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Darwin’s Rottweiler & the Public Understanding of Science
Peter Williams claims that Richard Dawkins is a good writer but a poor logician, and attempts to prove it with examples of some formal fallacies.
The famous zoologist Dr Richard Dawkins is a man who courts controversy; many would agree with Dorothy Nelkin’s description of him as “materialistic, reductionist and overtly antireligious.” (Alas, Poor Darwin, Vintage, 2001, p.15.) One of his admirers is Charles Simonyi, head of Microsoft’s Intentional Programming team, who gave Oxford University funds to establish a Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science with Dawkins specifically in mind. “Evolution’s first great advocate, 1860s biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, earned the nickname ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ from his fellow Victorians. In our own less decorous day, Dawkins deserves an even stronger epithet: ‘Darwin’s Rottweiler, perhaps,’ Simonyi suggests.” (Robert Downey, Eastsideweek, December 11, 1996) Dawkins himself comments: “if I am asked for a single phrase to characterize my role as Professor of Public Understanding of Science, I think I would choose Advocate for Disinterested Truth.” (A Devil’s Chaplain, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003.)
While this sounds great in principle, the public would be better served if Dawkins were ironically labelled ‘Professor for the Public Understanding of Scientism’, because, far from being a disinterested advocate of truth, Dawkins spends his time preaching the gospel of atheism using a raft of fallacious arguments dressed up in an obscuring cloak of science. ‘Darwin’s Rottweiler’ is skilled in rhetoric (the Royal Society for Literature elected him a fellow in 1997), but less skilled in logic. Consider the following selection of logical fallacies drawn from Dawkins’ canon:
1. Self-Contradiction – a statement that refers to and falsifies itself.
In an open letter to his daughter Juliet, Richard Dawkins laudably encourages her to think for herself:
“Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: ‘Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?’ And next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.”
(A Devil’s Chaplain, p.248.)
Dawkins limits what can count as a good reason to believe something so tightly (conflating evidence with empirical evidence) that his encouragement is self-contradictory, because it cannot be justified with anything that he would count as evidence. In which case, Dawkins’ statement tells us not to believe a word he says! Hence his demand for evidence is self-refuting. The belief that ‘knowledge is identical to scientific knowledge’ is not something that can be known scientifically. Rather, it is a philosophical dogma (called ‘positivism’).
2. Begging the Question - the fallacy of using the conclusion of an argument as one of the premises employed to establish that conclusion.
According to the theory of evolution, biological systems evolve through the incremental accumulation of beneficial mutations. Dawkins explains why: “The larger the leap through genetic space, the lower the probability that the resulting change will be viable, let alone an improvement. [Hence] evolution must in general be a crawl through genetic space, not a series of leaps.” (‘Darwin Triumphant’, A Devil’s Chaplain, p.86.) He describes this gradual approach to obtaining biological complexity as ‘Climbing Mount Improbable.’ (Climbing Mount Improbable, Viking, 1996). Improbable because, as Steven Vogel writes, the theory stipulates that “Nature in effect must transmute a motorcycle into an automobile while providing continuous transportation.” (Cat’s Paws and Catapults, Penguin, 1998, p.23.) As Stephen Jay Gould admitted: “Our inability, even in our imagination, to construct functional intermediaries in many cases has been a persistent and nagging problem for gradualistic accounts of evolution.” (‘Is a new and general theory of evolution emerging?’, Paleobiology, January 1980, p.127.) Nevertheless, Dawkins, who assumes that evolution must be true because it is the only theory able to fill in the explanatory gap left by the exclusion of design, is content to say that even though we have no idea what path organisms took up Mount Improbable, they must have done so: “however daunting the sheer cliffs that the adaptive mountain first presents, graded ramps can be found the other side and the peak eventually scaled” (A Devil’s Chaplain, p.211-212.) How does Dawkins know that these graded ramps can be found in advance of showing what they are, without even looking for them? Because Dawkins’ justification for this assumption is philosophical rather than scientific: “Without stirring from our chair, we can see that it must be so”, (ibid, p.212) explains Dawkins, “because nothing except gradual accumulation could, in principle, do the job...” (ibid.) What job? The job of explaining life naturalistically! Dawkins’ conclusion that species have evolved rests upon his presupposition that there is no designer.
3. The False Dilemma - Two choices are given when in actuality there are more choices possible.
When it comes to explaining biological reality, Dawkins asserts: “The only thing [William Paley] got wrong – admittedly quite a big thing – was the explanation itself. He gave the traditional religious answer [that life was created by God]... The true explanation is utterly different, and it had to wait for one of the most revolutionary thinkers of all time, Charles Darwin.” (The Blind Watchmaker, Penguin, 1991, p.41.) Dawkins fails to point out that belief in the doctrine of creation and the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection are in fact compatible. Michael Poole explains why the choice between creation and evolution is a false dilemma:
“When giving causal explanations, it needs to be made clear whether the causes in question are primary (ultimate) or secondary (immediate, proximate) ones and also whether they are to be given in terms of an agent or a process. There is no logical blunder being committed if it is claimed both that ‘God made the universe’ and ‘the universe was the result of a “Big Bang”.’ It is a logical error to hold that an explanation of cosmological mechanisms involved necessarily excludes divine agency. It certainly appears to be a common error to regard explanations of agency and explanations of process as alternatives. Perhaps the form of this mistake which generates most heat and lest light is the claim that one has to choose between ‘God created humankind’ and ‘humankind was the result of an evolutionary process.’”
(‘Explaining or Explaining Away’, Science & Christian Belief)
4. The Fallacy of Equivocation - ‘a word is used in two different contexts and is assumed to have the same meaning in both contexts, when distinct meanings ought to be preferred.’ (www.tektonics.org/fallacies.html)
In Climbing Mount Improbable Dawkins draws a distinction between objects that are clearly designed and objects that are not designed but superficially look a bit like they are designed, which he calls ‘designoid’ (p.4) and illustrates with a craggy hillside that suggests the profile of the late President Kennedy: “Once you have been told, you can just see a slight resemblance to either John or Robert Kennedy. But some don’t see it and it is certainly easy to believe that the resemblance is accidental.” (p.3.) Dawkins contrasts this Kennedy-esque hillside with the presidents’ heads carved into Mt. Rushmore, which “are obviously not accidental: they have design written all over them.” (ibid.) Dawkins asserts that no biological organisms are designed; they are (at most) designoid: “Designoid objects look designed, so much so that some people – probably, alas, most people – think that they are designed. These people are wrong... the true explanation – Darwinian natural selection – is very different.” (p.4-5.) The meaning of Dawkins’ crucial term shifts significantly in the course of his argument. Dawkins’ original definition of a designoid was of something with the superficial appearance of design. People have to have the resemblance between the hillside and Kennedy pointed out to them; some people “don’t see it” (p.3); and “it is certainly easy to believe that the resemblance is accidental.” (ibid.) Later, Dawkins wants to convince us that, although some biological objects give such a strong appearance of design that “most people” (p.4) intuitively think that they are designed, they are in fact designoid. Dawkins’ argument equivocates between ‘things that look a bit like they might be designed, but on closer inspection obviously are not’ and ‘things that give every appearance of being designed, but are not’.
5. The Non Sequitur – Comments or claims that do not logically follow from what has gone before, but that are presented as if they do.
Stephen M. Barr’s review of Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow is spot on:
“It is not often that one can find exactly the point where an author goes off track, but here one can. It is in the fifth sentence of the preface of the book, which begins, ‘Similar accusations of barren desolation, of promoting an arid and joyless message, are frequently flung at science in general.’ However, what people object to in Dawkins is not the science but the atheism. Because he cannot see the difference, he writes a book that is a 300-page non sequitur.”
(‘Prophet of Pointlessness’, First Things, August/September 1995.)
6. Special Pleading (double standard) - the fallacy in which one criticises others for falling short of particular standards and rules, while taking oneself to be exempt, without adequately justifying that exemption.
Dawkins thinks that using ‘God’ to explain anything is redundant: “To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the designer.” (The Blind Watchmaker, p.141.) Dawkins’ objection to the God hypothesis is a double-edged sword that counts against all scientific explanations, including evolution. One might as well say that invoking evolution by natural selection explains precisely nothing because it leaves unexplained the origin of life capable of evolving; that invoking the supposed ‘chemical evolution’ of life from non-life explains precisely nothing because it leaves unexplained the existence of chemicals; or that invoking the finely-tuned laws of physics that underlay the big bang and the subsequent cosmic evolution that produced the chemicals explains nothing because it leaves unexplained the origin and fine-tuning of the fundamental laws of nature. Naturally, Dawkins wants to invoke all of these theories; he just wants to exclude design. However, trying to have it both ways involves Dawkins in the use of a double standard.
7. Wishful Thinking - ‘a fallacy that posits a belief because it or its consequence is desired to be true.’ (www.tektonics.org/fallacies.html)
Discussing the theory of ‘chemical evolution’ or abiogenesis (the supposed naturalistic appearance of life from non-life), Dawkins says: “Nobody knows how it happened but, somehow, without violating the laws of physics and chemistry, a molecule arose that just happened to have the property of self-copying – a replicator.” (Climbing Mount Improbable, p.259.) Dawkins’ belief in abiogenesis is wishful thinking in that he wants it to be true because it is necessary for an atheistic account of origins, despite there being a large body of scientific evidence against the theory.
8. The Red Herring - ‘A Red Herring is an irrelevant topic or premise brought into a discussion to divert attention from the topic at hand. Usually, the irrelevancy is subtle, so that it appears relevant to those not paying close attention.’ (www.tektonics.org/fallacies.html)
Dawkins considers the odds against the chance formation of an enzyme: “A typical enzyme is a chain of several hundred links... An elementary calculation shows that the probability that any particular sequence of, say 100, amino-acids will spontaneously form is... 1 in 20100. This is an inconceivably large number, far greater than the number of fundamental particles in the entire universe.” (op cit, p.66.) Dawkins isn’t cowed by this figure, however, because “Darwinism is not a theory of random chance. It is a theory of random mutation plus non-random cumulative natural selection.” (ibid.) But introducing the theory of evolution by natural selection to solve the problem of enzyme formation is a red herring because the evidence suggests that 1) nothing can reproduce to be selected without utilizing enzymes in order to reproduce, and 2) certain enzymes appear to be ‘irreducibly complex’ and thus inaccessible to any process of natural selection.
9. Straw Man Argument - ‘a type of Red Herring that attacks a misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. That is called to burn a straw man. It is a surprisingly common fallacy, because it is easy to misunderstand another person’s position.’ (www.tektonics.org/fallacies.html)
According to Dawkins: “Science shares with religion the claim that it answers deep questions about origins, the nature of life and the cosmos. But there the resemblance ends. Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not.” (River Out of Eden, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995, p.33.) But as Alister McGrath responds:
“Dawkins’ caricature of Christianity may well carry weight with his increasingly religiously illiterate or religiously alienated audiences, who find in his writings ample confirmation of their prejudices, but merely persuades those familiar with religious traditions to conclude that Dawkins has no interest in understanding what he critiques... The classic Christian tradition has always valued rationality and does not hold that faith involves the abandonment of reason or the absence of evidence. Indeed, the Christian tradition is so strong on this matter that it is often difficult to understand where Dawkins got these ideas.” (Re-Enchanting Nature, SPCK, p.156-157.)
10. Ad Hominem – the fallacy of attacking the individual instead of the argument (ad hominem is Latin for ‘to the man.’)
According to Dawkins: “Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy are part of the charm of childhood. So is God. Some of us grow out of all three.” (Thirdway Magazine, June 2003, p.5.) Dawkins implies that anyone who believes in God is childish because belief in God is childish – but even if he were right about this, childish beliefs can still be right (e.g. children correctly believe that it’s fun to play on swings and that having friends is a good thing).
11. Poisoning the well - ‘a form of ad hominem attack that occurs before the meat of an argument, biasing the audience against the opponent’s side before he can present his case.’ (www.tektonics.org/fallacies.html)
Don’t pay attention to anyone who doubts evolution in any way, because they aren’t properly qualified scientists, they are only motivated by religious fundamentalism, and they are either mad or bad! That’s Dawkins’ well-poisoning take-home message about evolution-sceptics. It isn’t true.
Against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Dawkins “has called anyone advocating a creator God ‘scientifically illiterate’.” (Julia Hinde, ‘Does God Exist?’, in Big Questions in Science, ed. Harriet Swain, Jonathan Cape, 2002, p.2.) Stephen Jay Gould recognized that “Unless at least half my colleagues are dunces, there can be – on the most raw and empirical grounds – no conflict between science and religion.” (quoted by Denis Alexander, Rebuilding the Matrix, Lion, 2001, p.330.) Taken in any substantive sense, Dawkins’ assertion that “no qualified scientist doubts that evolution is a fact” (A Devil’s Chaplain, p.220.) is incorrect. Dr Jonathan Wells is a qualified scientist, a post-doctoral biologist in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California at Berkeley. According to Wells: “The Darwinian paradigm is in serious trouble, of the kind that matters most in science: it doesn’t fit the evidence.” (Darwinism Defeated?, ed. P.E. Johnson, D. Lamoureux et al., Regent College Publishing, 1999, p.137.) In response to a recent American television series on evolution, 132 qualified scientists signed a joint statement saying: “We are sceptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life.” According to a press release from the organisers, the Discovery Institute, “Signers of the statement questioning Darwinism came from throughout the US and from several other countries, representing biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, geology, anthropology and other scientific fields. Professors and researchers at such universities as Princeton, MIT, U Penn and Yale, as well as smaller colleges and the National Laboratories at Livermore and Los Alamos, are included.” Dawkins would have us believe that since these people doubt evolution, they can’t possibly be ‘qualified’ scientists. With Dawkins, it seems that the only qualification that counts is belief in evolution.
Dawkins lumps the scientific movement advocating Intelligent Design Theory together with ‘biblical creationism’, calling Intelligent Design Theory (ID) a “euphemism for creationists.” (A Devil’s Chaplain, p.219.) In reality, “some of the strongest critics of Darwin’s theory are scientists who happen to be non-fundamentalist Protestants, Catholics or Jews (as well as agnostics).” (ARN Guide to Evolution, p.98.) Thomas Woodward, author of Doubts about Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design, repudiates the claim that ID is motivated by religious premises:
“in the course of hearing how key Design advocates came to their current view, it became clear that their entry into the movement stemmed from intellectual or scientific – not religious – reasons... Several of the founders frequently relate a vivid tale of how they previously had assumed the validity of Darwinian scenarios and were later shocked to discover major weaknesses in the case for Darwinism. Typically this intellectual epiphany leads to further reading and research, which cements the new radical doubt about the theory’s plausibility.”
(Doubts about Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design, Baker, 2003, p.10 & 20.)
One leading advocate of ID, William Dembski, is at pains to stress that Intelligent Design Theory is not creationism:
“the design theorists’ critique of Darwinism in no way hinges on the Genesis account of creation. On no occasion do design theorists invoke Genesis 1 and 2 as a scientific text... The design theorists’ beef is not with evolutionary change per se, but with the claim by Darwinists that all such change is driven by purely naturalistic processes... the design theorists’ critique of Darwinism begins with Darwinism’s failure as an empirically adequate scientific theory, and not with its supposed incompatibility with some system of religious belief.”
(‘What Every Theologian Should Know about Creation, Evolution and Design’, William A. Dembski & Jay Wesley Richards (eds), Unapologetic Apologetics, IVP, 2001.)
Dawkins once claimed in the New York Times that “it is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” (quoted by Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial, IVP, 1993, p.9.) On the contrary, as Dembski writes: “one can be reasonably welladjusted, remarkably well-educated (as many design theorists are), and still think Darwinism is a failed scientific paradigm.” Dembski, whose work on The Design Inference was published by Cambridge University, has a PhD in the philosophy of science and a PhD in mathematics (from the University of Chicago), and is currently associate research professor in the conceptual foundations of science at Baylor University. According to Dembski:
“The following problems have proven utterly intractable not only for the mutation-selection mechanism but also for any other undirected natural process proposed to date: the origin of life, the origin of the genetic code, the origin of multicellular life, the origin of sexuality, the scarcity of transitional forms in the fossil record, the biological big bang that occurred in the Cambrian era, the development of complex organ systems and the development of irreducibly complex molecular machines. These are just a few of the more serious difficulties that confront every theory of evolution that posits only undirected natural processes. It is thus sheer arrogance for Darwinists like Richard Dawkins... to charge design theorists with being ignorant or stupid or wicked or insane for denying the all-sufficiency of undirected natural processes in biology...” (op cit, p.231.)
As Woodward explains:
“respected professors at prestigious secular universities are rising up and arguing that (1) Darwinism is woefully lacking factual support and is rather based on philosophical assumptions, and (2) empirical evidence, especially in molecular biology, now points compellingly to some sort of creative intelligence behind life... this story veers away from the usual theistic evolutionary story (‘based on the evidence, theistic scientists are now concluding that God worked through evolution’) and from the classic creation science tale (‘scientists are recognizing that Genesis is literally true after all’).”
(Doubts about Darwin, p.196.)
The fact that Dawkins often employs fallacious arguments does not mean that his conclusions are wrong. However, when he affirms that God is dead because “science reveals a world without purpose or design”, he certainly says something that sounds important. So perhaps we should take his advice and ask ourselves: “Is this the kind of thing that Dawkins knows because of the evidence?” When we do, we find that Dawkins believes in evolution as a philosophically certain deduction from his atheistic worldview – a deduction that elsewhere he presents as if it disproves belief in design! He uses a series of questionable and question-begging assumptions and other logical fallacies to shore up an atheistic worldview that is then used to bypass his own requirement for empirical evidence – a requirement that is self-defeating as a philosophical absolute but which is surely rather important when it comes to the field of science. But of course, Dawkins confuses science with philosophical naturalism to produce scientism. Perhaps we really do need a ‘Professor for the Public Understanding of Scientism’.
© PETER S. WILLIAMS 2004
Peter Williams studied philosophy at Cardiff and Sheffield before taking an MPhil at the University of East Anglia. He is the author of The Case for God (1999), and now works for the Damaris Trust (www.damaris.org), a Christian charity dedicated to relating Christianity and contemporary culture.
Peter William’s main aim in this article is not to establish the truth or falsity of Darwinism, but to establish that Richard Dawkins has committed a wide range of logical fallacies in his writings. However, to understand the background to the points in the article, it is necessary to know something about the current state of the Evolution debate.
So why is evolution an issue?
Disputes over the theory of evolution have always been public policy issues rather than simply academic controversies, because of the strong reactions which Darwinism raises among some of its opponents, and their consequent attempts either to ban the teaching of Darwinism in schools (e.g. the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925) or more recently to ensure the teaching of “non-Darwinian alternatives” is given equal time in science lessons in American schools. These efforts include frequent missions to Washington by bodies such as the Discovery Institute, to brief senators and congressmen on Darwinism’s alleged shortcomings.
What is Darwinism?
The theory of evolution developed by Charles Darwin and described by him in The Origin of Species, combines two elements: random mutation and natural selection. The first says that creatures sometimes have offspring that differ from them in some characteristic. The second says that if that characteristic is a help to the offspring then that creature is more likely to survive long enough to leave offspring of is own with the same characteristic.
What is Creationism?
Hardcore creationists insist that the world and its inhabitants were created by God in seven days, about 6,000 years ago, in exactly the manner described in Genesis. Dinosaur bones are dismissed as fakes of either human or Satanic provenance, intended to mislead the faithful.
What is Intelligent Design Theory?
Intelligent Design theorists insist that they are not Creationists, and are usually happy to accept both that the Earth is actually rather old and that species have changed – i.e. evolved – over time. However, they say, Darwinism is unable to explain any or all of the following: (a) the original appearance of life from inanimate matter; (b) gaps in the fossil record (c) certain organs such as the eye, which they believe could not have evolved gradually (‘what use is half an eye?’) From this they conclude that Darwinism is untenable and that life shows the hallmarks of an ‘intelligent designer’. They claim that this need not mean God – it could be that we were created by a race of hyperintelligent aliens, for instance.
What do the Darwinists say about that?
(a) Richard Dawkins had a good try (in The Blind Watchmaker) at explaining the first appearance of life from complex organic molecules. (b) The gaps are gradually being filled in, and the formation and preservation of fossils is such a freakishly rare business that gaps are to be expected. (c) Sometimes organs which evolve for one purpose can be adapted to other purposes.