Through a candle, darkly

Dull, dull, dull, my God it’s dull! It’s so desperately dull and tedious and stuffy and boring and des-per-ate-ly DULL! —Michael Palin

Nature has posted my review of Brief Candle in the Dark, the bloated second volume of memoir by  Richard Dawkins, everyone’s favorite genetic determinist. Nature is very genteel–and they have very strict lawyers–so my temper is muted.

Still, the gist should come across. It reads, frankly, like he contracted for two books but, incomprehensibly, just got bored with writing about himself.

Perhaps the review may provoke a smile–or a scowl, if you’re of that genotype.




7 thoughts on “Through a candle, darkly”

  1. Nice review. I had similar things to say about volume 1 when I reviewed it in QRB–smug, elitist (bordering on racist and sexist), and above all boring. I think that old Richard might be constipated from all of those high table dinners–he writes like he is, anyway. I thought volume 2 might be more interesting once he got to the later years, but apparently not. The fact that you’re getting savaged over on whyevolutionistrue just proves your point–there’s a nauseating smugness and groupthink that passes for discussion in the ‘atheist community’ these days, which is why I don’t like being around those people even though I am (like you) an actual atheist.

    • Haha, great comment, thank you. Yes the QRB review was one of several I had in mind when I wrote that reviewers of Appetite hoped the sequel would have more heft and focus. Alas, it was not to be.

      I take the Coyne review with humor and pride. Love the fact that he can vociferously defend a book without even reading it. It’s just like Biblical literalism. If Richard said it, it must be true, and anyone who says otherwise is a heretic.

      And boy, that argument makes them mad!

      • Your remark is silly, unfair, and misleading.

        Coyne’s post was not “vociferously defending” the book. He was addressing the points you made in your review, especially your new-atheist bashing and your criticism of the selfish gene concept . And that did not require having read the book.

        Since you seem to like false analogies to religion, it appears that you are the one who is preaching the new “I’m-an-atheist-but” religion whose main sacrament is Dawkins-bashing. A CJ Werleman but with academic credentials.

  2. I agree that Dawkins comes over as arrogant but he has also contributed hugely both to science and to the public understanding of science, somewhat more than you it seems judging by the Amazon ranking your two books (1.3m and 1.6m). Your ‘review’ is a rant telling us rather more than this reader of Nature wants to know of your own views and little about the book. Your piece reads like a teenager trying to be clever, repeating phrases he doesn’t realise are already over-used by those taking pot shots at all those nasty ‘atheists’ who write books that people actually buy and enjoy.

  3. I was a fan of Dawkins, then I moved beyond his ideas, and finally I was irked by his scientism (‘Beating Basil’s car’ etc.) long before his risible opining on Elevatorgate and the backlash against New Atheism. However…

    His meme theory of culture, whatever its deficiencies, is not adaptationist (for anything but the meme) nor genetically determinist. It doesn’t argue that the status quo – including hierarchies of class, sex, race – of societies are just, mandated by genes, nor immutable. Dawkins is wary of adaptationist approaches to cultural phenomena, including religion.

    Group selection theory applied to humans in practice tends to be more adaptationist (functionalist regarding aspects of culture and often downright Panglossian) than Dawkins’ view and even standard evolutionary psychology and human behavioral ecology.

    Scientific racists tend to be – though are not universally – group selectionists. (Of course, the reverse does not hold; most group selectionists are not scientific racists.) Obviously they are genetic determinists but as I pointed out, Dawkins’ views on culture are not genetically determinist. That said, Dawkins has kept his own views on race – whatever they are – pretty close to the vest. However, he has said stupidly favorable things about neo-eugenics – not from a right wing perspective, but in line with ‘left wing’ utilitarian bioethics like Singer and Savulescu.

    Dawkins’ extended phenotype concept has been cited by several microbiome researchers.

    Dawkins, however outdated his theories are (and they are, of course) is not stuck in a midcentury view of the gene; see ‘kaleidoscope embryos’.

    ‘Selfish DNA’ was Orgel & Crick’s term for functionless parasitic DNA which can be thought of as a special case of selfish geneism.

    I wish there were terms less sociologically loaded, anthropomorphic, and teleological than “selfish” “cooperative”, “conflict” “altruism”, “defection” etc. for the activity of biomolecules, cells, simple organisms and so on. But we’re stuck with such terms, regardless of our views on Dawkins.

    Dawkins is frustrating. He did make some real contributions (which, whether he likes it or not, will be assimilated into a better, more complete paradigm). Like many aging scientists, he says foolish things about social issues which he imagines are scientifically supported.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Agreed on all counts. On selfish DNA, Crick and Orgel have both said they got the idea from reading Dawkins. The germ of the concept goes back to the late ’60s, but the first use of the term was in 1980. For other readers, the key references are:

      Doolittle, W. F., and C. Sapienza. “Selfish Genes, the Phenotype Paradigm and Genome Evolution.” Nature 284, no. 5757 (Apr 17 1980): 601-3.
      Orgel, L. E., and F. H. Crick. “Selfish DNA: The Ultimate Parasite.” Nature 284, no. 5757 (Apr 17 1980): 604-7.
      Orgel, L. E., F. H. Crick, and C. Sapienza. “Selfish DNA.” Nature 288, no. 5792 (Dec 25 1980): 645-6.

      Dawkins *has* played it close to the vest, which is why I carefully wrote in the review that his work “plays into the hands” of the race realists, and here that the links were strong. The vectors, however, are not clear. The “HBD” crowd certainly love Dawkins (they were among the first to jump down my throat when the review appeared). What’s not clear to me is the extent to which the Dawkins and his immediate henchmen are sympathetic to HBD et al.


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