Richard Dawkins, Microbiologist

It’s not my job to sell tickets for Stornoway’s Lanntair Gallery, and so I kept mum about Richard Dawkins’s recent visit to the scenes of my childhood.  I would still be mum were it not that the coverage of the event in the local press was the most prejudiced piece of news coverage that ever had the honour to catch my eye.  Professor Dawkins so mesmerised the reporters that spelling and syntax went out the window; and objectivity had not even been allowed in.  The previous evening, the ‘case’ for God had been put by ‘Rev Robertson’ (neither what he was christened nor how he should be styled), but the report could hardly get him out of the way quickly enough, contenting itself with noting that he is a good orator, afraid of flying, and was challenged by Dr. Dawkins.

By contrast, the coverage drooled over the Professor: a master of logic, evidence, bluntness and wit.  In fact, if we really have to dispense with God, this particular Dawkins would make an excellent substitute.  And, not to be outdone, Isles FM decided that they, too, must join in the obeisance, and humbly recorded the Doctor’s lecture for future airings.  Listeners will then be able to hear for themselves the standing ovation which brought the atheist ‘orduighean’ to a fitting conclusion.

I suspect that Dawkins is a good deal more serious and greatly more courteous than this report of his Stornoway visit suggests.  His eminence in his chosen field is beyond dispute and his membership of the Royal Society clear proof that he commands the respect of his scientific peers.  He has even given the world a whole new concept, ‘memes’: genetic somethings which, I think, pass on ideas.

But it’s far from clear that just because a man is an expert in microbiology he is also an expert on theology, religion, metaphysics and ethics.  Science as such can never settle the question of God.  Its greatness lies in its use of the experimental method, whereby it can watch, listen, record, count, weigh and calculate, and thus verify or falsify its own theories.  There is no conceivable laboratory experiment that can verify or falsify the existence of God, any more than the lab can prove or disprove the Dawkins Hypothesis that Charles Darwin is more influential than Jesus Christ or Mohammed.  Science deals with ‘physics’ (nature’), and is out of its depth when it pontificates on what is beyond and above nature (‘metaphysics’).  It can describe nature, but it cannot tell us why it’s there in the first place.

Even less can science explain the mystery of comprehensibility.  As Einstein pointed out, in a universe as vast as ours we would expect chaos.  Instead, we have order, and with every passing decade we see that order more clearly.  We no longer have to say, with the writer of Ecclesiastes, that, ‘we know not how the bones grow in the womb of her that is with child’.  Instead, we know (in people-speak) that the living cell contains DNA, that the DNA orders the production of proteins and that the proteins produce organisms.  But we still have to be amazed that it all makes sense, and that the universe is so kindly disposed to the human mind and prepared to tell us about itself.  Letting the universe talk is the first principle of science.

Many years have passed since Richard Dawkins last worked at the cutting-edge of biological research.  That particular phase of his career seems to have ended with his PhD thesis, ‘Selective Pecking in the Domestic Chick’.  This was not as trivial as it looks.  The distribution and timing of chick-pecks can shed light on co-operative behaviour among animals, and supports the idea that an individual bear of a ‘selfish gene’ can sacrifice himself for the greater good of the gene as a whole.

But Dawkins’s true genius lies elsewhere.  He is not a ground-breaking researcher, but a brilliant populariser, and this is now his real profession.  The last time I looked, the Chair he held at Oxford was the Chair of the Public Understanding of Science, and the measure of his success in this department is, as one reviewer remarked, that he makes the reader feel like a genius.  You put the book down feeling you now know everything.

But Dawkins is not alone in this.  The books of John Polkinghorne, John Lennox and Alister McGrath (all of which I’ve plundered to write this column) have exactly the same effect.  Yet these three are not only Oxbridge professors, but Christians.

Not that you can decide for or against God by counting the Oxbridge heads on one side of the question or the other.  Most scientists are atheists.  But then so are most of the world’s dolts, and even some professors of theology.  What is much more interesting is that such a science-worshipper as Dawkins can sometimes speak in a most unscientific way.  The best example is his famous remark, ‘It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet someone who does not believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane.’

There are very few ‘absolutes’ in this postmodern world, but here, according to Dawkins, is one of them.  But where is the proof: the ‘scientific’ proof?

The truth is that for Dawkins anyone who questions evolution is touching the apple of his eye. His passion for it knows no bounds, because it has long ceased to be (as it was to Darwin) merely a mechanism to explain the origin of species, and has become, instead, a Theory-of-Everything.  The problem is, as Darwin also recognised, that things must be made before they can evolve.

But Dawkins is not alone in his obsessive sensitivity on the question of evolution.  John Lennox tells a story about a Chinese palaeontologist who once addressed an audience of American scholars, but expressed some reservations on evolution.  This went down like a lead balloon, and when he asked why, he was told that American scientists don’t like to hear criticisms of evolution.  ‘Oh!’ said the Chinese scientist, ‘now I see the difference between America and China.  In China, we can criticise Darwin, but not the government; in America you can criticise the government, but not Darwin.’

I cannot recall a time when evolution caused me problems.  But I’m still uncomfortable with the idea that if you have reservations about Dawkins’s very personal version of it he will have you pronounced insane (scientifically).


This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press, Friday 23 November, 2012.