October 24, 2013
In 1976, just after my own birth and almost half of his own lifetime ago, a brilliant biologist at the University of Oxford wrote a book that has had a remarkable and enduring impact on both popular and academic understanding of natural selection. It was widely recognised as a tour de force, and is probably the most influential populist work in that field of study in recent decades. It sold more than a million copies, and is still selling well. The book was called The Selfish Gene; the biologist was Richard Dawkins.
In one of the footnotes in that book (1), he writes
“Publishers should correct the misapprehension that a scholar’s distinction in one field implies authority in another. And as long as that misapprehension exists, distinguished scholars should resist the temptation to abuse it.”
That is indisputably sound advice.
Sadly, it seems Dawkins could not resist that temptation himself, and recently wrote “The God Delusion”, a book which is essentially a work of philosophy, touching also on such areas as logic, history and religion. In none of these does Dawkins have any scholarly distinction whatsoever.
Small surprise, then, that the book is very far indeed from displaying the brilliance of the Selfish Gene. In the audio clip below, Dawkins’ fellow Oxford professor John Lennox (a mathematician) explains that even the title is spectacularly misleading.
(1) P.278 in 30th Anniversary Edition, second footnote on Chapter 4