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In Defense of Richard Dawkins

If you haven’t read it, you will almost certainly have seen it: the critique of Professor Richard Dawkins that arraigns him for being too “strident” in his confrontations with his critics. According to this line of attack, Dawkins has no business stepping outside the academy to become a “public intellectual” and even less right to raise his voice when he chooses to do so. Implied in this rather hypocritical attack is the no less hypocritical hint that Dawkins might be better received if he were more polite and attract a better class of audience if he used more of the blessed restraint and reserve that is every Englishman’s birthright and which he obviously possesses in such heaping measure.

I think that Dawkins would be quite right to refuse the oily invitation that is contained in this offer, and I hope that he continues to do so. I say this while having actually found his manners to be quite unusually polite and even quiet, especially when one considers the context of this discussion. I, for example, am a self-taught amateur writer who quite enjoys getting a bit scruffy in debates with those who think that Earth was designed with them in mind. Dawkins, on the other hand, has spent decades of his life refining and deepening the teaching of evolutionary biology—a revolutionary subject that is only just beginning to disclose its still-more revolutionary, and healing and educational, properties and aspects. Why should he sit still and see a valued and precious discipline being insulted, even threatened with not being taught? It’s no exaggeration to say that in some parts of the modern world, real efforts are being made to stifle evolutionary biology and to impose the teaching—under various disguises of differing ingenuity—of creationism. In which case the real question ought to be: Where are the other professors? Why is the academy being so cowardly in failing to stick up for the teaching and the free inquiry on which it lives? I don’t think that Professor Dawkins should be left to do this important work all by himself.

In doing so at all, of course, he comes from a potentially great tradition. In the famous nineteenth-century debate with Bishop Wilberforce, or “Soapy Sam,” in which the theory of evolution was tried and found sound in the Oxford school, it was Thomas Huxley who emerged as “Darwin’s bulldog.” It wasn’t to be expected that the mild and retiring Charles Darwin would or could appear each time to defend evolution by natural selection, but at least there was someone upon whom he could rely, and the evidence is that Huxley was very happy to undertake the task. My view now would be that that was all very well for the nineteenth century, when the struggle was to expand and deepen the circle of scientific knowledge. But now that the discipline is clearly established, it should not require a full professor to justify his right to be teaching it! Instead, he and others should be getting on with important projects. Yet just today I spoke to some biologists who work closely with the National Institutes of Health and are regularly forced to waste time in red-herring discussions about the ethics of using existing stem cells. Alas, in testimony before Congress, they are forced to be polite and understated, lest they meet with the wrath of God.

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