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Richard Dawkins: "The tyranny of the discontinuous mind"

Extracts from the New Statesman guest editor's Christmas issue essay.

Along with writing a leading article on faith schools and travelling to Texas to conduct what turned out to be the final interview with fellow atheist Christopher Hitchens, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has penned an exclusive essay for his special guest-edited issue of the New Statesman.

In "The tyranny of the discontinuous mind", Dawkins wonders why we cling to absolutes of yes and no, black and white, rich and poor; pretending not to see the millions of grey areas in life. These absolutes, he argues, distort reality:

What percentage of the British population lives below the poverty line? When I call that a silly question, a question that doesn't deserve an answer, I'm not being callous or unfeeling about poverty . . . My objection is to the very idea of a line: a gratuitously manufactured discontinuity in a continuous reality.

. . . For legal purposes, say, in deciding who can vote in elections, we need to draw a line between adult and non-adult. We may dispute the rival merits of 18 versus 21 or 16, but everybody accepts that there has to be a line, and the line must be a birthday. Few would deny that some 15-year-olds are better qualified to vote than some 40-year-olds. But we recoil from the voting equivalent of a driving test, so we accept the age line as a necessary evil. Yet perhaps there are other examples where we should be less willing to do so. Are there cases where the tyranny of the discontinuous mind leads to actual harm, cases where we should actively rebel against it? Yes.

Dawkins goes on to consider a variety of these absolutes -- where a blindness to intermediates may constrict or condemn us -- beginning with the arguments proposed by anti-abortionists:

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