Photo by Andrew Louis/Torontoist.
Richard Dawkins came to town this week, and boy were his fans excited. Dawkins, if you are unfamiliar with his work, is an evolutionary biologist and science writer by turns renowned and reviled for his sustained arguments against creationism and against the existence of God. His latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, takes on the task of explaining, in terms accessible to the layperson, just what makes evolution such a compelling explanation of biological diversity.
So far so good. Translating the accumulated wisdom of 150 years (Darwin’s The Origin of Species was first published in 1859) into non-technical language suitable for the average reader is noble work and the kind of labour that academics don’t undertake nearly often enough. Moreover, in the case of evolutionary theory the need is particularly acute, for it is something that we all encounter (either by its presence or very conspicuous absence) in school, and it is also the subject of some controversy. Given the number of jurisdictions that have banned or considered banning its teaching, we are in dire need of someone who can clearly lay out the case for evolution and thereby explain why its presence in the curriculum ought to go unchallenged.
No good, however, can come of insulting creationists as brashly as Dawkins does along the way, nor did any come from the self-congratulatory tone with which he spoke, and with which his audience cheered, at the Isabel Bader Theatre during his appearance on Tuesday night.
In a textbook case of preaching to the choir, Dawkins gleefully skewered the 44% of Americans who believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so,” and his listeners laughed right along with him. We understand the frustration in the face of such a stubbornly held belief, one that we too think is fundamentally misguided and whose consequences are damaging. We share the frustration. But we do not think we will win any converts by repeatedly insulting the intelligence of those on the other side.
Our objection is neither to Dawkins’s science nor to his goals, but to the rhetorical stance that he has adopted in pursing them. If the problem, in most cases, is that people have not been properly educated about the evidence for evolution or to the principles of science and of reason that show that evidence to be compelling—that is, if Dawkins thinks his book serves a real purpose in its attempt to relieve a certain kind of ignorance—then calling those people names is hardly the best way to get them to change their minds. The very last question of the evening dealt with a recent attempt to repackage atheists under the more positive-sounding name “Brights.” Dawkins, a supporter of this movement, told the audience that the term never took off because it implied that non-believers were smarter than believers. “So?” he asked rhetorically, with an arched eyebrow and a knowing smile.
True teaching this was not.