July 9, 2001

Richard Dawkins

I have carried on a more-or-less friendly email dialogue with Richard Dawkins, in which I have urged Richard to start performing the duties of the chair he holds at Oxford as the Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. What I mean is that he should help the public to understand scientific controversies and difficulties, instead of merely acting as if he were a hired enforcer for the Darwinist establishment. Richard has a right to his own opinions, but it is shocking how narrow the range is in his newspaper and magazine pieces, and how little scientific substance they contain. Why doesn’t he do something more ambitious than denouncing safe targets and exhorting the public to believe in scientific materialism?

A good example would be Richard’s latest essay in that misnamed journal, Free Inquiry. He starts by proudly repeating his notorious comment that “It is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)." He goes on to explain that “I first wrote that in a book review in the New York Times in 1989, and it has been much quoted against me ever since, as evidence of my arrogance and intolerance. Of course it sounds arrogant, but undisguised clarity is easily mistaken for arrogance. Examine the statement carefully and it turns out to be moderate, almost self-evidently true.”

Well, that is typical Dawkins. My point is not that his statement is arrogant, but that it is just so much empty rant. For example, what does it mean not to believe in “evolution?” Suppose someone argues that science has not discovered how life could have originated in the first place, or how the complex animal groups that appear in the Cambrian rocks could have originated. Exactly why is this position unreasonable? Or, suppose someone says that the specific qualities of the human mind cannot be explained by the Darwinian mechanism, and thus it is reasonable to conclude that the human spirit may be a special creation of God. Does that position display ignorance of science, or lack of faith in materialism? As might be expected, Dawkins supports his rant mainly by attacking the safest possible target: “100 million U.S. citizens believe that humans and dinosaurs were created within the same week as each other, less than ten thousand years ago.” These millions are then identified with flat-earthers and people who think Joe DiMaggio played cricket. That’s virtually the entire argument. The rest of the essay is taken up with anecdotes showing Darwinists in a favorable light.

After reading a great deal of this bombast, I have come to the conclusion that Richard has never assumed the duties of a Professor of the Public Understanding of Science - a position he holds due to the patronage of a zillionaire from Microsoft. He seems to lack the intellectual confidence to say anything of substance, so he sticks to the very safe path of appealing to materialist prejudices. I communicated this judgment to Richard, suggesting that he might consider taking on a more challenging subject, and received this reply:

I take it the difficult target you have in mind is yourself. My problem with that is that I have never managed to form a clear picture, from your writings, of exactly what your position is. You seem to shift your ground opportunistically. At times you seem, like Behe, to accept the fact of evolution, but with God giving it an occasional helping hand over a few of the difficult jumps. Yet at other times (e.g. in various parts of Darwin on Trial) you seem to want to attack the very idea of evolution itself. Such tactical arguing, rather than honestly and sincerely caring about the truth, is, of course, exactly what one would expect of a lawyer. So, I would genuinely value a straight answer to the following two questions, phrased sufficiently clearly to preclude equivocation.

1. Do you think the age of our planet is closer to 4000 million years or closer to 100,000 years?

2. Do you accept that, if human ancestry and lobster ancestry is followed sufficiently far back, they will meet in a single common ancestor?

Best wishes

I responded that I did not have only the intelligent design movement in mind as a suitable difficult target. For example, I had suggested to Richard that he write about the British government’s policy of mass slaughter of animals in the vicinity of any case of hoof and mouth disease. Given that this disease is not dangerous to humans, and not fatal to animals, might it be folly in the long run to protect the animals from exposure, thus preventing them from developing natural immunity? (The mass slaughter is for commercial reasons, dictated by trade regulations.) The comparison that occurs to me is the Native Americans who were destroyed by European diseases to which they lacked immunity. This would be a particularly appropriate topic for a Darwinian to use to educate the public about how scientific decisions are made, but Richard would not take it up. Too bad. However, I am quite willing to respond to Richard’s specific questions, in reverse order.

1. Do you accept that, if human ancestry and lobster ancestry is followed sufficiently far back, they will meet in a single common ancestor? I do not. More generally, I do not think there is any scientific (as opposed to philosophical) reason for concluding that the animal phyla have common ancestors. I understand “ancestor” in the usual sense, so that the Darwinian claim is that humans have a fish ancestor, and a single-celled ancestor, in precisely the same sense in which we have human grandparents - but with many more generations in between. The difference between bacteria and humans is thus deemed to be merely an accumulation of the kind of minor differences that distinguish specific offspring from their parents. I see no scientific reason to believe that the Darwinian claim is true. The hypothetical common ancestors for the animal phyla have not been discovered. More importantly, there is no evidence for the universe of transitional forms that would have had to exist for the Darwinian claim of universal common ancestry to be true. So-called molecular phylogenies assume common ancestry, and generally do not consider the possibility that this assumption might be false. Moreover, there is no mechanism known to science that is capable of taking this hypothetical common ancestor, if we suppose it to have existed, and transforming it (via many intermediates) into a human on one line of descent, and a lobster on another. The claim that the Darwinian mechanism can do the job is based on philosophy, not scientific testing. Hence the best scientific conclusion is that lobsters and humans do not share a common ancestor.

2. Do you think the age of our planet is closer to 4000 million years or closer to 100,000 years? The former, but with the caveat that I have made no effort to investigate the subject personally and am merely accepting the current scientific consensus. In lectures, I tell the audience that I assume that the earth is about 4.6 billion years old. If Darwinists would like to have more time, however, I am happy to grant them 46 billion years, or 460 billion. Regardless of the time available, their system of evolution cannot work because it never gets started with the essential job of creating new complex specified genetic information. See my review of Paul Davies’ book on the origin of life.

I would have more confidence in the dating evidence if I were assured that the scientists can tell the difference between speculative philosophy and empirical investigation. In this I tend to share the concern of Richard Lewontin, who wrote in the New York Review of Books: "Who am I to believe about quantum physics if not Steven Weinberg, or about the solar system if not Carl Sagan? What worries me is that they may believe what Dawkins and [Edward O.] Wilson tell them about evolution." What worries me is that so many physicists and geologists seem to think that the peppered moth or finch beak observations illustrate a mighty creative force that produced moths and birds in the first place. I hope that they apply more rigorous standards for evaluating evidence when they are estimating the age of the earth.

Perhaps these answers will encourage Richard to make a contribution towards the public understanding of science.

Copyright 2001 Phillip E. Johnson. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 7.09.01