I almost wonder why I’m bothering to write a response to John Gray’s New Republic review of Richard Dawkins’ An Appetite for Wonder: The Makings of a Scientist. I am a strong opponent of hero-worship, I have not read Dawkins’ autobiography myself, and even without reading it, I can already anticipate many facets of Dawkins’ fairly affluent, colonial upbringing that probably go less examined and deconstructed than would satisfy a modern, more culturally self-reflective audience.
However, for a philosopher, Gray so sorely abuses the rhetoric of his discipline to perpetuate a long-standing attack on Dawkins–and moreover, does so on the back of some truly distorted representations of 19th-century thought–that I feel I would be remiss, as one who studies the non-empirical uses of rhetoric in 19th-century science writing, to keep mum on the review as a whole. This is absolutely not to say that any critique of Dawkins is inherently wrong; I simply wish to see prominent public thinkers use the best possible argumentation when they set about dismissing other claims.
To this end, my issues with Gray’s wholly inappropriate approach (and again, he is a seasoned political philosopher; there is no excuse in ignorance to be found here) begin almost at the outset, when he cites a portion of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976) and then applies a form of psychoanalysis more in keeping with humanities scholarship of the same academic era:
Intelligent life on a planet comes of an age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilisation, is: “Have they discovered evolution yet?” Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin.
Several of the traits that Dawkins displays in his campaign against religion are on show here. There is his equation of superiority with cleverness: the visiting aliens are more advanced creatures than humans because they are smarter and know more than humans do. The theory of evolution by natural selection is treated not as a fallible theory—the best account we have so far of how life emerged and developed—but as an unalterable truth, which has been revealed to a single individual of transcendent genius. There cannot be much doubt that Dawkins sees himself as a Darwin-like figure, propagating the revelation that came to the Victorian naturalist.
First, Gray pathologizes as distinctly Dawkinsian an exceedingly popular argumentative trope (“If aliens came to Earth…”) that always presupposes the observing aliens to be a more intelligent form of life. From here, Gray calls out the myth of individual genius–which is absolutely a dangerous and inaccurate concept, but also one that permeates the great bulk of Western ideology, whereby individuals–of industry, of political office, of activism, of science and technology, of scholarship–are routinely celebrated to the exclusion of the communities and cultures that fostered their growth and contributed to their greatest achievements.
But the reason for treating these conventions as exceptional and bizarre in Dawkins is made clear in that last line: “There cannot be much doubt that Dawkins sees himself as a Darwin-like figure…” Really? Plainly asserting a paucity of doubt does not make it so. The only argument being made here is by the most tenuous of extrapolations: If Dawkins does indeed see Darwin as a “single individual of transcendent genius”, how does it intrinsically follow that by “propagating [Darwin's] revelation” (that is, not creating any new revelation himself) he fashions himself as another Darwin?
To put it another way, billions of people regard Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Buddha, the Dalai Lama, or heck, Ayn Rand or Deepak Chopra as singularly transcendent individuals. Without denying the likelihood that some people who buy into this myth of individual genius might also consider themselves transcendent individuals on par with their idols, there is absolutely nothing intrinsic about this connection. The great majority–as should be expected in a species so dangerously prone to groupthink and obedience to perceived authority–idolize from afar.
Gray goes on to talk about the way Dawkins seems to treat his upbringing in British-occupied Malawi; the comfortable colonialism is, again, not surprising, but the insinuations Gray draws from moments of self-reflection are. To this end, Gray writes on a boarding school incident as follows:
Today, Dawkins is baffled by the fact that he didn’t feel sympathy for the boy. “I don’t recall feeling even secret pity for the victim of the bullying,” he writes. Dawkins’s bafflement at his lack of empathy suggests a deficiency in self-knowledge. As anyone who reads his sermons against religion can attest, his attitude towards believers is one of bullying and contempt reminiscent of the attitude of some of the more obtuse colonial missionaries towards those they aimed to convert.
I am trying to avoid the language of incredulity, but as an honest reviewer of an autobiographical text, what exactly is Gray expecting here–that Dawkins interrupt his chronological narrative to reflect on the possible similarities between his boyhood indifference to the physical abuse inflicted on a small child in front of him, and his articulated opposition to religion, as espoused in spheres of adult debate?
But no–it’s not even that simple, because Gray shifts the goalposts even within his thought: starting with the abused English boy and ending by likening adult-Dawkins to “some of the more obtuse colonial missionaries” by engaging in public debate. Remember that Gray’s indictment here is a “deficiency in self-knowledge”, but the standard for “self-knowledge” he sets here is nothing less than Dawkins moving from the case of this abused little boy to a recanting of his public debates against religion as a kind of bullying emblematic of the entire British colonial system. For someone who extols the importance of nuance and gradation when assessing human behaviours, Gray is highly selective about the behaviours given a pass.
Of course, Gray’s particular biases come to the fore soon enough; an atheist himself, he makes his case for religious value from very selective constructions of faith. In a paragraph acknowledging that Dawkins’ atheism emerged amid a groundswell of the same, Gray writes:
If there is anything remarkable in his adolescent rebellion, it is that he has remained stuck in it. At no point has Dawkins thrown off his Christian inheritance. Instead, emptying the faith he was taught of its transcendental content, he became a neo-Christian evangelist. A more inquiring mind would have noticed at some point that religion comes in a great many varieties, with belief in a creator god figuring in only a few of the world’s faiths and most having no interest in proselytizing. It is only against the background of a certain kind of monotheism that Dawkins’s evangelical atheism makes any sense.
Did you catch that reconstruction of the world’s religious backdrop? “[A] creator god figuring in only a few of the world’s faiths” is a curious way to present the overwhelming religious dominance of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and their pressing, ongoing influence on sociopolitical affairs in the Western world. Moreover, Gray is blatantly dishonest when he writes “A more inquiring mind would have noticed at some point that religion comes in a great many varieties”: the previous paragraph quotes Dawkins as learning from his mother “that Christianity was one of many religions and they contradicted each other. They couldn’t all be right, so why believe the one in which, by sheer accident of birth, I happened to be brought up?” This was the conversation, according to Dawkins, that started him on the road to atheism.
Gray then dissents from Dawkins on the Pauline notion of original sin, and further makes the oft-used, inaccurate claim that Biblical literalism is more the stuff of “[c]oarse and tendentious atheists of the Dawkins variety” than Christian history, citing Augustine’s interrogations of what the words in Genesis might mean to imply that he didn’t, say, believe in a very young Earth. I went into the flaws of this rhetoric in my criticism of the Slate.com article by Michael Robbins, but I will reassert here that allegorical interpretations were absolutely not made exclusive of literal interpretations by early Christian figures–and why would they be? It is no great mark against early Christian figures to say that they operated as well they could with the knowledge they had on hand. Until the concepts of deep time and deep space gained public purchase in the 19th century, it’s only natural that historical accommodation would be made for the events spelled out in Genesis.
On this accord, then, Gray would be well-served in reading contemporaneous reviews on and related cultural responses to both On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) (the latter of which explicitly tethers humankind to evolutionary theory). Gray writes “When he maintains that Darwin’s account of evolution displaced the biblical story, Dawkins is assuming that both are explanatory theories—one primitive and erroneous, the other more advanced and literally true.” Well, yes: Taking into account the extreme hostility of most initial reviews, particularly from Christian sources, and the fact that 11,000 Anglican clergymen signed a declaration in 1860 that the Bible must be taken literally, and the banning of On the Origin of Species in Trinity College, Cambridge, if Dawkins is “assuming that both are explanatory theories”, then he keeps good company with the contemporaneous readers of Darwin who believed the same.
Another point of carelessness regarding 19th-century thought emerges after Gray criticizes Dawkins for not demonstrating a nuanced understanding and evaluation of different philosophies of science: “empiricism”, “irrealism”, and “pragmatism”. In the very next paragraph, Gray introduces “positivism” in the 19th century, as if it were a singular school of thought, and not in actuality a range of philosophical responses to (among other things) Hegelian negativism. When he returns to positivism in a later paragraph, Gray shows just how poorly he understands this discourse when he writes:
More intelligent than their latter-day disciple, the positivists tried to found a new religion of humanity—especially August Comte (1798–1857), who established a secular church in Paris that for a time found converts in many other parts of the world. The new religion was an absurdity, with rituals being practiced that were based on the pseudo-science of phrenology—but at least the positivists understood that atheism cannot banish human needs that only faith can meet.
No. Comte tried to found a new, humanist religion in the latter half of his intellectual career, a fact which drew criticism from other thinkers developing philosophies of science in the positivist vein. While public thinkers like William Whewell, John Stuart Mill, and G. H. Lewes all wrote works negotiating positivist points of view, their negotiations of Comte’s religiosity was secondary to their negotiations of his earlier work, and even then, the ensuing schools of thought differed widely. In the introduction to his Illustrations of Universal Progress (1864), Herbert Spencer articulates this division plainly when he writes:
But it is not true that the holders of this doctrine and followers of this method are disciples of M. Comte. Neither their methods of inquiry nor their views concerning human knowledge in its nature and limits are appreciably different from what they were before. If they are Positivists it is in the sense that all men of science have been more or less consistently Positivists; and the applicability of M. Comte’s title to them no more makes them his disciples than does its applicability to the men who lived and died before M. Comte wrote, make them his disciples.
My own attitude toward M. Comte and his partial adherents has been all along that of antagonism. … I deny his Hierarchy of the Sciences. I regard his division of intellectual progress into three phases, theological, metaphysical, and positive, as superficial. I reject utterly his Religion of Humanity. And his ideal of society I hold in detestation. … The only influence on my own course of thought which I can trace to M. Comte’s writings, is the influence that results from meeting with antagonistic opinions definitely expressed.
I also call attention to this inaccuracy of Gray’s because it exists so blatantly in service of ad hominem argument. Can any other purpose be divined from the construction, “More intelligent than their latter-day disciple, the positivists”, than to suggest that Dawkins is a fool who would do well to be more like his amicable, unified, humbler positivist forefathers?
This idealized version of Victorian discourse emerges elsewhere in Gray’s review, and I for one am I tired of public thinkers deciding that the appropriate “tone” for intellectual debate today should be based on such glosses of our past. For someone who wants Dawkins to be more self-reflective in relation to the influence of British colonialism on modern rhetorical practices, Gray also ignores how discussions about science in the 19th-century were routinely used to reinforce cultural notions of ethnic, geographical, and sex-based superiority: By no means are these the “glory days” of such debate. And then there are more basic issues with his history:
Unlike most of those who debated then, Dawkins knows practically nothing of the philosophy of science, still less about theology or the history of religion. From his point of view, he has no need to know. He can deduce everything he wants to say from first principles. Religion is a type of supernatural belief, which is irrational, and we will all be better off without it: for all its paraphernalia of evolution and memes, this is the sum total of Dawkins’s argument for atheism. His attack on religion has a crudity that would make a militant Victorian unbeliever such as T.H. Huxley—described by his contemporaries as “Darwin’s bulldog” because he was so fierce in his defense of evolution—blush scarlet with embarrassment.
As someone who has read the major attempts to describe a philosophy of science in the 19th century, let me just go right ahead and say that 19th-century thinkers had just as much difficulty articulating and understanding these ideas; a rational system for scientific inquiry was a concept constructed, not present in anything resembling a finished state, throughout the era. The closest construction might be John Stuart Mill’s A System of Logic (1843), which was well-received, but the latter half of the century still had scientists conflating the limits and nature of deductive and inductive thought.
Also, it is patently dishonest to describe T. H. Huxley as a “militant Victorian unbeliever”; Gray’s sentence structure relies on a modern reader directly aligning believer-in-evolution with atheist, but Huxley was adamantly agnostic Deist, counting himself “not among atheists, for the problem of the ultimate cause of existence is one which seems to me to be hopelessly out of reach of my poor powers” and going on to write that, “[o]f all the senseless babble I have ever had occasion to read, the demonstrations of these philosophers who undertake to tell us about the nature of God would be the worst, if they were not surpassed by the still greater absurdities of the philosophers who try to prove that there is no God.”
Surely, though, these quotes mean that, even if Huxley isn’t a “militant … unbeliever” he would still “blush scarlet with embarrassment”–but if Gray wants to condemn Dawkins for adopting what Gray terms a “missionary” speaking style, he can choose no worse counterpoint than Huxley, a self-admitted sermonizer (ribbed often by Spencer for the same “clerical affinities”), who makes a fond anecdote in “Autobiography” of “preaching to my mother’s maids in the kitchen as nearly as possible in Sir Herbert’s manner one Sunday morning when the rest of [his] family were at church.”
Ultimately, Gray returns to his opening gambit–drawing the most tenuous of connections between Dawkins’ text and Gray’s own store of opinions on the man. Responding to Dawkins’ lament that Darwin never attained the rank of “Sir”, and what this implies about the British honours system, Gray writes, “It is hard to resist the thought that the public recognition that in Britain is conferred by a knighthood is Dawkins’s secret dream.”
Is it hard to resist, though? Or do sentences like these, with all they advance in the way of poor argumentation by a public thinker who makes a point of upbraiding others for their lack of philosophical rigour, say far more about John Gray than Richard Dawkins–and even, more critically, than the work of autobiography ostensibly up for review?