortunately, at the expense of those with a religious persuasion (such as myself). It is because of this that the reviewer of the book cannot quite bring himself to agree with the author:
Science communicators today owe a huge debt to Dawkins for bringing the discipline back into popular discourse. Many will also agree that in both style and content he is starting to look out of date now. But Elsdon-Baker’s complaints are perhaps occasioned more by a lazy media that refuses to see how times have changed and continues to position Dawkins as the ­public voice of science. His accounts of evolution provide a beautifully drawn base that it must now be the job of others to modify and update.
I wonder how he will best be remembered: for this work on evolution or as the author of The God Delusion? He certainly galvanised the anti-evolution movement of the last ten years with his constant attacks on traditional religion.

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  1. Anonymous7:31 AM

    There is a review here by Brian Clegg that seems quite positive

    "This is much more than a book on Dawkins, it's a good way to get a better understanding of the position of science in society and how Dawkins' approach to enhancing the public understanding of science can be counter-productive. Thought provoking and engaging reading."

    My own view is the Dawkins anti-religion stance clouds his other work and I think he will be remembered more for the God Delusion.

  2. I think you are correct. That is sad because he is a brilliant evolutionary biologist.