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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Richard Dawkins on Darwin's Genius

The first episode of the three-part TV series The Genius of Charles Darwin, featuring biologist and hard-core atheist Richard Dawkins, aired on BBC last night and the reviews are starting to come in. They're not completely favorable.
"On the one hand, we got a brilliant and heartfelt guide to how Darwin’s ideas developed. On the other, virtually every point was accompanied by a vigorous yet entirely predictable sideswipe at religious believers and their benighted ways," writes James Walton in the Telegraph. "This only had the effect of constantly interrupting the interesting stuff. It was also like watching someone with a sort of anti-religious version of Tourette’s syndrome—and certainly confirmed that the downside of having an obsession is that you become a bit of a bore."
In The Independent, Deborah Orr is even harsher. Though "Dawkins did well in his role as writer and presenter to remain as placid as he did, given his well-known impatience with humans who still believe in such superstitious nonsense as God," she writes, the episode illuminated the fact that, for him, it is not enough that a person accept evolution—a person must also abandon belief in God; believing in both is unacceptable. "What became clear during this first programme," writes Orr, "was that Dawkins is not only a rationalist but is also a literalist. Even deeply religious Christians are happy to consider the Bible to be metaphorical rather than narrative. But he cannot do so. He sticks rigidly to the idea that since the Bible describes the world beginning 6,000 years ago, when really life began four million years ago, God can't exist."
What's perhaps most interesting is that both writers seem to pick up a theme that physicist Karl Giberson wrote about on Salon.com last week—the idea that "new atheists" like Dawkins are becoming, in a sense, our new preachers. It's strange, says Orr, how Dawkins has "come to resemble that which he most despises"—namely, fundementalists and absolutists. "There is something almost biblical in the desire of this high-profile hard-rationalist to smite the unbelievers, and remove them from the face of the earth, using the implacable power of science and reason," she writes.
Walton, too, chooses religious language in describing what he calls Dawkins' "evangelical atheism." According to Walton, the "sight of him looking awestruck as he gazed at a first edition of On the Origin of Species was especially stirring. When he showed us some of Darwin’s own pigeon specimens from the 1850s, he duly handled them like holy relics."
The second episode of the series airs next Monday. —Heather Wax