Thursday, 5 August 2010

Richard Dawkins' Books: A Holistic* Review

* "Holistic" is used as a sort of in-joke with myself.

I have a love/hate with Richard Dawkins' books. The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker are beautiful, wonderful fantastic books. While they don't make for easy reading, this because they don't contain easy ideas. Most importantly, they play to Dawkins' strength: evolutionary biology.

In The Selfish Gene Dawkins, bit by bit, builds up an argument that - given an imperfect and competitive reproducer - evolution by natural selection is not something likely to happen, but an inevitable consequence. Anyone presented with the case that not every member of a species reproduces (obvious) and that offspring are not clones of their parents (similarly obvious) is led to the inescapable conclusion that evolution is a fact. The book is well written enough to sustain interest, and in depth enough to flatter the reader. Anyone who can read should read this book.

The Blind Watchmaker pulls a similar trick. The focus of the argument is more on emergent complexity out of apparent simplicity, and is where Dawkins starts to lose the plot in his writing - fortunately after this book. It is in this book that he starts showing interest in theology, and the introduction suggests that the book was motivated by theological arguments. In this book he does a remarkable job of he unenviable task of making the arguments clear. He comes out with some beautiful demonstrations of complexity arising from simple rules. This book is another must read.

Sadly, Dawkins is a poor theologian, and I find his more religion-focussed books poor.

In the first instance, I'll look at Unweaving The Rainbow. This book is an attempt to demonstrate the natural beauty in the world around us from a purely secular viewpoint. Sadly he has a poor crack at it. Maybe his impression is different from mine, but I'll give you an example. Chapter 3 is "Barcodes in the Stars", where he points to the heavens to look at the beauty in rainbows, and at spectra - the spectra of stars are where we discover pretty much everything about them. When you look at the spectum of a star, it looks like a rainbow with lines cut out of it. I find the process by which we analyse these lines, and deduce or induce colossal amounts of information from this to be wonderful, fantastic and brilliant. The resemblance of a stellar spectrum with a barcode is entirely secondary. And yet Dawkins uses this analogy, referring to the stars barcode.

In a book about beauty in nature this feels wrong. Forgive the laconic attitude here, but when was the last time you looked at a barcode and thought it should be on the wall in the Tate Modern? (Actually, scrap that, the Tate Modern will take pretty much anything.) Dawkins here disappoints. He has missed the point in trying to explain that things in nature aren't the most beautiful thing about it - although there are some beautiful things in nature - but processes.

Finally, and you knew it was coming, The God Delusion. As an atheist, I find this book to be a horrible parody of everything I'm supposed to stand for. I don't hate religion or the religious, I don't find religion offensive, moralising or dangerous. Dawkins veers between plain wrong, to callously offensive. He tells us, for instance, that the trouble in Northern Ireland, Isreal, and terrorism are all caused by religion in one way or another. Rubbish. While the media may have deceptively labelled the two sides in Northern Ireland "Catholics" and "Protestants", the conflicts have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with owns that piece of land. The troubles in Isreal have nothing to do with Jews and Muslims and everything to do with the native people being turfed from their land so some Western countries can artificially meddle with them, and terrorism is more related to American oil interests then religion. While some involved in these cases may use religion as an excuse, in a secular world these things would still be happening, but with different reasons cited.

While Dawkins is right that religious extremists are worrying, all extremists - religious or not - are worrying.

That isn't even the worst part of the book.

The worst part is the way Dawkins argues his case.

He says the book is for everyone. It is not. Only those who believe in his ideas will see the book through to the end. He doesn't argue against certain points sometimes, so much as just ridicule them and I fail to see how Dawkins could have thought anyone would be convinced.

Take the ontological argument, for example. The argument runs, approximately, as follows:
1. If I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable, then I can think of no being greater
1a. If it is false that I can think of no being greater, it is false I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable
2. Being is greater than not being
3. If the being I am thinking of does not exist, then it is false that I can think of no being greater.
4. If the being I am thinking of does not exist, then it is false that I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable
Conclusion: If I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable, then I am thinking of a being that exists

(From Wikipedia)

Now, you may be looking at that thinking "that doesn't quite work..." (and you'd be right) even if you can't put your finger on it. Those who use this argument like to challenge you to point out where the logical flaw is, and it isn't simple to put your finger on it. So, how does Dawkins refute this argument that, while clearly flawed, isn't obviously disprovable?

He suggests the proof is self evident, and mocks it by presenting it as an argument between a pair of children. I did not make that up.

Of course, if you know the ontological argument is rubbish, you may find this wildly hilarious (though I doubt it) but if you know God exists because of this argument you will just close the book and give it away thinking "what an idiot!"

How should Dawkins have argued the case? By breaking it down into logical steps, as follows:
1. DEFINE: A perfect being HAS THE PROPERTY OF existance.
2. DEFINE: God IS a perfect being.

This is a tautology. The ontological argument defines God to exist, and cannot be used to argue that God does exist. THIS is what Dawkins should have written. This how he should of argued. This is how I know he can argue.

I recently bought a copy of "The Greatest Show On Earth", but haven't read it yet. I pray to the Flying Spaghetti Monster that it is a step backwards.


  1. Regarding the wikipedian argument:
    Ignoring the fact that "great" is not defined, and taking it to mean "super special awesome", I take issue with number 2:

    2. Being is greater than not being

    This isn't inherently obvious, but it's the assumption upon which the entire argument rests. You could reverse it without it being any less true or meaningful.

    Similarly, "perfect" is undefined in your rephrasing of the argument, and 1. is not inherently obvious.

    I haven't read anything by Dawkins, although I'm starting to feel that I should (or at least his early work). Then again, it seems that to miss being able to judge The God Delusion myself would be a travesty.

  2. If you are who I think you are, I'd be happy to lend you the books next time I see you.