Dr. Dawg

Sins of the great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers

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Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary thinker and militant atheist, was recently subject to an attack in the pages of The Telegraph, a right-wing English newspaper. On one level it seems that for sheer malicious tomfoolery, this article would be hard to beat. Dawkins duly responded, crushingly, and with admirable restraint.

And yet. May I wish, if not a plague, a severe case of the sniffles on both their houses?

The writer of the anti-Dawkins diatribe, one Adam Lusher, had discovered that distant ancestors of Dawkins apparently owned slaves in Jamaica. He obviously thought he was onto something, and telephoned Dawkins twice to build his case that Christians are the good guys and atheists are responsible for the evils of history—a thesis which, not coincidentally, I suspect, was advanced in Ben Stein’s profoundly dishonest film, “Expelled.”

Christian William Wilberforce battled slavery in the British empire and saw his efforts rewarded, said Lusher, while Dawkins family members were in opposition. And Dawkins himself, he accused, was likely living off the avails of slavery and should consider making appropriate reparations.

It’s pretty easy to see where Lusher was going with all this, and Dawkins noted one of the less appealing Biblical verses (Numbers 14:18):

The LORD is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.

The Bible, in fact, ardently promotes the belief that the innocent carry the weight of their forebears’ sins, e.g., Deuteronomy 23:2:

A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the LORD.

Now, I should state that I am no fan of Richard Dawkins and the crowd of angry atheists presently on the warpath against organized religion (including the late Christopher Hitchens, may he rest in peace). I’m with them on their general critique, of course—institutionalized religion has been horrific in its effects, sanctioning torture, war, racism, sexism, willful ignorance, in fact every evil known to afflict humanity—but I think that they all overstate the case, buttressing their arguments with a sterile, reductionist materialism that eliminates the notion of the spiritual altogether.

In fact I was recently asked to promote an atheism conference and declined for that very reason. Rejecting the notion of an angry, thuggish parent in the sky is fine with me, but these atheists go much further than that, casting aside much of what is wonderful (and I use that word in its original sense) about being human. I do not believe that we are necessarily the mere sum of our genes, or a bundle of electrochemical impulses, or soft machines.

Agnosticism in its widest sense strikes me as a more honest position altogether. Know what can be known through scientific observation, but recognize that scientific knowledge has limits, and do not exclude the ineffable that might lie beyond its boundaries, nor the possibility of other knowledges.

Dawkins, however, appears to have little interest in what lies beyond those boundaries. As a socio-biological materialist, he thinks that DNA holds the complete answer to what makes us human, including our behaviour and beliefs.

In this connection, Lusher took him on:

I’d scarcely had time to re-open my lecture notes when he rang back: “Darwinian natural selection has a lot to do with genes, do you agree?” Of course I agreed. “Well, some people might suggest that you could have inherited a gene for supporting slavery from Henry Dawkins.”

Dawkins, who knows his genetics, put paid to that by pointing out how little genetic material he would have inherited from his distant slave-owning ancestor Henry. To accuse him of being pro-slavery was also an appallingly stupid and defamatory leap that, unsurprisingly, didn’t find its way into the subsequent article.

The piece was clumsily constructed in other respects as well, omitting the clergymen in Dawkins’ family tree, for example, and failing to note that slave owners likely considered themselves to be as Christian as William Wilberforce.

And yet: one could regard the Telegraph article as a deeply ironic commentary. The text, complete with genealogical research, might be read as a send-up of gene-centred evolutionary theory. After all, if there can be a “selfish gene,” why not a “slavery gene?” In his offensive Christian zeal, Lusher managed to suggest a relevant question that goes to the heart of reductionist sociobiology—and one that has not, to my knowledge, been satisfactorily answered.

[H/t Dan Gardner]

ERRATUM: I am rightly chided by a reader for confusing categories in my last paragraph, above. “Selfish” refers, as he notes, to the propensity of genes to propagate and survive—indeed Dawkins considers altruism, the opposite of human selfishness, to derive from a “selfish” strategy on the part of genes, to which, of course, he does not attribute will.

Yet sociobiology encourages reductionist notions of all human behaviour. E.O. Wilson, for example, pioneered the view that social organization is ultimately genetically derived. No doubt a suitable argument could be constructed, therefore, to explain the institution of slavery in sociobiological terms. Put in Dawkinsian terms, could slavery be seen as an “extended phenotype”—an expression of gene “selfishness?”

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on February 19, 2012 5:35 PM.

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