In a recent BBC radio interview, Richard Dawkins questioned the religiosity of Brits who consider themselves Christians but can’t name the first book of the New Testament. He was challenged to recall the full title of Darwin’s Origin of Species and failed, even uttering “Oh, God!” as he ransacked his memory.
Does this mean that Dawkins fails to qualify as an evolutionist? Of course not. But Dawkins might fail to qualify for other reasons. Before getting to Dawkins, let’s think about how anyone qualifies as an evolutionist, which entails also functioning as a scientist. It’s not a matter of one’s training and certainly not a matter of remembering titles. It’s not a property of a person at all, but rather how a person goes about studying a particular subject. A person can easily qualify as an evolutionist on topic X but not topic Y. On this basis, I will state the bold hypothesis that Dawkins fails to qualify as an evolutionist on two topics for which he is well known: religion and selfish genes in relation to group selection. Here is some of the evidence.
Dawkins on religion: Two questions about religion concern: 1) the evidence for supernatural agents that actively intervene in physical processes and the affairs of people; and 2) the nature of religion as a human construction and its effects on human welfare. The concept of an actively intervening agent is a testable hypothesis that has been rejected again and again, starting long before Darwin. The Anglican priest William Whewell acknowledged as much in 1833, in a passage that Darwin quoted on the frontispiece of the Origin of Species. “But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this-we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.” Today, virtually all scientists and scholars avoid interventionist explanations for the topics that they study, regardless of their personal religious beliefs, a position called methodological naturalism. Dawkins is on firm scientific ground when he rejects the intervening agent hypothesis, for anyone who still needs to be told.
How Dawkins addresses the second question is another matter. In my review of The God Delusion published in Skeptic magazine, I criticized him at length for misrepresenting the nature of religion and ignoring the burgeoning literature on religion as a human construction from an evolutionary perspective. In his reply, Dawkins said that he didn’t need to base his critique on evolution any more than Assyrian woodwind instruments or the burrowing behavior of aardvarks, because he was only addressing question one and not question two. That’s bogus. Dawkins holds forth on question two all the time, and when he does he’s not functioning as an evolutionist–by his own account. Atheists can depart from factual reality in their own way, and so it is for Dawkins on the subject of religion as a human construction.
Dawkins on selfish genes in relation to group selection: Dawkins first achieved fame for his book The Selfish Gene (1976), which portrays genes as “replicators” that typically survive by forming individual-level “vehicles” but can also survive in other ways, such as at the expense of other genes within the same individual or by benefitting copies of themselves in other individuals. A major objective of The Selfish Gene was to argue against a theory known as group selection, whereby traits such as altruism evolve “for the good of the group”, despite being selectively disadvantageous within groups. Dawkins and others at the time regarded the replicator concept as a drop-dead argument against group selection, but it soon proved to be nothing of the sort. In a genetic group selection model, the altruistic trait has a genetic basis, just like any other trait; the genes merely require a process of between-group selection to evolve when they are selectively neutral or disadvantageous within groups. When this happens, the genes for the altruistic trait are more fit than the genes for the selfish trait, all things considered, and therefore quality as selfish at the genetic level, as Dawkins defines selfish genes. Put another way, an argument against group selection framed in terms of selfish gene theory doesn’t depend upon the status of genes as replicators (which is always the case) but upon whether groups can qualify as vehicles of selection.
This is ancient history for just about everyone except Dawkins. He’s still claiming that the replicator concept counts as an argument against group selection, as if he can do so merely by decree. See these three posts on my Evolution for Everyone blog (I,II,III) for more.
This reveals another reason why Dawkins is not functioning as an evolutionist or a scientist on these subjects. Science is not just about how an individual goes about studying something; it is a social process. Individuals are expected to be as objective as possible, but it’s only human nature to become wedded to one’s own hypothesis. That’s why a peer review process is required for scientists to hold each other accountable. Yet, few evolutionists are willing to hold Dawkins accountable for what he says about religion or group selection on the public stage, even when his utterances would never survive the peer review process. Dawkins is not an evolutionist in part because no one is keeping him within bounds.
One objective of THIS VIEW OF LIFE is to set a new standard for science journalism that brings it closer to the standard of the scientific peer review process. The RELIGION section will report the burgeoning literature on religion as a human construction and its impacts upon human welfare from an evolutionary perspective. Multilevel selection will make its appearance in numerous sections, since it is fundamental to the evolution of all social processes in humans and nonhuman species. A person doesn’t qualify as an evolutionist on subject X just because they have their PhD in evolution and earned a distinguished reputation by studying subject Y, or even subject X for that matter. It depends upon what they are saying about subject X now and on how accountable they are being held by their scientific peers. That goes for everyone—including Richard Dawkins.