John Gray’s awful review of Dawkins’s “An Appetite for Wonder”

December 29, 2015

John Gray has a review of Richard Dawkins’s An Appetite For Wonder at New Republic here (from a while ago). I review Gray’s review below.

Gray begins with a quotation from Dawkins that, suggests Gray, exhibits several of Dawkins’s ‘traits’ in his ‘campaign against religion’. Here’s what Gray quotes from Dawkins:

Intelligent life on a planet comes of an age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilisation, is: “Have they discovered evolution yet?” Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin.

Gray claims this passage reveals three things:

1. Gray says: ‘There is his equation of superiority with cleverness: the visiting aliens are more advanced creatures than humans because they are smarter and know more than humans do.’

But Dawkins is discussing superiority in terms of intelligence and scientific progress. He’s obviously not committing himself here to the view that aliens that are more intelligent and scientifically advanced than us must also be, say, morally superior too – or indeed superior in any other way. That might be Dawkins’s view, though I very much doubt it is. But in any case, nothing Dawkins says here commits him to it. So Gray is setting up a straw man.

2. Gray says: ‘The theory of evolution by natural selection is treated not as a fallible theory—the best account we have so far of how life emerged and developed—but as an unalterable truth, which has been revealed to a single individual of transcendent genius.’

There are at least two errors in just this one sentence. Here’s the first. Yes, Dawkins thinks the theory of evolution is true, and says so. But of course for Dawkins to say the theory of evolution is true is not for him to say that either he, or the theory of evolution, is ‘infallible’. Indeed, Dawkins has repeatedly gone out of his way to explain that all scientific theories are fallible, and – though he supposes it’s highly unlikely – that even the theory of evolution could in principle be shown to be mistaken.

Gray’s second error in that sentence is: nothing Dawkins says here commits him to the view Gray ascribes to him: that Darwin is an individual of ‘transcendent genius’. That might be Dawkins’s view, but for all Dawkins says here, Darwin might be have been a competent scientist who merely found himself in the right place at the right time.

3. Gray says: ‘There cannot be much doubt that Dawkins sees himself as a Darwin-like figure, propagating the revelation that came to the Victorian naturalist.’

But, maintains Gray, Darwin and Dawkins are really very different:

‘Hesitant, doubtful, and often painfully perplexed, Darwin understood science as an empirical investigation in which truth is never self-evident and theories are always provisional. If science, for Darwin, was a method of inquiry that enabled him to edge tentatively and humbly toward the truth, for Dawkins, science is an unquestioned view of the world. The Victorians are often mocked for their supposed certainties, when in fact many of them (Darwin not least) were beset by anxieties and uncertainties. Dawkins, by contrast, seems never to doubt for a moment the capacity of the human mind—his own, at any rate—to resolve questions that previous generations have found insoluble.’

Gray says that, for Dawkins, ‘science is an unquestioned view of the world’. Really? Anyone with even passing familiarity with Dawkins’ work should know that’s an absurd claim to make about him. Does Gray want Dawkins to acknowledge that evolution is merely a ‘fallible’ theory, not something we can suppose is actually true? But of course there is plenty in science we can suppose is actually true, such as that the Earth goes round the sun, that bacteria cause infection, and so on. True, no scientific theory is, as Gray puts it, infallible, but plenty are extremely well-confirmed, and it’s by no means irresponsible for us to talk about them being true. Or, if it is, then we’ll have to tick off Gray next time he says it’s ‘true’ that water boils at 100c at one atmosphere. Yes, Dawkins thinks the theory of evolution is true. Like pretty much any sensible scientist. That doesn’t mean he lacks humility. Yet it is, of course, towards that cliched accusation that we are finally headed: the ad hominem favoured by all Dawkins-bashers that Dawkins is an arrogant know-it-all who thinks science can answer every question! Except, er, he doesn’t.

So, we’re 500 words into Gray’s review, and there’s barely anything that’s warranted in what Gray has to say about Dawkins.

Many of Gray’s errors are egregious errors. Any reasonably intelligent person who took the time to read the above passage from Dawkins and what Gray attempts to extract from it really should be able recognise that Gray is committing a variety of flaming howlers.

And anyone at all familiar with Dawkins’s work should also be able to recognise that Gray is saying things that are untrue. That ‘science is [or should be] an unquestioned view of the world’ is obviously not Dawkins’s view; rather, it’s Schmawkins’s view, Schmawkins being the straw-man facsimile of Dawkins favoured by his weaker-minded opponents.

And yet, for some strange reason, people who should know better have been praising Gray’s review. I encourage them to read it a bit more carefully. Gray’s review is, in reality, embarrassingly awful. Even Dawkins’s critics should be able to recognise that.