Richard Dawkins comes to town

Saturday morning, 10am, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

Richard Dawkins has been woven into our lives if not our rainbows for a few decades now. I can still remember reading The Selfish Gene. It’s somehow associated with a bus from up north heading down to London, sitting near the front, with big views either side of the motorway. Yes, it changed how I view the world.

Before last Saturday, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, I’d not heard him speak in person. Interviewed by Matthew Stadlen, who he knows well, it seems, not least from previous interviews, he was as direct and blunt as I’d expected.

One cheerful discussion was around whether ‘altruistic’ rather than ‘selfish’ would have been a better title for that famous book. But it wouldn’t have had much of a zing to it, but there’s certainly a good case for arguing that genes are operating altruistically, since our survival, and progression up the evolutionary ladder, is tied intimately to our genes. Where they go we follow.

Genes have our interests at heart, though watching The Mating Game last night I was rivetted, as, accompanied by David Attenborough’s whispered, I-don’t-want-to-interfere’ voice, a male praying mantis manages to get its head bitten off by a larger female and yet, abdominally alive for several hours, still manages to mate. At the same time it provides the female with sustenance to feed the brood which will in due time follow. The male is allowed no time to rejoice in successful procreation.

Back from the jungle to Cheltenham. What I miss, and I’m more aware of this from a front-row seat, so not more than a few yards away, is the absence of a human dimension in his projection of himself as a scientist. Human beings of social, cultural, mixed-up, error-prone, imperfect beings. The human dimension doesn’t get a look in.

Take religion as the classic example – and Dawkins’ favoured territory. For my part, it’s so closely tied with ideas of love and compassion, and security, and re-assurance, and atheism does such a bad job of providing any substitute, that you’re throwing out a great chunk of human civilisation if you dismiss religion. The easy target of a personal god is only one manifestation. The instinct to believe or, if not to believe a such, then find re-assurance somewhere beyond ourselves, is innate to human beings.  Science, you could argue (and it would be interesting to do so!), is skeletal without it.

On climate change there was something similar. Dawkins didn’t mention the human dimension, and all the actions that will be required of us if the no-more-than 1.5% increase above pre-industrial levels is to be achieved. (‘What are your thoughts on Greta Thunberg’ would have been a good question.) He accepts Global Warming, and responded (I read) positively to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. If only, he once commented, Gore rather than Bush has won the presidential election in 2000. A few hanging or dimpled chads changed the world. But his focus last Saturday was only on the science.

We have the surveillance state that is China on the one hand, and the spectre, so appealing to one section of Republican opinion in the USA, of scary Peter-Thiel-style libertarianism on the other. We need to promote the human dimension across the board, at all times, in all things. The religion-versus-atheism debate is old hat. Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, agnostics, atheists – we’re all in this together. Science must be and remain the servant of humanity, and without that context it can become so easily, as China demonstrates, the instrument of an authoritarian state.

(I’d like to chip in here with comments on Steven Pinker’s new book, Rationality. But I haven’t dipped into it yet. One comment from a Guardian interview from last month: ‘If only everyone were capable of reasoning properly, Pinker sometimes seems to imply, then our endless political arguments would not occupy so much of public life.’ There’s the rub, of course. We don’t reason ‘properly’, and the application of reason doesn’t always lead to the same conclusions.)

Dawkins signed off with his thoughts on the transgender debate. Men and women are defined by their chromosomes and whether or not they are born with a penis. That is the biological definition. How they define themselves to themselves and to others is up to them.  No questions from the audience, so no debate ensued. But Dawkins had been clear, as always – the science must prevail.  

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