Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think

Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We ThinkRichard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think
edited by Alan Grafen and Mark Ridley
Oxford University Press,  ISBN 0-19-929116-0

This sparkling collection of essays is published to mark the 30th anniversary of Dawkins’ first, and most famous book, The Selfish Gene. The 25 contributions are parcelled into sections entitled, Biology, The Selfish Gene, Logic, Antiphonal Voices, Humans, Controversy, and Writing. Daniel Dennett lauds that book as a philosophical essay, and Seth Bullock explains the invention of algorithmic biology, showing the broader intellectual significance of Dawkins’ work. Sceptics will be well aware of his outstanding efforts on behalf of rationalism, and Michael Shermer praises his contribution, along with A. C. Grayling, writing of “the virus of faith”.

Unappetizingly sandwiched between their texts, however, is an essay called A Fellow Humanist by Richard Harries, who turns out to be the Bishop of Oxford, but suspiciously resembles the Reverend J. C. Flannel of Private Eye fame, deploring creationism while clinging to “the divine rationality and ordering of all things”, not quite getting how deadly Universal Darwinism is for cosmic purposive design.

Robert Aunger wonders What’s the Matter with Memes?, and psychologist David Barash makes an unexpected connection with Albert Camus: “the greatest triumphs of human existence arise from human beings struggling to make sense of what is, biologically, a purposeless world”. Consonant, at least, with this overture to existentialism, is Dennett’s reminder that, “one of the central lessons of Darwinian thinking is that essentialism must be abandoned”.

From a literary angle, Philip Pullman celebrates Dawkins as “a storyteller whose tale is true”, and Matt Ridley relates that “an unexpected effect of the success of The Selfish Gene was to revive the central role of the book as a scientific art form”.

For philosopher Helena Cronin, that book and its brilliant successor, The Extended Phenotype, “taught me how, holding steadily to a gene-centred view, I could find the way through muddle.” She aptly likens this gene’s-eye view to “Einstein’s imagined ride on a beam of light”, as “an invitation to journey into unreachable worlds for a clearer understanding of reality”.

Overall, this is an illuminating, even encouraging, guide to the invaluable work of a champion skeptic.

Paul Taylor