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The Sins of the Fathers [Also in Polish]

See bottom for the Polish translation


Yesterday evening I was telephoned by a reporter who announced himself as Adam Lusher from the Sunday Telegraph. At the end of a week of successfully rattling cages, I was ready for yet another smear or diversionary tactic of some kind, but in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have imagined the surreal form this one was to take. I obviously can’t repeat what was said word-for-word (my poor recall of long strings of words has this week been highly advertised), and I may get the order of the points wrong, but this is approximately how the conversation went.

“We’ve been researching the history of the Dawkins family, and have discovered that your ancestors owned slaves in Jamaica in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. What have you got to say about that?”

I replied, “Your ancestors probably did too. It’s just that we happen to know who my ancestors were and perhaps we don’t know yours.”

He persisted by reeling off several of my forebears including, I think, Henry Dawkins (b 1698) and his father Colonel Richard Dawkins (d.o.b. unknown to me), giving gruesome (and indeed deplorable) figures about the numbers of slaves they owned, asking me whether I felt any guilt about it.

I replied by quoting Numbers 14:18 (from memory so – oh, calamity – I may not have been quite word-perfect), that charming little verse about the Lord “visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation”: a nice example, incidentally, of biblical morality.

When he persisted with his insinuations I made my somewhat peremptory excuses and left (I was in a hurry because I was about to go on stage in London to give a lecture and wanted to prepare for it).

I’d scarcely had time to re-open my lecture notes when he rang back: “Darwinian natural selection has a lot to do with genes, do you agree?” Of course I agreed. “Well, some people might suggest that you could have inherited a gene for supporting slavery from Henry Dawkins.”

“You obviously need a genetics lesson,” I replied. Henry Dawkins was my great great great great great grandfather, so approximately one in 128 of my genes are inherited from him (that’s the correct figure; in the heat of the moment on the phone, I got it wrong by a couple of powers of two).

Setting aside his scientific illiteracy and his frankly defamatory insinuation that I might condone slavery, the point about powers of two is interesting enough to warrant a digression. Following a line of reasoning spelled out in The Ancestor’s Tale, we can calculate that Adam Lusher and I (and you and I and Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all) share most of our ancestors and literally all our more distant ancestors. What is a little less obvious is that the ancestor we most recently share probably lived only a few centuries ago. Almost certainly we are all descended from slave owners (and indeed from slaves), if you go back far enough, and you probably don’t have to go back very far. It’s just that only a few of us are saddled with, to quote J B S Haldane, a historically labelled Y-chromosome. As it happens, my ancestry also boasts an unbroken line of six generations of Anglican clergymen, from the Rev William Smythies (b 1635) to his great great great grandson the Rev Edward Smythies (b 1818). I wonder if Adam thinks I’ve inherited a gene for piety too.

Our piercing investigative journalist then challenged me to deny that William Wilberforce, the great anti-slavery campaigner, was a Christian. (So, presumably, were the slave-owners. Just about everyone in England was Christian at the time and Henry and Colonel Richard surely were.) This provoked me to give him yet another lecture, this time expounding Steven Pinker’s brilliant book, The Better Angels of our Nature, about how we are getting steadily gentler and more civilised as the generations go by, whether or not we are religious. Our changing moral values carry a strong statistical signal of the century and even the decade in which we live, but virtually no signal at all of whether we are religious.

His next volley was the suggestion that I should make financial reparation for the sins of my ancestors.

Reparation to whom? Should I make a pilgrimage to Jamaica and seek out the descendants of the slaves whom my ancestors wronged? But why the descendants of people who were oppressed by my ancestors 300 years ago rather than to people who are oppressed today? It’s that “sins of the fathers” fallacy all over again, taken a good couple of generations further than even Yahweh had in mind.

His parting shot (actually it was I who did the parting) was to suggest that Henry’s ill-gotten gains might have been used to purchase the English “estate”, a small fraction of which my family still owns. I told him that far from being an estate, it is a small working farm, struggling to make ends meet in a bad time for farming. I added that such wealth and land as the Dawkins family once owned was squandered in the nineteenth century by Colonel William Gregory Dawkins (not my direct ancestor, I’m happy to say) on futile lawsuits. Whatever I possess is hardly at all inherited from past centuries but earned by me in my own lifetime. I am happy to give to charity, and I do so in quite large quantities, but my choice of charity would not be influenced by whatever sins my seventeenth and eighteenth century ancestors committed. It was when he asked me exactly how many acres the modern small farm possesses that I told him to mind his own business and put the phone down on him for the second time.

I can’t help wondering at the quality of journalism which sees a scoop in attacking a man for what his five-greats grandfather did. Is there really nothing more current going on? Ah yes, of course, there is the little matter of our Ipsos MORI poll, published this week. Rather than grapple with that, far better to take no chances and distract readers with a story that’s a mere 300 years old.

Don’t buy the Telegraph on Sunday, but do look it up on the web and marvel at the depths to which a once-proud newspaper is willing to sink. That is unless – which I would like to think is quite probable – the Editor spikes the whole thing as a story that's three centuries past its Use By date.


Grzechy ojców

Autor tekstu: Richard Dawkins
Tłumaczenie: Małgorzata Koraszewska
Wczoraj wieczorem zadzwonił do mnie reporter, który przedstawił się jako Adam Lusher z „Sunday Telegraph". Pod koniec tygodnia, w którym z powodzeniem wsadziłem kij w kilka mrowisk, byłem przygotowany na kolejne oczernianie lub jakiegoś rodzaju pozorowaną taktykę, ale w najdzikszych snach nie mógłbym wyobrazić sobie surrealistycznej formy, jaką to przyjmie. Oczywiście nie mogę powtórzyć słowo w słowo tego, co zostało powiedziane (moja marna pamięć do długich ciągów słów była w tym tygodniu szeroko rozreklamowana), i mogę mylić się co do kolejności, ale oto jak mniej więcej brzmiała ta rozmowa:

„Badaliśmy historię rodziny Dawkinsów i odkryliśmy, że pana przodkowie byli właścicielami niewolników na Jamajce w siedemnastym i osiemnastym wieku. Co ma pan w związku z tym do powiedzenia?"

Odpowiedziałem: „Prawdopodobnie to samo było z pana przodkami. Po prostu tak się złożyło, że wiemy, kim byli moi przodkowie i być może nie wiemy, kim byli pańscy".
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TAGGED: COMMENTARY, MEDIA, RICHARD DAWKINS


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