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Myth of Dawkins as an intolerant, atheist crusader is just that -- myth

Richard Dawkins is thricefold famous: once for his espousal of the gene as being the primary unit of life, rather than the plant or animal that is carrying it.

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Richard Dawkins - portrayed as an austere, proselytising dogmatist despite being nothing of the sort

This was enunciated in his landmark work 'The Selfish Gene'. The same book unveiled his second great claim upon fame, his creation of the "meme", the cultural equivalent of the gene: namely, an idea which passes through a community and establishes an existence of its own, even mutating to stay alive. His third achievement is to have become a meme himself, a myth in which he is a cold, disliked, intolerant and distrusted crusader of ideological atheism.

I had the recent pleasure of conducting a public interview with Richard at Listowel. In person, he is diffident and slightly boffinish: in public, he is a vigorous but usually polite proponent of his views. Both versions are confirmation of the real and non-memetic version of Richard Dawkins, the amiable owner of a brilliant and enquiring mind, who is neither intolerant nor bigoted.

The popular meme of Dawkins The Bigot is the creation of the Christian Creationist Right, who loathe him for the power of his advocacy of the idea that Darwinian natural selection is the sole creator of our living world.

I spent the two weeks before meeting him immersed in his works, before which I was a great sceptic of Darwinism. I am now largely -- but not entirely -- persuaded of its essential correctness. But there are too many gaps and even Richard Dawkins -- as he admits himself -- cannot explain the beginnings of life.

No honest secularist could, for there is no evidence about the biogenetic moment when life began -- only theory. Moreover, he accepts that the division of species, when emerging species with the same ancestors and inhabiting the same ecological space can no longer successfully mate, has no adequate explanation within existing theories.

The most vital element of Dawkinian-Darwinism is an acceptance of the extraordinary power of time, which is something I have only recently -- and finally -- understood. Natural selection can only work across the extraordinary and liberating dimension of aeons. The earliest evidence of life -- I believe -- is found in the Pillsara rocks in Australia, which contain the fossilised remains of microbes from 3.5 billion years ago.

Let me put that figure in perspective: the largest gathering in Irish history occurred when a million people welcomed the Pope in Phoenix Park in 1979. The densely packed crowd stood about half-a-mile deep. So, how deep would it have been if it had numbered 3.5 billion? Well, it would have reached from the Phoenix Park to Moscow.

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