Monday, 13 July 2009

The Selfish Genius – Fern Elsdon-Baker ****

Those who have only come across Richard Dawkins from his books or TV shows may not be aware just how much mixed feeling he generates in the scientific community. There is a respected scientific journal editor who refers to Dawkins as HWMNBN (he who must not be named), likening him to the scientific equivalent of Voldemort in the Harry Potter books.
The reason for these mixed feelings is that, while Dawkins is very good at writing accessibly on science, he sometimes presents his personal views on evolution as if they were the pure scientific truth, rather than one interpretation of the science, which isn’t held by everyone in the field. Equally, Dawkins tends to tie his loud and scathing attacks on religion into evolution and science, as if it were not possible to accept evolution and a scientific viewpoint without being an atheist.
What Fern Elsdon-Baker sets out to do – and does brilliantly – is to identify just how Dawkins’ views sit within the latest scientific theories on evolution, and to separate the science from the atheism in Dawkins’ rhetoric. She starts by emphasising that the title of the book is just a play on the name of Dawkins’ most famous title, The Selfish Gene – in practice she regards him as neither selfish nor a genius. She goes on to explore the development of evolutionary theory, and how Dawkins’ ideas don’t in fact reflect the best fit with Darwin’s own stance, showing how different theories around the mechanisms by which evolution operates have developed over time.
I ought to stress that this is in no sense an apologetic for creationism or intelligent design, both of which Elsdon-Baker has no truck with. Instead it’s an attack on taking the same fundamentalist approach in science that Dawkins so rightly despises in religion.
It’s not perfect. Elsdon-Baker is sometimes so enthusiastic to ensure she comes across as fair and even handed that she can spend rather too long explaining why she’s not supporting one thing or another. And she can get a trifle repetitious in her statements of what she’s suggesting, and perhaps over-technical on some of the fine points of evolutionary biology. Yet the book is far and above the best one I’ve seen that explains to the general reader just what is going on in the sort of intellectual battles we’ve seen the likes of Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Stephen Jay Gould engage in, and is particularly effective in its dissection and dismissal of Dawkins’ most extreme outpourings and anti-religious tracts.
This is much more than a book on Dawkins, it’s a good way to get a better understanding of the position of science in society and how Dawkins’ approach to enhancing the public understanding of science can be counter-productive. Thought provoking and engaging reading.
Review by Brian Clegg

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