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New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Dawkins and Saul: Dudebros Under the Skin

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” – Audre Lorde

Meet the new boss-prophets, same as the old boss-prophets

I’ve been an atheist ever since I could reason and a scientist (in outlook, even before I acquired the necessary tools to practice it) ever since I read Jules Verne at the impressionable age of five. Whether atheists and scientists are mud-bound clods incapable of epiphanies and a sense of awe is not my focus here; I cover that in The Double Helix. Because these two streams had a major role in shaping me, it will come as no surprise that I’ve been tracking Richard Dawkins ever since The Selfish Gene crossed my radar. Given other formative influences, it may also come as no surprise that I wrote him off as a serious thinker in either domain a long time before his knuckle-dragger clunkings on social media. I hold the same view of Dennett, Harris and Hitchens for overlapping reasons.

People have expressed surprise that Dawkins’ PR-unscrubbed utterances are as primitive and juvenile as those from Duck Dynasty, especially his EvoPsycho101 sexism and white-man’s-burden pronouncements that cannot be justified by the standard dodge of “he’s a product of his context” (male, white, Anglo, upperclass, tenured, rich, lionized). However, if you read Dawkins carefully, it’s perfectly congruent that he sounds like Saul-turned-Paul in his injunctions to women and other second-class humans to be obedient and silent: a powerful streak of patriarchal authority worship colors not just his stances but also his science, with its relentless banging on the natural dominance of ruthless alleles. It’s equally congruent that his empathy-devoid “logic” sounds like Spock at his most pompous ill-informed reductionism – because, judging from his cumulative opus, that’s how Dawkins thinks across all departments.

Supporters of Dawkins will point out that he was an articulate spokesperson for evolution and against creationism and pseudoscience before he became a full-time nurturer of his own celebrity. Yet all scientists worthy of the title have borne witness for bona fide science to the best of their abilities, most with far less fanfare and job security – and far lower fees. Before discussing the atheism part, I want to take a detour into science. As a molecular biologist who worked for more than three decades on brain gene regulation, I’ve encountered few concepts as harmful as Dawkins’ selfish gene. I’ve dubbed it I-got-mine-bitches biology and it wreaks at least two major damages, one proximal, one distal.

The proximal damage is that the concept is simply inaccurate: genes and gene products never work in isolation but as coordinated ensembles. So do organisms and ecosystems, though the strong (conscious) Gaia hypothesis is definitely wrong. A broken wheel (allele, gene) can disable a car (cell, organism) but it cannot make it function on its lonesome: cars are not a collection of wheels bent on having the shiniest possible rims (“selfish”). The name for unchecked-growth cells is cancer; too-virulent viruses and too-greedy predators become extinct if they obliterate their hosts and prey, respectively; and rape is neither hard-wired nor evolutionarily adaptive. Also, no matter at what level(s) evolution makes its selection, the process is context-sensitive. There is no optimized allele, cell, genome, organism, species or ecosystem that’s independent of time and place. “Harmful” alleles persist because they confer desirable resistances, usually to heterozygotes (sickle hemoglobin is the poster child for this) and even temporarily neutral alleles within populations allow organisms to be responsive to future changes.

On top of the factual inaccuracy, Dawkins’ view reeks of teleological anthropomorphizing: he presents genes as god-like overlords jerking will-less “meat cages” around and he approvingly notes the brutality of nature in weeding out imperfections and weaklings. However, as I discussed in Miranda Wrongs, genes do not dictate higher order behavior which is an complex if knowable emergent phenomenon. Also, nature is indifferent to human desires and convenience – or those of any lifeform, for that matter. So contra Dawkins, the universe doesn’t lurk awaiting its chance to pounce on hapless non-alphas, nor does it have an insecure ego that derives pleasure and validation from disasters.

tantrumThe distal damage is that Dawkins’ selfish gene concept has been adopted wholesale and then shoehorned into every conceivable niche by all regressive groups that like to label themselves progressive and/or “edgy”: libertarians, transhumanists, evopsychos, MRAs, one-percenters, “creatively disruptive” MBAs, grittygrotty SFF writers. The core characteristic of these groups, protestations of visionary thinking notwithstanding, is that they’re actually obsessed with auto-perks for the “worthy” and with perfectibility narratives beloved by fundamentalist clerics.

Which brings us to atheism. I was raised in a culture where orthodox christianity was imposed not just by custom but also by law. My experiences and subsequent investigations stripped all illusion of whether any organized religion is benign, an illusion often nursed by those who embrace religions eclectically and/or by choice. I do recognize that religion can be a major part of someone’s cultural identity – it was part of mine, even as I figured out its corrosive toxicity. [Meta note: This is not a 101 debate; attempts to argue that some religions are good for women/non-defaults, that you cannot have morality without fear of punishment, that religion inspired amazing art or humane politics or that many current religious leaders are “progressive” will be met with the summary ejection they deserve.  The same treatment, incidentally, will be meted out to anyone who tries to tell me that my unsophisticated brain does not grasp the subtle rigors (if only!) of Dawkins’ theories.]

My atheism is that of Camus and any temptation (or likelihood) of me becoming a prophet is additionally precluded by my attributes, both innate and chosen. The atheism promoted by Dawkins is a counter-reformation cum younger-son rebellion: he and those like him don’t really want to bring a fundamental shift in society. They simply would like to establish or maintain an alternative authority pyramid with themselves at the apex, with all the entitlements of such a configuration. It is no coincidence that the views of Dawkins and the other so-called “horsemen” seamlessly align with the classic hierarchical dualisms (female/sentiment/instinct/nurture vs male/logic/science/conquest) that have wrought such havoc on our species and our planet. Nor is it a coincidence that when crossed, Dawkins drops the enlightened façade to reveal the raw nastiness underneath, which includes the annihilation of “apostates” routinely practiced by cult leaders.

self-promotionWhat Dawkins advocates is essentially a variant of authoritarian patriarchy, with its rigid rankings and selective privileges. He may have been a promising scientist once. However, his own agendas and unquestioned assumptions (which he keeps trying to pass as objective universals) combined with the expectation for sycophancy brought by his aggrandizement have repercussions beyond basic science. Elevation of people like Dawkins has led to such outcomes as the uniform expanse of white male faces at the 100 Year Starship Symposium. We aren’t going to build or board starships or even take care of our planet if we award the mantle of thought leader to blinkered, petty self-promoters like Dawkins.

Related articles:

Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape
A Plague on Both Your Houses – Reprise
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
If They Come, It Might Get Built
That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle
The Charlatan-Haunted World
So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?
The Misogyny We Inhale with Each Breath

Images: 1st, “The Four Horsemen of Atheism” (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett); 2nd, “Tantrum” bronze sculpture: Gustav Vigeland; 3rd, Self-Promotion (creator unknown)

25 Responses to “Dawkins and Saul: Dudebros Under the Skin”

  1. stevenjohnson says:

    Loathing evolutionary psychology and other forms of New Social Darwinism and placing a lot of blame on the selfish gene selectionism touted by Dawkins, I’ve got to say, AMEN!

    And I’d like to add Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea to the pile of books to be despised. Even if one agrees with Dennett’s attacks on Stephen Jay Gould and Noam Chomsky, how can anyone not be warned off by warm words for Herbert Spencer.

    Given his apparent appetites for a clash of civilizations though I imagine that Dawkins feels pretty powerless to achieve his wishes most of the time. Which come to think of it, is a cheering thought. Thank you!

  2. Athena says:

    Dennett is frankly a joke. He once gave a talk to my institution and we had to hear him “explain” to a solid audience of molecular neurobiologists how genes act like alpha baboons.

    I’m not enamored of Gould’s NOMA concept, either. But he was several cuts above the shrill quartet enthroned as “atheist thought leaders”.

  3. eilidh says:

    I wonder whether the irony is lost on Dawkins and others like him with their celebrity status and the cult building around them: most people who grow to be atheists do it largely because they want to get away from such cults.

    Also, thanks for pointing out the bad science!

  4. Athena says:

    Like most self-involved entitled people, Dawkins seems to have zero sense of the absurdities and incongruities of his stances.

  5. Susan says:

    Did you see when he went off on one when they confiscated his honey in the airport? Now *that* was funny. “Osama bin Laden has won, those dundridges have taken away my honey!!” Silly man.

  6. Athena says:

    I did see that and still laugh whenever I remember it. It falls into the category of “The world is my furniture and the furniture dared to move!!” If he had to put up with the harassment I had to face each time I crossed the US border before I got citizenship, then maybe he could whine.

  7. Galmin says:

    Dawkins is yet another carrier of the white imperialist Englishman mindset that fights superstitious brown people and other foes.

    Also, you can put Steven Pinker on the list. He’s been opposed by historians (Great Man Theory for the Holocaust, and other cases of sloppy historical work), anthropologists, and who knows who else.

  8. Athena says:

    Very much so.

  9. Asakiyume says:

    I so much enjoy your essays–always incisive. Your point about wanting to keep the repressive pyramid, but with himself and his cronies at the top, is what I’ve always thought. That, and that he gained popularity for being the science equivalent of a loudmouthed shock jock, and people find that entertaining, apparently.

  10. Athena says:

    I think the shock jock aspect was/is definitely part of the thrill for him: he’s a navel-watching attention-seeking narcissist. I detected the haut-en-bas stance early, being allergic to it, but when he was less lionized he still retained some self-restraint. The last vestige fell away with his “Dear Muslima” letter to Rebecca Watson.

  11. Walden2 says:

    You may find this article interesting – and very frightening, if not shocking:

  12. Athena says:

    I read it when it appeared but it was not shocking to me, because I already knew everything reported in it. This raw sewage has been bubbling in the atheism community for a long time.

  13. Athena says:

    Of course not, but people adore their messiah-wannabes (as long as they’re the right demographic). And, unfortunately, Dawkins has become the face most people associate with contemporary atheism.

  14. Galmin says:

    It’s embarrassingly obvious that Dawkins’ tirades are the outbursts of someone in a desperate hurry to perpetuate an ideological legacy he rightly views to be in its decline. He fears the loss of the only kind of immortality he believes in, and since his “Selfish Gene” story isn’t as accepted in the scientific community as his supporters pretend and he wishes, he’s going to be the biggest attention whore he can be.

  15. Athena says:

    I don’t see why he thinks he needs more attention – he already has plenty. Only sociopaths act this way.

  16. Anthony K says:

    I know one of my early biology texts had a blurb by Dawkins about the selfish gene. It was my earliest encounter with him. I wish I could remember exactly what he’d said, but I remember getting pissed off over it. It was something like, “Everyone misunderstands me; I still believe selfish genes are our nature, but we have to rise above our natures”, which struck me as just silly. I was perplexed by all the atheists who lauded his writing and praised him as a communicator. “You mean the guy who’s been complaining for my entire life [I was born the year before TSG] how he was misunderstood?”

    And his indignation over ever being questioned or criticized over anything he tweets is just pathetic. “Always challenge orthodoxy! But…not when it’s me!”

  17. Athena says:

    “The default setting of humans is to be nasty rapists because selfish genes and I’m brave/edgy enough to say so!!” is an integral part of Dawkins’ spiel.

  18. Anthony K says:

    “The default setting of humans is to be nasty rapists because selfish genes and I’m brave/edgy enough to say so!!” is an integral part of Dawkins’ spiel.

    I’m surprised he hasn’t been sued by every first-year poli-sci student ever for stealing their schtick.

  19. Walden2 says:

    Shockingly, male nerds of the computer industry still don’t get it, either:

    Schools teach only half the things they should teach people.

  20. Athena says:

    I read that article. It was depressing to see the panelists piously recycling mouldy clichés.

  21. Walden2 says:

    What I do not quite understand is, since it was clearly a big production, that no one even seems to have suggested to them that this might not be a good idea. Or at least rethink some of the paradigms.

    The fact that so many males in the technical and science fields are still about as sophisticated as the cast of The Big Bang Theory irritates me to no end. Then they wonder why we don’t have colonies on the Moon and Mars.

  22. Athena says:

    “Then they wonder why we don’t have colonies on the Moon and Mars.”

    Exactly. And the point that I made in my commentary of the 100 Year Starship symposium.

  23. Walden2 says:

    Just found this, a piece in Physics Today about an article from 1948 regarding the need and importance for more women in professional physics:

    Not perfect but certainly ahead of its time.

  24. Walden2 says:

    Well, here is some hope – Dava Newman may become the Deputy Administrator of NASA:

    Quoting from the article:

    “Dava is an Aeronautics and Engineering Professor at MIT. She is currently working with NASA to develop a new, more efficient spacesuit for future space exploration.”