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Darwin's Angel gives Dawkins a pasting?
on 16 September 2007
I approached this book with some glee; it has generally had good reviews and I had high hopes of it. There have been several previous books, attempting serious criticisms of Richard Dawkins's highly popular (currently 51 weeks on the US `Bestseller list') The God Delusion. These earlier books disappointed me; they either failed to rebut Dawkins, they misrepresented him or, it appeared, their authors had not read TGD. So, how does Cornwell's Darwin's Angel compare? Unlike other writers, Cornwell has clearly read TGD; but to what effect? I had some surprises. The seraph writes:
Two natural philosophers, Diderot and d'Holbach, invoked atheism in reaction to theology's continued sway over physics, mathematics and medicine. These philosophers... were convinced that the autonomy of the sciences must be achieved by denying the existence of God. (DA, p. 158)
This misrepresents the French Enlightenment. The philosophes railed against the Church (not `theology') for its stifling of rational inquiry and it's cruel, authoritarian nature. In writing the Encyclopedie, the attempt to record the sum of human knowledge at the time, the philosophes did not `deny the existence of God' to achieve the autonomy of science; some may have concluded `there is no God' but others, perhaps the majority, were actually Deists and believed in a non-interventionist, non-personal God. And the Encyclopedie was about far more than science.
You may not see this as important and think that such differences do not matter. But they do. It is an example of how Cornwell twists things. Virtually the whole of Chapter 10 is a mis-representation of Dawkins's writing about Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.
Then there is Chapter 4, the `Beauty' argument. Here, the seraph again wilfully misunderstands Dawkins's position but, as for Chapter 10, you would have to read TGD yourself to understand. Here's just a snippet, where you can see that Cornwell doesn't give the whole picture:
It seems perfectly understandable, doesn't it, that an artist should be moved by a religious story without necessarily adhering to orthodox beliefs. Could anyone doubt that...the music of Mozart's Requiem was influenced by the liturgy of the Mass of the Dead? (DA, p. 18)
Well, you also have to understand patronage. Forget Amadeus here. Because Mozart - an Enlightenment figure par excellence - was hard up at the time, he was probably more influenced by the promise of a large fee from Count Walsegg-Stuppach who commissioned the work.
Finally, here's some more and obvious mis-attribution. Dawkins writes of the Amish, parodying and ridiculing an implied legal opinion thus:
... you quaint little people with your bonnets and breeches, your horse buggies, your archaic dialect and your earth-closet privies, you enrich our lives. Of course you must be allowed to trap your children with you in your seventeenth-century time warp, otherwise something irretrievable would be lost to us: a part of the wonderful diversity of human culture. (TGD, p.331; DA, p.107)
Cornwell's seraph put these words into Dawkins's mouth when it is perfectly clear from the text that Dawkins is attributing that naïve view to the US Supreme Court that decided that children from the Amish community need not have a proper education.
The seraph, with extraordinary effrontery, then holds up the Amish as paragons of resource conservation. In this respect, the Amish and the Unabomber (remember him?) have a lot in common. His manifesto begins: `The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.' If one really wants to preserve the Amish lifestyle, why not consign it to the Epcot Centre in Disneyworld? There is a museum, `Blists Hill Victorian Town', at Ironbridge in Shropshire UK, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. Costumed people greet visitors and point out primitive aspects of their ancestors' lives. But they take off their costumes and return to a proper life in the evenings. The Amish children do not have this choice.
In his preface, Cornwell is explicit that he intends `...not so much to pick a fight...as to offer a few `grace notes'...and...glosses in the interests of sharper logic, closer insight, and factual accuracy' (DA p. 18). Well, phooey! If logic equals caprice, insight equals obfuscation and factual accuracy equals willful misrepresentation, then he's on target. His seraph is facile, ethereal and dishonest. If you read Darwin's Angel, you will find a travesty of Dawkins's views and, if you accept Cornwell's misrepresentations, you will find yourself very badly informed by his perversions. Dawkins is vulnerable in several areas: the supposed evolutionary value of religion, the nature of `evidence', and the diverse nature of faith, for example. He draws no distinction between `reasonable faith' and `blind faith' and his reasoning for conflating them, particularly in relation to terrorism, is incomplete. If you want to be able to refute Dawkins's arguments, you would be wiser to buy The God Delusion instead and make your own judgements.