Translator Disclaimer
1 May 2004 Never Apologize, Always Explain
Author Affiliations +

A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. Richard Dawkins. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2003. 263 pp. $24.00 (ISBN 0618335404 cloth).

Richard Dawkins is one of those responsible for the current ferment of ideas that makes contemporary evolutionary theory such an exciting field. Building on the work of George Williams, he has argued that the history of life is the struggle between lineages of genetic replicators. Organisms, constructed by teams of allied replicators, are but one weapon in the struggle between replicator lineages, for the selectively salient effects of genes are often felt beyond the boundaries of the organisms in which they ride. Thus genes and gene alliances have extended phenotypes. He has argued that while genes are the predominant replicator in our biological world, they are not the only ones. Ideas too are replicated, some more frequently than others. Since thought is relevant to action, the differential success of meme lineages has effects on their bearers—mostly, but not only, humans. Moreover, Dawkins holds that this conception of life's evolution is true not just of our living world. Some aspects of it will characterize any evolutionary process capable of producing complex life-forms.

A Devil's Chaplain is a selection from Dawkins's (fairly) recent essays, and some of these themes internal to evolutionary biology are reflected in this collection. Thus there is a fine essay on the history and current status of sexual selection (“Light Will Be Thrown”). In particular, for those interested in memes, this collection is a rich resource. “Chinese Junk and Chinese Whispers” takes up the serious challenge of the fidelity, or lack thereof, of memetic replication, and “Viruses of the Mind” systematically explores the problem of identifying (if not curing) virulent memes. But there is also a fine essay that takes up the themes of universal Darwinism, arguing that the inheritance of acquired characteristics cannot be the fundamental inheritance mode for any organism with an interactive, recipe-style embryology (“Darwin Triumphant”). The crucial problem is that for interactive developmental systems, there is no simple mapping from traits back to elements of the developmental program. Hence there is no route through which the acquisition of a trait can trigger discrete change in the program that would then generate the trait endogenously in the next generation.

But Dawkins has had an increasingly important second role as one of the public faces of evolutionary biology and of science more generally. Indeed, he is Stephen Jay Gould's only serious rival as this public face, for like Gould he writes theoretically innovative evolutionary biology for the nonspecialist, not just more or less accessible versions of the prevailing wisdom of the insiders. That public role dominates this book and makes it the splendid collection that it is. A Devil's Chaplain is at times intensely personal (“A Lament for Douglas”), at times exulting (“I Speak of Africa and Golden Joys”), at times seriously angry (“A Time to Stand Up”). But throughout it is a sustained, clear-minded, forthright, reasoned defense of science and scientific rationality. In particular, it is a defense of the scientific mode of thought rather than current scientific opinion. Even so, Dawkins thinks that much of current science is real knowledge, not just as-yet-unrefuted conjecture. Apsley Cherry-Garrand explains the journey of The Worst Journey in the World (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1997) by saying, “We travelled for Science…in order that the world may build…on what it knows instead of on what it thinks.” Sadly, Dawkins is one of the few practicing scientists these days to have the confidence to draw this unqualified distinction between mere opinion and knowledge. He could, I suspect, even be tempted into capitalizing “science,” and this collection explains why.

The specific topics of these essays vary as much as their tone, but four themes recur, and what Dawkins says on these seems to me to be both true and important. I begin with one that is personally embarrassing, since it is connected to my disciplinary home. The explosion of obscurantist and antiscientific relativism, mostly derived from French and German sources, is one of the most depressing recent developments in academic life, especially for those of us based in the humanities. Dawkins takes on these ideas variously throughout A Devil's Chaplain but most systematically in “Postmodernism Disrobed.” Here Dawkins's gift for argument is hardly needed. A sample of extracts from postmodern texts is proof enough that something has gone horribly wrong for those not incurably cognophobic. I will not resist the temptation to quote one relatively short and almost intelligible example myself: “Perhaps history itself has to be regarded as a chaotic formation, in which acceleration puts an end to linearity and the turbulence created by acceleration deflects history definitively from its end” (p. 50). These writings would have some amusement value, except that institutions which ought to be, and which are funded to be, citadels of clarity and reason are protecting and spreading this darkness. In calling a charlatan a charlatan, Dawkins is surely on the right side.

His vigorous responses to postmodern and social constructivist views of science and truth are complemented by his essays on scientific reasoning and why, if we can trust anything, we can trust it. The best of these is “Snake Oil,” an essay on the scandal of alternative medicine: a multibillion dollar rip-off of the ignorant, the gullible, and the desperate. He exposes the sheer bizarreness of many alternative therapies; for example, homoeopathic dilutions are so extreme that their “remedies” typically have not a single molecule of their supposedly active ingredient. More important, he explains the methodological power of double-blind, random controlled trials and why these are not a biased procedure. They can be adapted to, for example, homoeopathic treatment regimes. If homoeopathic regimes work, double-blind tests can demonstrate their curative powers. The central point is that there are alternatives to orthodox medicine, and some of these might even work. But there is no alternative to orthodox methods for testing medicines. Anecdotes about recovery are not enough, for the placebo effect is known to be important, and most of us recover from most ailments anyway.

It is important, though, that Dawkins is sensitive to the limits of science, too, endorsing a robust and traditional distinction between fact and value. That is the theme of the title essay: Science is the realm of facts, not values. Selection is inevitably brutal and destructive, which gives us all the more reason to subvert it when we think we should. But though science is the realm of fact, religion is certainly not the realm of values. Stephen Jay Gould deplorably feebled-out on the relationship between science and religion, ceding matters of ethics to religion in return for excluding religion from claims about fact. Gould's assessment was perverse. First, religions have historically made (and continue to make) many claims about fact, completely without evidential support. Second, many religions make simply barbaric ethical claims. Indeed, I suspect the only religions that are morally innocuous—Unitarianism, Anglicanism, and other denatured creatures of the secularizing world—are innocuous precisely because no one really believes in them doctrinally any more. They are evolving from religions to welfare organizations, with music and moral exhortation thrown in. Here Dawkins could not contrast with Gould more clearly: Dawkins despises religion, an attitude that comes through in his genuinely angry “Time to Stand Up”; it is slightly concealed in the other essays that touch on the subject.

I am sure that some of Dawkins's anger is fueled by a sense of the secular damage religion causes, a damage made so much more obvious by the contemporary revival of fundamentalism. But much of it, I conjecture, is fueled by a frustration I share. We live in a genuinely wonderful, mysterious, awe-inspiring universe—a world rich and strange. Religions turn their back on the genuinely wonderful in favor of a sham. They prefer the virtual to the real; religion is the PlayStation of the people. So a final theme in this collection worth making explicit is Dawkins's delight in the natural world, both in its idiosyncratic details and in the systematic mechanisms that make it. This comes through in many places: in the essays on Africa, in the obituary for Hamilton, in the reviews of Peter Medawar's work and of a couple of Gould's early collections.

I have my disagreements with Dawkins on some of the debates internal to evolutionary theory. Thus, when he writes “It is possible that by the end of the twenty-first century, doctors will be able accurately to predict the manner and time of death of everybody, from the day they are conceived” (p. 33), my bet is that he much understates the role of environment and accident on mortality. But I wholly agree with his account of the nature and importance of science. The methods of science are our only reliable, well-calibrated means of understanding the world in which we live, and in these essays Dawkins explains with his usual verve and clarity why that is so.

It is therefore somewhat sobering to realize that these essays will probably have little impact. They will probably not be read by those who need them the most. But they are also written in too confident and forthright a tone for these relativist times. Dawkins's method is “never apologize, always explain,” and so he defends science, truth, knowledge, atheism, and his other core views up front: openly, confidently, and without reservation, having confronted and rebutted the idea that this perspective is parochially, question-beggingly “Western.” And given the weight of argument, so he should. Nonetheless, I would bet money that if I made, say, “Snake Oil” compulsory reading for 100-level philosophy students (and in the modern world, this would be a relatively friendly audience), this unapologetic confidence would get many backs up. Dawkins has the power and the passion, but is not of the temper of his times. I have no advice to give on this issue—the last thing I want to see is mealy-mouthed, dishonest evasions from his pen. But though these essays are vivid, clear, and compelling, their fate, I fear, is to be read mostly by those who already agree with their message.

KIM STERELNY "Never Apologize, Always Explain," BioScience 54(5), 460-462, (1 May 2004).[0460:NAAE]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 May 2004

Back to Top