Friday, 20 September 2013

Living on the Edge - The Real Richard Dawkins

The New Atheists are often guilty of the same intellectual crimes carried out by the special creationists they rightly condemn - making sweeping statements in areas about which they are abysmally informed. When you hear a biologist or cosmologist blithely dismissing the historicity of the Bible or alleging that Jesus of Nazareth never existed, odds are they have no idea what they're taking about, and can be safely ignored. From the forthcoming Living on the Edge book:

The Real Richard Dawkins

Whilst Dawkins is a well respected and highly qualified biologist, and a genuine expert in his particular field, his status in the broader scientific community should not be exaggerated; he is not a ‘genius’, nor is he considered particularly influential in the scientific community. In a 40 year career, he has published on average less than one academic paper per year; of these papers, only eight (out of 35), appear in the highest ranking journals ('Nature', 'Science', and the 'Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B, Biological Sciences').

He is not found at all in ISI Highly Cited (an index of the most influential scholars in science).[1] His books are all popular works, none of them academic publications except for ‘The Oxford Book of Modern Science writing’ in 2008. However, even in this case he only served as editor; he did not contribute any articles.

He has made two attempts at original contribution to the discipline of evolutionary studies; an evolutionary explanation for religion, and a theory of memes (memetics). Both have been widely criticized by his scientific peers, and the latter is now considered a dead theory.

His evolutionary explanation for religion has been attacked by other evolutionary scientists, who have objected to his lack of original work on the subject,[2] ‘fundamentalist rhetoric’ devoid of scientific evidence,[3] failure to address the current professional literature,[4] [5] factual inaccuracy,[6] and personal ranting.[7]

Dawkins’ theory of memes was promoted (by himself), as a new insight into evolutionary theory and its application to cultural and society. In reality, it was first proposed in 1904,[8] revisited by anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn in the 1940s, and examined in detail by Gerard, Kluchohn, and Rapoport in the 1950s (‘Biological and Cultural Evolution: Some Analogies and Explorations’, 1956). This view had already been abandoned by the time Dawkins started writing about it. Dawkins has acknowledged he was not aware of the previous work on the subject when he started writing.

Dawkins’ own meme theory has been criticized profoundly by professional philosophers such as David Stove[9] and Michael Ruse (a strong opponent of Creationism and ‘Intelligent Design’, and one of the prosecution witnesses in McLean v.  Arkansas).[10] Memetics has been rejected overwhelmingly by the scientific community also. In 2005 the ‘Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission’, established specifically to examine and develop the discipline of memetics, was abandoned ‘due to a lack of quality submissions’.[11]

The theory had failed the test of academic scrutiny and professional peer review;[12] [13] it was ‘a short-lived fad whose effect has been to obscure more than it has been to enlighten’.[14] In 2010 one of the previously foremost upholders of Dawkins' application of memetics to religion, renounced the view and her own writings on the subject.[15] Attempts to revive the theory have been resisted in the professional literature.[16]

A recurring criticism by his peers is that Dawkins never did the real scientific work necessary to establish the facts before proposing his theory.[17]

[1] Highly Cited Research (Thomson Reuters);

[2] ‘When Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published I naturally assumed that he was basing his critique of religion on the scientific study of religion from an evolutionary perspective. I regret to report otherwise. He has not done any original work on the subject and he has not fairly represented the work of his colleagues.’, Wilson, ‘Beyond Demonic Memes: Why Richard Dawkins is Wrong About Religion’, eSkeptic, Wednesday July 4 (2007).

[3] ‘Here is how Dawkins recounts the period in his 1982 book The Extended Phenotype: “The intervening years since Darwin have seen an astonishing retreat from his individual-centered stand, a lapse into sloppily unconscious group-selectionism … We painfully struggled back, harassed by sniping from a Jesuitically sophisticated and dedicated neo-group-selectionist rearguard, until we finally regained Darwin’s ground, the position that I am characterizing by the label ‘the selfish organism…” This passage has all the earmarks of fundamentalist rhetoric, including appropriating the deity (Darwin) for one’s own cause.’, ibid..

[4] ‘Only more scientific legwork can resolve these issues, but one thing is sure: Dawkins’ armchair speculation about the guilt-inducing effects of religion doesn’t even get him to first base.’, ibid..

[5] ‘As a second example reported in the December 8, 2006 issue of Science, economist Samuel Bowles estimated that between-group selection was strong enough to promote the genetic evolution of altruism in our own species, exactly as envisioned by Darwin. These and many other examples, summarized by Edward O. Wilson and myself in a forthcoming review article, are ignored entirely by Dawkins, who continues to recite his mantra that the selective disadvantage of altruism within groups poses an insuperable problem for between-group selection.’, ibid..

[6] ‘The problem with Dawkins’ analysis, however, is that if he doesn’t get the facts about religion right, his diagnosis of the problems and proffered solutions won’t be right either.’, ibid..

[7] ‘Time will tell where Dawkins sits on the bell curve of open-mindedness concerning group selection in general and religion in particular. At the moment, he is just another angry atheist, trading on his reputation as an evolutionist and spokesperson for science to vent his personal opinions about religion.’, ibid..

[8]‘The overall concept was not totally new or altogether Dawkins’ invention. According to Wikipedia, the German Richard Semon had a work published in 1904 titled “Die Mnemischen Empfindungen in ihren Beziehungen zu den Originalempfindungen”, meaning loosely, “The Memory-Based Feelings In Their Relation To The Original Feelings (or Sensations)”, wherein he had invented the term mneme. The word came into English with the translation in 1921 of Semon's book, “The Mneme”.That term was picked up and used by Maurice Maeterlinck in a book, “The Life of the White Ant”, which came out in 1926. Dawkins has stated he did not know of that earlier term, the mneme, or its usage.’, Skellet, ‘Whatever happened to memes and memetics? Richard Dawkin's idea, and how it became a zombie idea: Part 1’, 9 September 19 (2010).

[9] ‘I try to think of what I, or anyone, could say to him, to help restrain him from going over the edge into absolute madness. But if a man believes that, when he was first taught Pythagoras’ Theorem at school, his brain was parasitized by a certain micro-maggot which, 2600 years earlier had parasitized the brain of Pythagoras, ...what can one say to him, with any hope of effect? And if a man already believes that genes are selfish, why indeed should ne not also believe that prime numbers are sex mad, or that geometrical theorems are brain parasites?’, Stove & Kimball, ‘Against the Idols of the Age’, p. 278 (2001); ellipsis in original text.

[10] ‘One is really just taking regular language and putting it in fancy terms. No new insights. No new predictions. No astounding claims that turn out to be true. More importantly, one is not really using Darwinian evolutionary theory to do any work.’, Ruse, ‘Charles Darwin’, p. 281 (2008).

[11] Edmonds, ‘The revealed poverty of the gene-meme analogy – why memetics per se has failed to produce substantive results’, Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission (9), 2005.

[12] ‘I claim that the underlying reason memetics has failed is that it has not provided any extra explanatory or predictive power beyond that available without the gene-meme analogy. Thus whilst the idea of memes has retained its attractiveness for some in terms of a framework for thinking about phenomena, it has not provided any “added value” it terms of providing new understanding of phenomena.’, ibid.

[13] ‘Back ten years ago, there was still serious scientific research into memes. These days, practically nothing. It’s proved itself futile, a blind alley, a non-productive theory that never really got off the ground despite quite intensive work by many. Today in almost all cases the word “meme” is merely a metaphor, or it is used in a pseudo-scientific way. It is a zombie, dead on its feet but still lurching around. Memetics, as in the original idea of a science of memes, is a zombie idea.’, Skellet, ‘Whatever happened to memes and memetics? Richard Dawkin's idea, and how it became a zombie idea: Part 1’ September 19 (2010); see also the followup article at

[14] ‘The fact is that the closer work has been to the core of memetics, the less successful it has been. The central core, the meme-gene analogy, has not been a wellspring of models and studies which have provided "explanatory leverage" upon observed phenomena. Rather, it has been a short-lived fad whose effect has been to obscure more than it has been to enlighten. I am afraid that memetics, as an identifiable discipline, will not be widely missed.’, Edmonds, ‘The revealed poverty of the gene-meme analogy – why memetics per se has failed to produce substantive results’, Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission (9), 2005.

[15] ‘So it seems I was wrong and the idea of religions as “viruses of the mind” may have had its day.’, Blackmore, ‘Why I no longer believe religion is a virus of the mind’, The Guardian, September 16 (2010).

[16] ‘Distin’s defense of ‘memetics’ is deficient because it is based on a flawed analogy with genetics’, Walter, ‘Biology and social life: book review/Biologie et vie sociale: note de lecture: The trouble with memes: deconstructing Dawkins's monster. An Essay Review of The Selfish Meme: A Critical Reappraisal by Kate Distin and Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution by Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd’, Social Science Information (46.4.691-709), December 2007.

[17] ‘As with religion, Dawkins has not conducted empirical research on cultural evolution, preferring to play the role of Mycroft Holmes, who sat in his armchair and let his younger brother Sherlock do the legwork.’, Wilson, 'Beyond Demonic Memes: Why Richard Dawkins is Wrong About Religion', eSkeptic, Wednesday July 4 (2007).