Sometimes you can become too well known. For years Richard Dawkins was a more than averagely successful media don, an evolutionary biologist, fellow of New College, writer of popular science books and tousle-haired face of rationalism on countless television shows. It was a good living, and kept us all entertained, but for Dawkins it wasn’t enough. So he wrote The God Delusion, an unambiguous attack on religion and the religious. I should probably say at this stage that I am not a believer, but it does seem to me that if people want to believe in a god or gods, that’s very much up to them. In his stridency, Dawkins inadvertently aligned himself with the fundamentalists he hates so much: he became identified as a sort of fundamentalist atheist. Many people, it turned out, felt as he did: 1.5 million of them have bought the book in English, and it has been translated into 30 languages. In this country, though, I suspect that his reputation was harmed by the escapade. We aren’t keen here on such fervent demonstrations of certainty. And we may not be entirely convinced that a scientist’s rigour is the best tool to use against religion, which after all is irrational, and proud of it.
Still, it was the controversy over The God Delusion that led him back to home territory for this book, a restatement and explanation of evolutionary theory from first principles, to counter the bizarre and growing influence of creationism. ‘I shall be using the name “history deniers” for those people who deny evolution,’ he writes in a typically pugnacious introduction,
who believe the world’s age is measured in thousands of years rather than thousands of millions of years, and who believe humans walked with dinosaurs . . . They constitute more than 40 per cent of the American population.
After reading Steve Jones’s Almost Like a Whale a few years ago, I was amazed how many supposedly intelligent people I met who would happily admit in public that they were ‘not convinced’ by evolution. Usually this meant that they knew absolutely nothing about it at all, but the arts graduate’s customary fear of science can make such an admission socially acceptable, when it’s actually a little like standing in the middle of a room wearing a dunce’s hat. ‘Evolution is a fact,’ says Dawkins, ‘and this book will demonstrate it. No reputable scientist disputes it, and no unbiased reader will close the book doubting it.’ His tone may set your teeth on edge, but what he says needs to be said. As his thesis unfolds, you remember that it’s not always the nicest people who make the most effective advocates.
I have to admit, I had forgotten just how good a popular science writer Richard Dawkins is. He is driven by a fierce didactic impulse, an overwhelming need to inform and explain, as well as by massive, ungovernable rage. On the page he is the teacher we all wish we’d had, taking infinite care to make sure he is understood. So to explain dating procedures, he explains radioactive clocks, which means he has to explain the idea of the isotope, which takes us back to the basics of atomic theory, ‘which I think everybody accepts, even creationists’.
His purpose in this chapter is
to show the magnificent detail that physicists have achieved in working out such things. Such detail casts a sardonic light on the desperate attempts of creationists to explain away the evidence of radioactive dating, and keep the earth young like Peter Pan.
Attaboy! Here his customary rigour is used to close off every loophole, to demonstrate the watertightness of the evolutionary argument, to lay bare the breathtaking intellectual dishonesty of creationism.
In fact, there is only one problem with The Greatest Show on Earth, and that’s Dawkins himself. His enemies, the creationists, will obviously pay no attention. But his reputation as an anti-religious polemicist may also deter the uncommitted. This would be a shame, although I’m not sure Dawkins could give a monkey’s. In a footnote he quotes Peter Medawar’s assertion that
the spread of secondary and latterly of tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought.
‘Isn’t that priceless?’ says Dawkins. ‘It is the kind of writing that makes me want to rush out into the street to share with somebody — anybody — because it is too good to keep to oneself.’ Which, as you’ll have noticed, is rather the way I feel about this splendid, passionate and necessary book.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 17, 2009Tags: Evolution, Non-fiction, Richard Dawkins, Science