In his blog On Art in today’s Guardian, Johnathan Jones, whoever he is, makes an invidious and ill-informed comparison between Dawkins and Darwin: “Natural selection: Give me Darwin over Dawkins any day.“
To Jones, Darwin was the moderate Victorian gentleman, presenting evidence without bashing creationism, while Dawkins (of course) is strident and arrogant, putting off his biology audience by touting atheism. This is Mooneyism at its best:
Darwin is the finest fruit of English empiricism. His modest presentation of evidence contrasts, I am sorry to say, with the rhetorical stridency of Richard Dawkins. Visit the famous atheist’s website and you will see two causes being pushed. Dawkins is campaigning with other secular stars against the pope’s visit to Britain. Meanwhile he is touring the paperback of his book The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. The trouble with this book is that it lacks Darwin’s empirical style. Where the Victorian writer presented masses of evidence, and let his astonishing, earth-shattering theory emerge from common-sense observations of nature, Dawkins lacks the patience, at this point in his career, to let natural history speak for itself. He has become the mirror image of the theological dogmatists he despises.
He just can’t separate science from the debate he has got into with religious people.
I don’t know what book Jones read, but it’s not the same one I reviewed in The Nation. The Greatest Show on Earth has chapter after chapter of solid biology, natural history, genetics, evo-devo, and the like. Yes, Dawkins takes some slaps at creationists, but Darwin wasn’t dealing with a 150-year history of entrenched religious opposition to his ideas.
Jones apparently hasn’t read The Origin, either, since Darwin by no means let the data “speak for itself.” Over and over again, Darwin contrasts the data with what one would expect under creationism, showing that the religious “theory” was grossly wrong. If Darwin published this today, he’d surely be accused of insensitivity to the feelings of the faithful. (Remember all those people, like Josh Rosenau and Michael De Dora, who said that while it’s okay to tell people that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, it’s not okay to tell them that this shows that the Earth isn’t 6,000 years old?)
Let’s take just a few examples from one chapter—Chapter 12, on biogeography.
In St. Helena there is reason to believe that the naturalised plants and animals have nearly or quite exterminated many native productions. He who admits the doctrine of the creation of each separate species, will have to admit, that a sufficient number of the best adapted plants and animals have not been created on oceanic islands; for man has unintentionally stocked them from various sources far more fully and perfectly than has nature. . .
This general absence of frogs, toads, and newts on so many oceanic islands cannot be accounted for by their physical conditions; indeed it seems that islands are peculiarly well fitted for these animals; for frogs have been introduced into Madeira, the Azores, and Mauritius, and have multiplied so as to become a nuisance. But as these animals and their spawn are known to be immediately killed by sea-water, on my view we can see that there would be great difficulty in their transportal across the sea, and therefore why they do not exist on any oceanic island. But why, on the theory of creation, they should not have been created there, it would be very difficult to explain. . .
The naturalist, looking at the inhabitants of these volcanic islands in the Pacific, distant several hundred miles from the continent, yet feels that he is standing on American land. Why should this be so? why should the species which are supposed to have been created in the Galapagos Archipelago, and nowhere else, bear so plain a stamp of affinity to those created in America? There is nothing in the conditions of life, in the geological nature of the islands, in their height or climate, or in the proportions in which the several classes are associated together, which resembles closely the conditions of the South American coast: in fact there is a considerable dissimilarity in all these respects.
This is surely not letting the facts speak for themselves: it is using the facts as a club to beat back the most prevalent alternative theory to Darwin’s, creationism. Yes, Richard uses language a bit stronger than Darwin’s, but the intent is precisely the same. And let us not forget Darwin’s bulldog—T. H. Huxley—whose vociferous and “strident” attacks on religious opposition to Darwin went a long way to promote acceptance of evolution in Britain.
And the accusation that Dawkins’s biology is devalued by his atheism is completely unfair. Has Jones read The Selfish Gene? The Extended Phenotype? The Blind Watchmaker? If he has, I don’t know how he can accuse Dawkins of “patronising his audience.” This is popular science writing at its best: it carries the reader along step by step, but never talks down to her, and when you’ve finished one of those books you’ve absorbed an amazing amount of biology. But I needn’t tell you that.
Jones is clearly out of his element here, which is writing about pictures of dogs playing poker. In his haste to defend faith against the depredations of Dawkins, he makes a complete fool of himself.
h/t: Matthew Cobb