Top critical review
Academic equivalent of the Oscars - only for Dawkins super fans
on 7 September 2014
Here is a collection of essays in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the publication of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Let’s get the bad news out of the way straight off – such an exercise is almost always a piece of academic self-indulgence, and this particular example is no exception. It has no real point. And to make matters worse, the vast majority of the essays demonstrate extremely well why Dawkins was awarded a chair of public understanding of science – because unlike most academics he can write clearly and engagingly. Most of these essays could do with a serious dose of Dawkins’ delightful prose.
Even the ones that start off well, like John Krebs’ contribution, which gives us a lovely picture of a woman at a dinner party plonkingly announcing “But we don’t believe in science in our family,” soon beds down into obscurity and all the thrill of reading a textbook. Even Michael Shermer, who writes excellently lucid columns for Scientific American, succumbs to the urge to be worthy. Honourable mention should go to Randolph M. Ness, not only for having the best title of the bunch in “Why a lot of people with selfish genes are pretty nice except for their hatred of The Selfish Gene,” but also in producing the most readable of the essays.
What none of the essays explore, sadly, is the fascinating study of the paradox that is Dawkins. Though he writes superbly, arguably there are few scientists less well qualified for a chair of public understanding of science than he is. I have never come across a scientist better at putting ordinary people’s backs up, and making them resistant to the message of science. This all comes across in a magnificent lack of understanding of human characteristics – as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, this was seen most clearly in an interview for a TV programme on the supernatural. Dawkins said that if anyone truly had psi abilities, they would come forward to be experimented on, rather than making money out of their abilities. Okay, Richard. Become a guinea pig (possibly including dissection), or make lots of money. What would your genes vote for? (I know, I know – genes can’t vote, it’s a metaphor, remember).
In the end I find it hard to know what this book is for, apart from a sort of academic equivalent of the back-patting that is the Oscars®. I can’t recommend it to anyone other than a died-in-the-wool Dawkins fan who has to own everything with Dawkins’ name on it. Otherwise, steer well clear.