Genetics: Dawkins, redux

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Nathaniel Comfort takes issue with the second instalment of the evolutionary biologist's autobiography.

Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science

Richard Dawkins Bantam: 2015. ISBN: 9780062288431

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Rex Features

Richard Dawkins, pictured at home in 2010, popularized a gene-based view of evolutionary biology.

In 1976, Richard Dawkins, then a 35-year-old Oxford lecturer in animal behaviour, published his first book, The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press). Distilling a body of recent population-genetics research — notably that of W. D. Hamilton — it argued that genes, not organisms, were the targets of natural selection. An organism, Dawkins wrote, was simply a gene's way of replicating itself.

The book was a surprise best-seller. Along with E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology (Harvard University Press, 1975), it helped to spark a new nature–nurture debate that pitted sociobiologists against socialist biologists. Notable among the latter were the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould and the population geneticist Richard Lewontin, who accused the sociobiologists of rationalizing social evils such as racism and infidelity as genetically hard-wired, evolutionarily programmed. Yet Dawkins's fiercely reductionist, materialist world view exuded a transgressive sexiness, and his suave, swaggering prose appealed to many readers, lay and professional.

Dawkins's greatest gift has been as a lyricist. With terms such as selfish genes, memes and the extended phenotype, he has provided much of the vocabulary of modern evolutionary biology. He has published a sackful of books laying out the evidence for evolution, against design in nature, and for natural selection as the only mechanism of adaptive evolution. A skilled and popular lecturer, he also discovered a taste for the camera, hosting numerous television documentaries.

In the early 2000s, he saltated from popularizer into evangelist. His 2006 book The God Delusion (Bantam) was an ecclesiophobic diatribe, published around the same time as Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great (Twelve, 2007) and similar books by Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. The gospels of Christopher, Daniel, Sam and Richard form the scripture of the 'new atheism', a fundamentalist sect that has mounted a scientistic crusade against all religion.

Now, Brief Candle in the Dark revisits Dawkins's career since The Selfish Gene. Its predecessor, An Appetite for Wonder (Bantam, 2013), was a memoir of a young upper-class Englishman becoming a scientist, replete with African adventures, British public schools and Oxonian traditions. Some reviewers wondered whether the sequel would have more heft and focus, reflection and introspection. At 450 pages, it is certainly heftier.

Dawkins has organized Brief Candle thematically, making it less memoir than annotated catalogue. The first few chapters are a scattershot record of his duties as an Oxford don, a rare field trip and the Royal Institution Christmas lectures. The next few devolve into a series of lists: his books, his debates, his television appearances.

Finally, he abandons the memoir format to do what he does best: write about science. The book concludes with a mammoth 120-page chapter recapitulating the ontogeny of his thought. Like Francis Galton, the hereditarian Victorian biostatistics pioneer, Dawkins has a quantitative turn of mind, but is better at algorithms than theorems. So indeed is life itself, which is why biology has so few laws.

Much of Dawkins's research has been in silico, writing programs for evolutionary simulations. In his simulations, life is utterly determined by genes, which specify developmental rules and fixed traits such as colour. The more lifelike his digital animals (“biomorphs”) become, the more persuaded he is that real genes work in roughly the same way. Dawkins's critics accuse him of genetic determinism. This synopsis of his work shows that his life virtually depends on it.

A curious stasis underlies Dawkins's thought. His biomorphs are grounded in 1970s assumptions. Back then, with rare exceptions, each gene specified a protein and each protein was specified by a gene. The genome was a linear text — a parts list or computer program for making an organism —insulated from the environment, with the coding regions interspersed with “junk”.

Today's genome is much more than a script: it is a dynamic, three-dimensional structure, highly responsive to its environment and almost fractally modular. Genes may be fragmentary, with far-flung chunks of DNA sequence mixed and matched in bewildering combinatorial arrays. A universe of regulatory and modulatory elements hides in the erstwhile junk. Genes cooperate, evolving together as units to produce traits. Many researchers continue to find selfish DNA a productive idea, but taking the longer view, the selfish gene per se is looking increasingly like a twentieth-century construct.

Dawkins's synopsis shows that he has not adapted to this view. He nods at cooperation among genes, but assimilates it as a kind of selfishness. The microbiome and the 3D genome go unnoticed. Epigenetics is an “interesting, if rather rare, phenomenon” enjoying its “fifteen minutes of pop science voguery”, which it has been doing since at least 2009, when Dawkins made the same claim in The Greatest Show on Earth (Transworld). Dawkins adheres to a deterministic language of “genes for” traits. As I and other historians have shown, such hereditarianism plays into the hands of the self-styled race realists (N. Comfort Nature 513, 306307; 2014).

His writing can still sparkle. He excels at capturing the scenes behind a scene, deftly explaining a scientific principle, capping a story with an amusing anecdote. His tale of palaeoanthropologist Richard Leakey hauling his legs (amputated after a plane crash) to Kenya in his hand luggage for burial is funny and touching. Dawkins also makes an important case for the “poetic” side of science, arguing that the imperative to justify research in terms of potential medical or financial benefits bleeds the beauty out of it. Amen.

At such moments, one feels transported to a tweedy evening at Oxford, pouring the sherry as a charming senior faculty member holds court. But too often, the professor rambles. He quotes friends' and colleagues' tributes from dust-jackets and afterwords. He mentions the fish genus Dawkinsia. He repeatedly slams his late rival, Gould (“whose genius for getting things wrong matched the eloquence with which he did so”). His digressions often come off as twee and self-indulgent. Mentioning the limping family dog, Bunch, in an apt example of an acquired characteristic that cannot be inherited, he is reminded of an unfinished poem his mother wrote after Bunch died, which he prints. “If you can't be sentimental in an autobiography, when can you?” he asks.

For a time, Dawkins was a rebellious scientific rock star. Now, his critique of religion seems cranky, and his immovably genocentric universe is parochial. Brief Candle is about as edgy as Sir Mick and the Rolling Stones cranking out the 3,578th rendition of 'Brown Sugar' — a treat for fans, but reinscribing boundaries rather than crossing them.


  1. Report this comment #66925

    Igor Litvinyuk said:

    "Ecclesiophobic diatribe"? You don't say. "A fundamentalist sect that has mounted a scientistic crusade against all religion"? Just wow. "Scientistic"? Really? Surely, not everyone may admire Richard Dawkins, but seeing this kind of language in the pages of Nature is bit too much. Don't the people who consider atheism a "fundamentalist sect" have their own journals to publish their ecclesiophilic diatribes in? That was a question for Nature's editors.

  2. Report this comment #66927

    Nathaniel Comfort said:

    I do say. You're making an absurdly large leap and insulting the many atheists (including myself) who are perfectly happy to leave people alone with their views if they let me alone with mine. Dawkins, et al. are evangelists for atheism. That's what I'm criticizing. Just as not all straight people are homophobes, not all atheists are eccesiophobes. And you can be scientific without being scientistic.

  3. Report this comment #66931

    Henri Wathieu said:

    An appreciated review, though it is unclear on what grounds labels such as "gospels" and "fundamentalist sect" can be fairly utilized to describe new atheism.

  4. Report this comment #66933

    Robert Coffin said:

    Strange that trying to promote facts over baseless superstition is seen as 'evangelizing' (in a negative sense) and 'fundamentalist' - surely all scientists should be evangelists for the truth? (and active debunkers of that which is not). Nature clearly feels it needed to provide 'balance', in an area where there is no balance to be had – facts are facts, and should be strongly promoted, superstition is not and should be actively campaigned against.

  5. Report this comment #66935

    Coel Hellier said:

    "... the many atheists (including myself) who are perfectly happy to leave people alone with their views if they let me alone with mine."

    Are you also happy to leave alone, say, climate-change denialists? Or do you regard the truth of the matter as important?

  6. Report this comment #66937

    Nathaniel Comfort said:

    Robert Coffin: First, my review represents my views, not Nature's.

    Second, it was once a "fact" that a substance called phlogiston that conferred combustibility and was released during burning. That wasn't superstition--it was based on the best science of the time. But we don't accept that fact anymore. We say that fact was wrong. Similarly, in 20 years, many of today's facts will no longer be true.

    Science is precisely that way of learning about the world in which facts can be revised, updated, nuanced, or rejected. No scientist would disagree with that statement in reference to their own field. But it can be hard to generalize outside of one's sphere of expertise. That's why god made historians.

    And third, lighten up! Look, the joke above notwithstanding, I'm an atheist. I also agree 100% with those who are disgusted by egregious, criminal, immoral acts committed in the name of faith, god, or religion. But where faith does no harm--in the inner cities, for example, where church communities help keep people from getting killed or overdosing--let it be! I'll take another storefront church over another liquor store any day, even if I personally don't attend. So, chill.

  7. Report this comment #66941

    Kenneth Crook said:

    I understand that reviewers often like to stamp a little of their own personality in their reviews, but did this one really have to be so petty, frequently irrelevant and perhaps even a little envious? The fact the reviewer is replying to critical comments (including the tired "I'm an atheist but....." remark) does suggest an insecurity which somewhat explains the pettiness. The book isn't edgy enough? It's a memoir – so, chill.

  8. Report this comment #66943

    Torbjörn Larsson said:

    "Petty" is a pretty apt des cription.

    I'll add that I would think a historian of all people would recognize the faux history embedded in the invention of "new atheism" and "scientism", cf Mencken respectively Clausius (laws of thermodynamics, making magic unsupportable).

    For the non-reflective perceived 'insult' (why insult 'new' atheists that simply go about their business, then) I refer to Coyne's article [ ]

  9. Report this comment #66951

    Emily Haines said:

    Why is "new atheism" bandied about like some kind of perversion of good old atheism?
    Scientists like Richard Dawkins have brought evolutionary biology and critical thinking about human origins into the public spotlight. They've given millions of people a much better understanding of science, and consequently helped to create a generation of atheists that base their non-belief on solid fact, not just societal angst.
    If a career spent defending reason and championing science is now "fundamentalism," can we at least call it "new fundamentalism" just to be clear?

  10. Report this comment #66965

    David Walker said:

    Nathaniel, you suggest that "Dawkins, et al. are evangelists for atheism" and that Dawkins' atheism is "cranky", and then you suggest that everyone "chill". This seems a little disingenuous.

    If by "evangelists for atheism" you mean "people who publicly argue that atheism is the best position to take on the existence of God", why, yes, they are. But the argument over religion is in part an argument over methodology. And here your term "evangelists" seems designed to suggest that the methodology of the "New Atheists" is the same as that of a particular type of religious proselytiser.

    Dawkins' "evangelism for atheism" is much like Feynman's evangelism for quantum physics or for that matter Popper's defence of his view of science. That is to say, it does not look much like religious evangelism at all. Feynman and Popper and many like them thought their way of thinking made sense, and they put it out there and defended it against all comers, sometimes in colourful and forthright language. Dawkins and his colleagues have done the same. Their opponents have included a number of intelligent and feisty theologians, and the debating of the issue has been illuminating for rather a lot of people. It looks to me like a valuable discussion.

    It also seems a pretty important debate, involving as it does the origin both of the universe and of all human morality. These seem to some of us like topics worth discussing, and even discussing boisterously.

    If you're nevertheless not interested in that debate, feel free not to get involved in it. But in that case, it might have been best to tell Nature's editors that you weren't really the ideal person to review a book about one of the world's most prominent atheists.

  11. Report this comment #66987

    Peter MetaSkeptic said:

    Attacks on Dawkins have become common. What worries me is that they belong to a system, not to personal, private and isolated attack. Which means we are doing politic without saying the name.

    Fine let's do politic.

  12. Report this comment #67463

    Cathal Ó Broin said:

    Since Nature featured this as their pick of 2015, I think I can respond even thought the article is a few months old.

    "many atheists (including myself) who are perfectly happy to leave people alone with their views if they let me alone with mine."
    When has that ever happened? Just look at those opposing LGBT rights, women's rights and just about every rights movement in the last 100 years. For example, Ireland just had a referendum on allowing same-sex couples to also get married. Opposition was led by the Catholic church (the same Catholic church which systematically covered up child abuse) and its conservative activists.

    "But where faith does no harm--in the inner cities, for example, where church communities help keep people from getting killed or overdosing--let it be!"
    How do you tell if unsubstantiated belief does no harm? For an easy counter-example, what about gay people in those communities, how is it for them? Religiosity is negatively correlated with tolerance of homosexuality

    Should we also delude our children if the outcomes are better that way, or is it just ok if it's other people?

    "The gospels of Christopher, Daniel, Sam and Richard form the s cripture of the 'new atheism', a fundamentalist sect that has mounted a scientistic crusade against all religion.

    Ah yes, very original and witty. I have never seen the use of religious language to try to tar people who advocate for atheism.

    Buddhist fundamentalism exhibits itself in the targeting of other religions (particularly Muslims in Sri Lanka and Burma). Hindu fundamentalism against Christians and Muslims is causing civil strife in India. Christian fundamentalism in Africa is being used to oppress those who are LGBT and in the USA it manifests in anti-LGBT bigotry and also attacks on abortion clinics. Islamic fundamentalism doesn't even require examples, they are that well known. Calling people who have done no more than advocate atheism as fundamentalists trivialises the term.

    Further, Daniel Dennett as scientistic? Yet there I was watching Dennett and Massimo Pigliucci defend philosophy against (actual) overreach from Krauss: I assume you have some good reason for claiming Dennett is "scientistic"?

    "And third, lighten up!"
    Where is the lightness in your own article?

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