Dawkins’ new book

By Ken Perrott 20/03/2013 21


Richard Dawkins’ latest book is due out next September. The title – Childhood, Boyhood, Truth: From an African Youth to The Selfish Gene

It’s yet a new genre for Dawkins – autobiography. Mind you he has reached the age where people do tend to write memoirs and autobiographies.

Richard says  this book covers his life up to the  writing of The Selfish Gene.  There will be a second volume, published in 2015, covering the second half of his life.

I have enjoyed his other books and am looking forward to this one – especially as I have a special interest in scientific biography.

These two volumes will be a good read – he is an excellent writer and has had an interesting life, scientifically.

I wonder if it will get the same sort of emotional attacks his earlier books received?

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21 Responses to “Dawkins’ new book”

  • Ken,

    Speaking of emotional attacks on Dawkins’ books I’d like to draw your attention to an interesting un-emotional attack by a Reader in Criminology. He’s done a lot of digging and has come to the conclusion that “Richard Dawkins did not coin the phrase ‘selfish gene’ and is not the originator of the basic concept”. Quite a different take on Dawkins and his work, that’s for sure.

    Here’s the link:
    http://www.bestthinking.com/thinkers/science/social_sciences/sociology/mike-sutton?tab=blog&blogpostid=20445

  • Having read the book I am certainly aware that Dawkins did not invent the term or the concept – he was after all reporting and explaining important existing work, not describing his own. He was clear about that.

    As for the title, publishers usually have the first and last say on those – and Dawkins has expressed some regrets about the actual choice. I know it effectively preventing me from reading the book for 30 years because of the way it was misrepresented as a justification of selfish capitalism.

    Some people have a real irrational thing about Dawkins and I suspect this little story is of the same sort that claims he supports slavery.

    I certainly didn’t have to be a “reader in criminology” to find that “Richard Dawkins did not coin he phrase ‘selfish gene’ and is not the originator of the basic concept.” I got that from reading his book – admittedly the 30th anniversary edition where he did discuss these matters (as well as, impressively, point out where he had been wrong in the original).

  • “He’s done a lot of digging and has come to the conclusion […] “is not the originator of the basic concept”””

    I’m surprised that “a lot of digging” would be needed. Even the wikipedia entry for the book opens by saying it builds on earlier work.

    You can also simply look at the prefaces. I have the 1989 edition of the book. Like many books it contains the older prefaces in addition to the current preface. From the 1976 preface is (i.e. from the original edition),

    “But ethology has recently been invigorated by an invasion of fresh ideas from sources not conventionally regarded as ethological. This book is largely based on these new ideas. Their originators are acknowledged in the appropriate places in the text; the dominant figures are G.C. Williams, J. Maynard Smith, W.D. Hamilton and R.L Trivers.”

    He elaborates further on this in the 1989 preface.

    He makes it clear in his prefaces that he’s drawing from other’s work (and pulling them together with his own thoughts on the subject).

  • Yes, I did, Frederik – and the comments. I thought it was interesting that this guy is writing a book with these claims and yet is refusing to check them out with Dawkins himself. He seems to think that his own assessment that Dawkins has not done sufficient to counter the erroneous claims being made by others on the Internet somehow proves Dawkins has been pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes.

    That is extremely poor scholarship in my eyes. Especially as Dawkins is very approachable. Why refuse to ask him?

  • Agreed. He seems rather convinced of his own conclusions without putting them to that test (‘smokes his own dope’?). However, there is nothing to stop Dawkins to engage and respond to set the record straight; he has been invited as much. Apparently, Dawkins does have his “own” Wikipedia page, whatever that means. I look forward to a reply from Dawkins but somehow I doubt he will ‘play ball’. I have done some digging myself and will comment on the blog to share the information I found. People can and should judge for themselves.

    I find it interesting that you mention Mike Sutton’s poor scholarship; Dawkins’ scholarship has also been pulled into question. For example, by husband-wife pair Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath in their book The Dawkins Delusion? Quite an interesting read.

  • Yes Frederik, I am aware of McGrath’s campaigns against Richard Dawkins. I myself have not been impressed with McGrath since I read his book “The Twilight of Atheism.” He sort of seemed out of touch with reality on that one. I also find his attempts to ring fence science so as to preserve a place for religion intellectualy dishonest.

    However, I imagine that Dawkins’ publishers really love McGrath and those others who attempt to critique Dawkins on religous grounds. After all, their activity probably does a terrific lot to attract new readers to Dawkins and contribute to his sales records.

    I think the publishers are probably laughing all the way to the bank at all this free publicity.

  • Frederik

    Regards “there is nothing to stop Dawkins to engage and respond to set the record straight” – sure, but why should he? Some would even say he’s the better man for not engaging. No-one is obliged to counter rumours and whatnot. And as a practical matter he will have dozens if not hundreds of these things to various extents, particularly given creationists want to see him as some sort of “enemy” to rally against and some people’s want to poke at famous people, especially those whose views have been polarised the public arena.

    Loose thoughts for you. I note Sutton writes on the same forum as you. If you read the prefaces, you’ll see that Dawkins took the advice of quite a few scientists in writing the book. Don’t you think they’d have pointed out any issues at the time the book was being written, being familiar with the literature themselves? I would also look carefully at Sutton’s second and third (and fourth) paragraphs and see how he’s “set up” his argument and think about it. (To my reading he is using poor logic to set up his argument and consequently the rest will be misplaced.)

  • @Frederik – would you suggest that someone should only write a book about something they have coined themselves? Very few pieces of work are carried out in complete isolation and there is little point reinventing the wheel!

  • Andrea,

    I am puzzled by your question. If it relates to Mike Sutton’s blog and his comments about Richard Dawkins and his book The Selfish Gene I would suggest you direct your question to him (MS). I don’t know Mike Sutton personally; I have never communicated with him (although he once left a comment on one of my online articles).

    However, if you’re interested in my personal opinion (why?) on the general issue of writing a book I will try to give you an answer. The simple answer is, of course, no, I don’t think that people should only write about something that they have coined themselves. By “coin” I mean claim as your own authentic and original words, phrases, concepts and ideas. Having said that, a significant (?) part of the book should be your own but it is silly to demand that all of it is, which is impossible (“on the shoulders of Giants we stand”). When you write something that is ‘common knowledge’ you won’t have to cite any sources. However, if it is not common knowledge you must cite your source. The citation has to be explicit, not just some vague general acknowledgement or buried in a bibliography or long list of citations at the very end of the book that only very few read (like the end of a movie when everyone leaves the cinema). So, write away but give credit when & where credit is due because failing to do so is plagiarism. Common knowledge is not well-defined and it can depend on the context as well. When in doubt, cite.

    Getting back to Richard Dawkins, it might be possible (!) that when he wrote his book it may have been common knowledge in his small select world of ‘evolutionists’ (for lack of a better word) at the time that Bill Hamilton had, in fact, coined the phrase and concept of “selfish gene”, as Mike Sutton seems to assert. Therefore, it would have been perfectly acceptable for Richard Dawkins to not explicitly cite Hamilton and simply acknowledge and thank him for his influence, etc. However, the book was published and aimed at a general audience (one assumes) and in this context and at that time (it was first published in 1976) Hamilton’s credit was not common knowledge (one assumes), which means Dawkins should have specifically given credit where credit is due, i.e. cite Hamilton for coining the phrase and concept. As I said “it might be possible” and I don’t know the answer nor do I pretend to know.

    I hope this answered your question.

  • Frederik, there’s a lot of “might be possibles” there – and you admit that your “don’t know the answer nor do [you] pretend to know.”

    I therefore wonder why you have raised this specific issue and can’t help but ask – have you actually read the book?

  • This is odd, because when I read the Selfish Gene I saw a lot of credit given to Hamilton (and Trivers). Dawkins wrote the book in response to the idea of ‘group selection’. Hamilton’s notion of kin-selection was very much integral to his counter-argument.

    You’ll also find he credited Axelrod and Hamilton for their work on the evolution of altruism via simulations (and the emergence of the golden rule via the dominance of the tit-for-tat strategy).

  • I drew attention to an issue raised by Mike Sutton on his blog, which, en passant, features on an open & free site (without annoying ads) with currently 1121 members that have their identities verified. People can make their own judgement about Dr Sutton’s conclusions but I do like to point out that the Wiki for The Selfish Gene has been edited since (and because of?) Dr Sutton’s blog.

    I thought the blog was interesting for a number of reasons and should appeal to the readership of this site (i.e. Sciblogs). Although it raises questions about Richard Dawkins and his book The Selfish Gene in particular it is not the usual run of the mill attack on Dawkins (of which there are many). Richard Dawkins is a polarising figure who has been spearheading the atheist legions in the ‘war between religion and science’. As is often the case in those wars of words people generally preach to the converted and the same arguments as weapons are rehashed without any resolve. The two factions are not coming any closer but seem to be digging deeper trenches; the online and mainstream ‘echo chambers’ are getting larger and louder and they are swelling in numbers. This seems to be a largely futile cycle. Mike Sutton’s assertions are not related to this war per se; if they were I would not have bothered drawing attention to them here.

    I don’t know Dr Sutton nor am I his spokesperson and for these reasons I’d like to refer to his blog for commenting; I will post my comments there as well.

  • OK, Frederik, I gather you are not really interested in The Selfish Gene, and probably have not read the book, anyway.

    More, that you personally see Dawkins as “a polarising figure,” not because of his science (after all who in the scientific community, really disagrees with his science?) but because he speaks his mind on religion and the so-called war on science. I don’t know what you mean by “atheist legions” and will just have to see it as part of your own bias (“legions” implies organisation – hardly applicable to atheists who aren’t organised).

    I agree that science and religion are not coming closer – but why should they? After all, they are different endeavours and religion has long lost any credibility in understanding the real world – now rightly considered the province of science.

    however, I disagree that this debate is futile. After all, important issues are involved and while committed people never change their mind immediately as a result of discussion, these do have a long term affect. For example, we can now see that people are far more ready to acknowledge their lack of religious belief.

    That must be a good thing.

  • @Frederik – I wouldn’t consider it true that the book “preaches to the converted” at all. People are not in some kind of static box. Case in point, I read it in 1989 as a 16 year old, it made such an enormous impression on me, enough to have changed the course of my life considerably.

  • I agree Andrea. The concept of preaching to the converted is rather cynical because the person who actually reads the book is likely to be more open minded, able to learn, and able to change their mind. It is the person who won’t read the book, or in fact bad-mouths the book without reading it, who is usually the closed minded person.

    Unfortunately I was really in that position 30 years ago when refused to read The Selfish Gene, and decided it was not a good book, purely because of the way some people described it. I was fooled by those who used the book title to argue that humans were basically selfish. I disagreed with the concept and therefore decided the book was no good and wrote off the author. It was not until the end of 2006 when I reluctantly bought The God Delusion, even though I didn’t like the author (an unjustified positon becuase I had never read any of his books). On reading that I realised I had been wrong and had denied myself a useful learning process for 30 years because of my unwarranted prejudice. That was a lesson to me as I am sure if I had read the book 30 years ago I would have learned a terrific lot.

    So, strangely, it was Dawkins’ book on religion (which Frederik is claiming pointless) which enabled me to overcome my prejudice and actually read Dawkins’ science books. I just wish I had done that back in the 70s.

  • Frederick,

    You wrote “Having said that, a significant (?) part of the book should be your own”

    – it’d depend on the aim of the book. If your aim is mainly to ‘popularise’ other’s work, then it’ll dominantly be others’ work. I think Dawkins made fairly clear in his Prefaces this is the main line he was pursuing. It’s the main approach of the popular science genre.

    I don’t think Sutton’s argument is worth engaging with, but one quick thought for you to consider: it is non-specialists’ writing about Dawkins that are in error. (Trying to shift these to Dawkins would be wrong-headed. Sutton does something similar in his claim to have “shown up” Darwin.)

  • Andrea, my statement about “preaching to the converted” was a general one while yours is an individual and personal one. I agree that “People are not in some kind of static box” but people are biased and some are closed-minded. You also single out the reading of one book, which happens to be The Selfish Gene, as a counter example of the same general statement I made; the two are not mutually exclusive.

    Ken, I am by no means an expert on the man Richard Dawkins but as far as I can tell he is at the far end of the science-versus-religion debate. It is not just his ‘message’ but also his ‘style’ that contribute to the polarising effect. Personally, I am more interested in the ‘middle ground’, where science and religion co-exist and how. I find it more fascinating reading about, and from, scientists who are also religious. They are not necessarily ‘swing voters’ or ‘fence sitters’ but people that have made a conscious decision to incorporate both aspects into their lives. Interestingly, these decisions have to be reinforced on a regular basis because “people are not in some kind of static box” and they do change their views depending on what they read and on general life experiences although I wonder whether it always necessarily leads to friction and whether, in fact, they can be complementary views. It may be hard to comprehend or accept for some (Dawkins?) that these people exist. Because they believe in something that is ‘metaphysical’ they can still think critically and even be very effective and productive scientists. People at the opposite and opposing ends are highly unlikely to make a shift, although not unheard of, and if that is the ‘purpose’ of this war than it is indeed largely futile IMO (which does not mean that there aren’t any beneficial spin-offs of such ‘war’ as even real wars have led to a few ‘good things’ such as the impetus of WWII for the US Space Program, for example).

    I did not give the metaphor “atheist legions” much thought when I wrote it. However, I would say that it is actually quite an appropriate metaphor. For example, online atheists ‘march’ together and in the same way, they ‘attack’ together, they use the same arguments as ‘weapons’, they seem to think they fight against the same ‘enemy’. In other words, their modus operandi is highly similar. Not all religious people go to church and not all atheists ‘congregate’ either. However, many atheists are most definitely well-organised; the number of atheist organisations is mind-boggling. For example, one only has to go the website of the Richard Dawkins Foundation (for Reason and Science; RDFRS for short) to find this News article on the launch of “Atheist Alliance International (“AAI”), a global network of atheist and free thought organisations” http://old.richarddawkins.net/articles/635584-launch-of-new-atheist-alliance-international. The RDFRS mission statement appears to appear on every page of the RDFRS website and explicitly mentions “religious fundamentalism” (I did not look for the ‘definition’ but my impression is that according to RD each and every religious person is ‘fair game’). Atheists often ‘form allegiances’ with sceptics and JREF and TAM are just some other examples of well-oiled and highly organised organisations.

    Ken, you are quite right, of course, that our bias can hold us back. I think we all say, from time to time, “I wish I had known this or that (before, earlier, etc.)”, “I wish I had done (or not done) this or that (instead)”, etc. However, ‘wisdom of hindsight’ is a paradox, wishful thinking is a bias and so is hindsight bias (obviously). But bias is not always a bad thing, is it? We also say “I’m glad I didn’t do this or that” and similar things; it can work both ways.

    Grant, I also wondered about the possible futility of Mike Sutton’s point(s) and engaging with it. However, I did engage and as a result I read quite a few scientific papers by Hamilton and colleagues from the early 70s (I referred to these in my comment on Sutton’s blog). The scientific papers that are published nowadays are not like those older ones at all. Lawrence Krauss made a similar comment in his book A Universe From Nothing (pg. 28/29) regarding a paper by Einstein in 1936 in Science. Anyway, I digress; the point is that I initially thought Sutton’s ‘perspective’ was reasonable given his arguments but now I am not so certain anymore; I may have slightly changed my mind based upon the evidence, including in the book itself, but it still seems to leave the door wide open to various interpretations. It doesn’t really matter because I have no axe to grind with Dawkins nor do I have a point to prove. Still, I will continue my engagement with Sutton’s blog and let it run its cause.

    • Frederik, I get the message that you don’t like atheists. That you don’t like Professor Dawkins. And you have a soft spot for religion. But I really fail to see what this all has to so with my brief article.

      However, I will make a few comments. I also know, and have worked with scientists who are also religious. I have worked alongside atheists, agnostics, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and possibly other religious scientists. We were all doing the same science – religious and political views just did not come into it. Bloody hell, I have worked alongside scientists who gambled, believed in astrology, even one who was a member of the ACT Party.

      But when it comes to doing science this is a secular activity, involving this world. We can all do that. It relies on reason, evidence and creativity. We can all do that irrespective of religious and political beliefs. We can all respect each other’s work, debate and discuss it in good faith. Because we keep our religious and political views out of our work.

      Problems only arise when individuals try to impose their ideological views on their science, rather than using evidence and reason. This happens with those people promoting creationism and intelligent design for religious reasons. That is when there is a conflict between science and religion.

      Scientists use well tested and creative methods in their day job. It can be quite different when they are involved in their hobbies, politics or religions. In that mode they are not behaving as scientists – and to claim they are is to introduce a conflict.

      When such conflicts occur it is important that scientists fight for their science. that they don’t allow such ideological interference in their science. You might not like the fact that Richard Dawkins stands up for his science against the creationists and other evolution deniers – but in doing this he is being true to the scientific process. The creationists and their ilk are actually trying to destroy the scientific process. So understandably there is a conflict – and so there should be.

      Finally, get a hold of yourself and see things as they really are. You claim “many atheists are most definitely well-organised; the number of atheist organisations is mind-boggling.” Look around – compare the number of churches, mosques and other religious establishments with the number of atheist ones (I think there are only 2 atheist organisations in the whole country). Compare the level of organisation of the religious groups with the pathetic organisation of atheists. Consider the fact that religious organisation get tax and rates exemptions simply for promoting supernatural beliefs – atheists don’t get that.

      I don’t think you are being objective. Just allow people like Richard Dawkins to write their books and give their lectures – it doesn’t hurt you in any way. It’s all part of living in a democratic, secular and pluralist society.

  • Ken,

    I have absolutely nothing against atheists; my best friends (and many close colleagues) are atheists and we get along like a house on fire. To say that I don’t like atheists is like saying I don’t like people who wear red shoes, i.e. nonsensical. I have already mentioned that I have no axe to grind with Richard Dawkins. I don’t like some (only some) of the many things he has said & written and I dislike the way he chooses to convey his message on some occasions. I have previously explained why I have an interest in people who are both religious and scientists and in particular in the internal personal conflict (or lack thereof). Just a personal quirk; you can call it a “soft spot” if you like (your words). I am not really interested (which doesn’t mean I like or dislike either party) in the public spat between atheists and religious people, the so-called ‘war’. You have written about atheists, religious people, and Richard Dawkins and your “brief article” (blog) was about a new book by Richard Dawkins that isn’t even out yet. I assume you did not ‘plug’ the publishing of the book because you’ll receive a commission but because you have an interest in Richard Dawkins and his work. Thus I see a clear connection between your and my interests (although we clearly don’t sing from the same hymn sheet); I do read many of your blogs with great interest. I also am a scientist, through and through, and I love science; I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. I also ‘believe’ in the scientific method and I’d like to think I am on the same page as you in this regard.

    I never said that atheists are as organised as religious groups just that the former are well-organised, which was to challenge your assertion “atheists who aren’t organised”. Any other comparisons are entirely of your own making. I could say many things about religious organisations (and other groups …) receiving special status and treatment in and by society but I expect this may get an antagonistic response so I won’t.

    I agree that people like Richard Dawkins add to the ‘spice of life’. I never suggested that his books should be banned and burned and that he should be exiled. I would not even say that about Christopher Monckton. You seem to think that I have a bee in my bonnet about Richard Dawkins and atheists in general, that I am some kind of biased zealot. I know you got the wrong message.

    If you happen to visit the Med School in Auckland please give me a ring and we’ll have a coffee.

  • Frederik, I am pleased you now seem to more or less endorse the views I have expressed. Hopefully you have backed away from endorsing the criticisms of Dawkins’ books (the claim he had not acknowledged properly the idea of a selfish gene and your recommendation of McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion for its biased criticism of Dawkins).

    Dawkins is like any other author or speaker, with good points and bad points. Because I had a prejudiced view of him for 30 years (without even reading him) I am sensitive to the same sort of prejudice in others. And there is a lot of it about.

    No I don’t get a commission for commenting on his books, but I do review a lot of science writing here and, like many a people who have read him, I am aware of his literary and communication skills. I also have an interest in science biography and autobiography so naturally will be keen to read his upcoming 2 volume autobiography.