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


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

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

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

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.

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.

But now we have to conceptualise one million, expressed in time. For humans, reproducing every 20 years, it is 50,000 generations (which is about 47,500 more generations than homo sapiens has even existed). But only about 100 generations have passed since Jesus.

So for the sake of this notional scale, let us spread the hundred generations since BC became AD into that same half-mile in Phoenix Park, with a set of parents every 90 yards: so how far would 50,000 generations, at the same density, reach? Well, to Phoenix Park, actually, but only after having gone right around the world. And remember: that's just a million.

So natural selection can only be understood through the tiny incremental changes that genetic mutation brings about and which time then slowly shapes into defining differences. Moreover, you must grasp this other essential truth: there is no finished species, so there are no "links", missing or otherwise. As Darwin himself said, it is impossible to say when "mankind" actually began. Homo sapiens was not a different creature from his parents, nor they from theirs: the changes were and are imperceptible.

It takes, naturally, time to grasp the immense beauty and power of this thing "time", with each generation differing minutely from the generation preceding it. So we could go back 180 million years, step by invisibly altering step, to the moment when the apparently identical ancestors of mankind and the platypus divide. We would have to go back all of 310 million years to see where the inscrutably different ancestors of mankind and budgerigars finally separate.

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The key element here is not the emerging species, but the mutating genes guiding them. One of many delightful revelations that Dawkins makes in his latest book, 'The Greatest Show on Earth', is that the gene which makes haemoglobin is a mutation of the same gene that makes the root-pod in legumes, wherein bacteria fix nitrogen: and what they visibly retained in common, across millions of years of separation, is their colour. Yes, both the ultimate sources of pea and pee are blood-red.

Dawkins is simply not the austere and proselytising dogmatist of myth. Such people expect and almost seek confrontation, whereas he merely wishes to make his case.

Moreover, he is quite clearly baffled by the extraordinary vituperation to which has been subjected, usually by the nameless thugs and religious skinheads who stalk the lightless slum-corners of that strange and troubled city, the internet. Take my advice. Forget the meme. Buy the books.