Home » Intelligent Design » Someone finally said it: “Dawkins’s hysterical scientism”

Someone finally said it: “Dawkins’s hysterical scientism”

Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead, which won both the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and 2005 National Book Critics Circle award, says what needs to be said, and no more, about Oxford Professor of the Public Understanding of Science Richard Dawkins’ inane crusade against religion And she says it brilliantly in “Hysterical scientism: The ecstasy of Richard Dawkins”. Reviewing his recent The God Delusion for November’s Harper’s, she notes that “There is a pervasive exclusion of historical memory in Dawkins’s view of science,”observing that, while it is true that Jews were persecuted in Christian Europe,

… it is also true that science in the twentieth century revived and absolutized persecution by giving it a fresh rationale – Jewishness was not religious or cultural but genetic. Therefore no appeal could be made against the brute fact of a Jewish grandparent.

She notes,

Dawkins deals with all this in one sentence. Hitler did his evil “in the name of … an insane and unscientific eugenics theory.” But eugenics is science as surely as totemism is religion. That either is in error is beside the point,”

concluding that

bad science is still science in more or less the same sense that bad religion is still religion.

The fact that Harper’s (hardly a bastion of the Religious Right) publishes such a skewering (and it is not the only non-theocon rag to do so), is another one for the files on why the intelligent design controversy grows. Dawkins is a declared and focused enemy of ID as well as religion, but his anti-ID and anti-religious antics are worth almost as much as Michael Behe’s or Philip Yancey’s next book.

(Note: I can’t find this November 2006 edition linked yet. I bought a paper copy in Minneapolis. The link will get you to the site, which will presumably update to November’s cover stories shortly.)

Oh, and Terry Eagleton offers in London Review of Books:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.

If I were Microsoft billionaire Charles Simonyi (an atheist who funded Dawkins’ chair at Oxford), I would try to get Dawkins to retire, in favor of a mild-mannered science prof who holds down a pew at the local tabernacle and is firmly convinced that we sin when we look for evidence of God’s work in the universe. To be truly faithful, we must ignore evidence in favour of blind faith. Such a scientist would do far more than Dawkins to limit the growth of ID, because he makes it a positive sin among religious believers to wonder whether the heavens really do declare the glory of the Lord.

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15 Responses to Someone finally said it: “Dawkins’s hysterical scientism”

  1. “”Dawkins deals with all this in one sentence. Hitler did his evil “in the name of … an insane and unscientific eugenics theory.” But eugenics is science as surely as totemism is religion. That either is in error is beside the point,” “”

    There is a big irony here. What 19th century ideology did set eugenics and racism among its main future goal? 1 cent for the correct answer .

  2. I can’t prove it, but I think Dawkin’s influence is peaking. I hope so. I do not share the religious certainty of some who post on this site. But, I view Dawkin’s as a destructive force in the life of humanity. Religious belief is an important molder of personality and of great value in providing a sense of purpose in life. Not everybody needs or uses it for the above purposes, but the majority of humanity has for centuries. That alone is enough to tread carefully when considering it’s value. I would not seek, in any way, to deny the atheists their worldview . Further, they deserve courtesty and respect as equal participants in the life we share. But, I do stand shoulder to shoulder with Christian theists when their worldview is attacked is such a rude and insensitive way.

  3. 3

    I have to leave aside any real comment on Dawkin’s book, since I haven’t read it, and probably won’t.

    However, I think Ms. Robinson is incorrect when she says:
    … science in the twentieth century revived and absolutized persecution by giving it a fresh rationale – Jewishness was not religious or cultural but genetic. Therefore no appeal could be made against the brute fact of a Jewish grandparent.

    The Nazi Nuremberg Laws were based on ancestry, not genetics. What was important to the laws was whether or not you had a “Jewish grandparent”. But the test of whether a grandparent was Jewish was their religious observance, not the same “grandparent” test. A valid genetics-based test could have been applied to the grandparents as well.

    Further, Ithink she is wrong in analogizing eugenics with science, compared to totemism and religion. Totemism is a kind of religion, but eugenics is not a kind of science. Eugenics is a social program that makes appeals to science for support.

    I will allow her that there are all kinds of “bad” science – science sloppily done, deliberately falsified results, invalidated theories.

    But she is on very shaky ground to call some religion “bad.” Is she trying to continue the analogy, calling eugenics “bad science” and totemism “bad religion”?? In science, the experimant can be redone by another group, results refined, predictions made and verified. That is what ultimately separates “good” science from “bad”.

    What is her test for “bad” religion?

  4. DvK

    I’m sure everyone but you understood what O’Leary meant by genetic in the context of not cultural or religious. You were Jewish in Nazi Germany if you had a sufficiently closely blood-related ancestor who was Jewish.

    Claiming that eugenics is not science is the same as claiming that animal breeding is not science. In other words, an empty claim. The science establishment wants to dissociate itself from eugenics for understandable reasons but it is nothing more or less than animal breeding applied to human animals. Since the consensus view of science is that humans are animals then all that science has discovered about inheritance, breeding, and genetics applied to improve crops and livestock are necessarily applicable to improving humans too. Eugenics is good science with repugnant ethical implications.

    Don’t bother responding, DvK. I’ve reached the limit of how much time I’m willing to spend correcting your comments. You’re history here.

  5. I’d agree- if your worldview says that humans are mere animals and no better or higher than any other animal, then eugenics is science. We breed cows for the best beef and pigs for the best ham and bacon…if we used this and extended it to humas, what’s the difference for 1. And 2. why is eugenics wrong? If you think humans are mere animals, I don’t see any problem with eugenics, as we do the same sort of stuff to most other animals.

    I suspect, even if a person proclaims they think humans are mere animals, just at a higher level and not on a different plane, they’d still say eugenics is wrong, but why? If we’re not the pinnacle of a plan- then we’re no more special to the universe than a cow or a pig. We might be more special in our mind, but what does that matter if we’re just mere animals that are accidents of an uncaring universe?

  6. But eugenics is science as surely as totemism is religion.

    I would agree that the study of different breeding techniques to obtain certain traits is probably properly called “science”. However, application of these theories to the removal of so-called “bad traits” (i.e. ‘eugenics’ as it is commonly used) is significantly closer to social engineering than to straight “science”.

    I will admit that the difference is subtle – a science tells us *what will happen* when certain genes are combined, eugenics is the application of that scientific knowledge coupled with a desire for “social advancement” or some other noble-sounding goal. In fact, I would argue that “eugenics” seen in this light (as the application of scientific knowledge to acheive certain goals) is properly termed a type of “engineering” (“social engineering” in particular).

    I think that arguing otherwise is similar to arguing that since the study of the atom is science, so is the cold-war mindset of “mutually ensured destruction”. Or that since the study of trans-fats is “science”, the banning of trans-fats in restaurants is “science”.

    Jewishness was not religious or cultural but genetic. Therefore no appeal could be made against the brute fact of a Jewish grandparent.
    It certainly wasn’t 20th century science that led to the discovery of genetic heredity.

  7. 7
    sagebrush gardener

    I believe this is the full review online here.

  8. Franky

    If you agree things like making disease resistant crops fall under genetic engineering then I think it’s fair to call eugenics genetic engineering as well. Scientifically there’s really no difference. In both cases desired characters are obtained through either selective breeding or today also through recombinant DNA technology . It’s a good thing the Nazis didn’t have recombinant DNA at their disposal.

  9. I happen to think that both pigs and cows are very special creatures in creation, and that it is ethically disturbing to subject them to the grossly exaggerated selective breeding which produces one-sided benefits for us. Dairy cows, for example, are selectively bred to produce enormous quantities of milk because this trait is convenient and economic for humans. The effect of this on the creature, however, is devastating. These cows typically die of cancer in a few short (and arguably miserable) years because of a constellation of altered systems the details of which I cannot remember offhand. Its disgusting. Humans may be elementally superior to animals, that is they may be technically so constituted that they are CAPABLE of producing and contributing to creation in a higher or more refined sense. However, this distinction is a stringent demand which is greeted with nearly abject failure at every level in human society. The same cannot be said of animals in animal society. I know this is terribly off-topic, for which I apologize, but I think it is unhelpful and really dangerous to go about puffed up about our superiority to the natural world when on balance we alone are the failures.

  10. Humans are clearly superior in my mind, and thankfully most agree. If an ambulance drives by and my son just wrecked his car into a cow- I pray to the good Lord above that the ambulance drivers jump out of the rig, save my son’s life while grilling hamburgers, as opposed to saving poor bessie’s life and letting my son die.

    If that was reversed- this would be a sad world to live in for sure.

    As for humans and animals and violence, evil, doing bad things. I don’t think it’s all that praise-worthy to say that humans do bad things and animals don’t, thus we shouldn’t go on about being superior. Animals don’t act out in evil ways because they’re incapable of it. Since it’s impossible for them to act out in such a manner- it’s a moot point.

    Speaking of benefits being one-sided, I don’t think it’s possible for a pig to have any benefit period in man’s use of him. A cow can give milk (as can other animals), but most of what we’d think about would be using animals for good. I don’t think that’s evil. It’s rather necessary to our very survival. Of course the benefits are going to be one-sided, as people are clearly on an entirely different playing field than mr pig or mrs cow.

    I think we should try to be humane, but in the end- I’m personally all for a bigger, tastier, juicier steak. If that means pumping some cow full of chemicals, go right on ahead. I’d just rather eat the steak and not see the slaughterhouse.

  11. Dave,
    If you agree things like making disease resistant crops fall under genetic engineering then I think it’s fair to call eugenics genetic engineering as well. Scientifically there’s really no difference. In both cases desired characters are obtained through either selective breeding or today also through recombinant DNA technology. [emphasis added]

    I would say the difference is between *scientific knowledge* and *policy* and the difference is highlighted specifically by of the word “desired” in your third sentence – Science can tell us what happens when we turn certain genes on and off, but it is a matter of *policy* to determine what features are desired and what techniques we should utilize to obtain those features.

    For example, it is said that the ancient Spartans left their young out in the fields for a period of time on their own – those who perished perished, and those who survived were considered “strong”. Science can tell us what the net effects of such a practice are, but it is a matter of *policy* (i.e. a determination of what we “want”) – not science – that leads to such practices being implemented to obtain “desired” results.

    So again, if by “eugenics” we mean “the selective application of scientific knowledge to obtain certain genetic goals by forced sterilization and other practices” then I would still argue that is a matter of policy, just as the application of the scientific knowledge of plant genetics to obtain larger corn stalks or whatever is a matter of policy, since science is mute on what should be “desired”. If, on the other hand, by “eugenics” we mean “the study of heredity in human beings” that I would call “science”.

  12. D’oh.

    Quoted text should read:

    If you agree things like making disease resistant crops fall under genetic engineering then I think it’s fair to call eugenics genetic engineering as well. Scientifically there’s really no difference. In both cases desired characters are obtained through either selective breeding or today also through recombinant DNA technology. [emphasis added]

  13. Franky

    All science and engineering is a matter of desire. If no one desired to discover new things science wouldn’t get done. Once something is desired, say a new telescope or atom smasher, policy is crafted to git ‘er done. Engineering is the same. So I don’t think calling anything about eugenics “policy” excludes it from being science or engineering.

  14. Dave,

    All science and engineering is a matter of desire. If no one desired to discover new things science wouldn’t get done.

    I agree, but I would mention that the desire for knowledge itself is not a part of science proper. In fact science is incapable of telling us what to desire – be it sweet foods, strong babies, good medicine, or some “superior race”; Science can only tell us what techniquesw to apply to acheive whatever our goals may be, it is silent on what those goals should be. Thus the difference between understanding genetics and instituting eugenics programs is the same as the difference between understanding trans-fats and banning them in restaurants – in my opinion one is science and one is policy.

    Of course, we can agree to disagree on this point, since I don’t think it is truly fundamnetal to much

  15. I go back again to the Jack Webb comment in Dragnet, “just the facts, maam.” Science is about gaining the facts. What we do with them is not only a matter of policy, it is a matter of values. And values are informed by worldviews.
    I think it would be fair to say that eugenics and animal breeding is the application of values upon the core facts of genetics. I think we intermingle the two, and fail to understand just how quickly we enter the realm of values.

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