“I think it’s high time,” writes Richard Dawkins in the introduction to Science in the Soul, “the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to a scientist.”
We agree. Dawkins doesn’t mean to imply that he might be one such deserving scientist. Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Oliver Sacks and now Stephen Hawking are out of contention, but there’s Brian Greene, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, Neil deGrasse Tyson, James Gleick, Michio Kaku and others…
The laureates for Literature have caused quite a stir at times. The Swedish Academy’s decision to bestow its distinguished literary award — and the accompanying $1.1 million prize — to Bob Dylan in 2016 unleashed a storm of criticism, with many arguing the American musician and songwriter did not deserve an award that was typically bestowed on novelists, dramatists, and writers of non-fiction. Dylan’s reluctant acknowledgement of the award and his decision to be absent at the official award ceremony only added fuel to the fire.
In this era of “alternative facts” and with science under siege, maybe it’s about time that a science writer was awarded the prize. But it’s not going to happen this year. The Swedish Academy is dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct, financial malpractice and repeated leaks, and has announced earlier this month no Nobel prize for literature will be awarded this year.
If they were to head down the science path, just about the first person the Nobel organizers would bump into would be Richard Dawkins.
Debates about the most influential science book of all time habitually settle into a face-off between Darwin’s Origin of Species and Newton’s Principia Mathematica. But last year, a poll to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Royal Society Science Book Prize returned a more recent winner: Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene.
Dawkins took a decisive 18% of the vote, while Darwin was jostled into third place by Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything in the Royal Society poll of more than 1,300 readers. As interesting as the votes on the 10 books shortlisted for contention was the often passionate championship of titles that were left off the list. They were dominated by physics and cosmology. Silly not to include David Deutsch, sniffed one of many, who cited a range of works by the Oxford-based quantum physicist. Carl Sagan’s “mind-blowing” 1980 TV tie-in Cosmos garnered a clutch of votes from fans who described it as life-changing.
A less inspiring picture emerges from a crunch of the ratio of recommendations by gender, unsurprisingly perhaps in the context of a prize that only had its first female winner – Gaia Vince – in 2015. Of 313 suggestions outside the shortlisted books, fewer than 20 were for books by women – but they win out on imaginative titles. Hats off to Elizabeth Royte for The Tapir’s Morning Bath and to Robin Wall Kinnear for Braiding Sweetgrass – and above all, to primatologist Jane Goodall, who summed it up in the five words of her 1971 title: In the Shadow of Man.
The top 10 most influential science books of all time – from the shortlist
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins – 236 votes
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson – 150 votes
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin – 118 votes
The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White – 101 votes
Bad Science by Ben Goldacre – 88 votes
Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh – 81 votes
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot – 77 votes
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson – 39 votes
Married Love by Marie Carmichael Stopes – 5 votes
The Science of Life by HG Wells, Julian Huxley and GP Wells – 4 votes
Out of this list, 6 authors are eligible for the Nobel Prize as they are still alive. And since the members of the Swedish Academy are busy infighting and have lost public confidence, maybe others should step up to the task.
It was in 1976 when Richard Dawkins suggested, in the opening words of The Selfish Gene, that, were an alien to visit Earth, the question it would pose to judge our intellectual maturity was: “Have they discovered evolution yet?” We had, of course, by the grace of Charles Darwin and a century of evolutionary biologists who had been trying to figure out how natural selection actually worked. In 1976, The Selfish Gene became the first real blockbuster popular science book, a poetic mark in the sand to the public and scientists alike: this idea had to enter our thinking, our research and our culture.
The idea was this: genes strive for immortality, and individuals, families, and species are merely vehicles in that quest. The behaviour of all living things is in service of their genes hence, metaphorically, they are selfish. Before this, it had been proposed that natural selection was honing the behaviour of living things to promote the continuance through time of the individual creature, or family, or group or species. But in fact, Dawkins said, it was the gene itself that was trying to survive, and it just so happened that the best way for it to survive was in concert with other genes in the impermanent husk of an individual.
This gene-centric view of evolution also began to explain one of the oddities of life on Earth – the behaviour of social insects. What is the point of a drone bee, doomed to remain childless and in the service of a totalitarian queen? Suddenly it made sense that, with the gene itself steering evolution, the fact that the drone shared its DNA with the queen meant that its servitude guarantees not the individual’s survival, but the endurance of the genes they share. Or as the Anglo-Indian biologist JBS Haldane put it: “Would I lay down my life to save my brother? No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins.”
These ideas were espoused by only a handful of scientists in the middle decades of the 20th century – notably Bob Trivers, Bill Hamilton, John Maynard Smith and George Williams. In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins did not merely recapitulate them; he made an impassioned argument for the reality of natural selection. Previous attempts to explain the mechanics of evolution had been academic and rooted in maths. Dawkins walked us through it in prose. Many great popular science books followed – Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate, and, recently, The Vital Question by Nick Lane.
More books followed from Dawkins, including The Extended Phenotype (1982), The Blind Watchmaker (1986), which won the Royal Society of Literature Award in 1987, and River Out of Eden (1995). Dawkins particularly sought to address a growing misapprehension of what exactly Darwinian natural selection entailed in Climbing Mount Improbable (1996).
Though much of Dawkins’s oeuvre generated debate for asserting the supremacy of science over religion in explaining the world, nothing matched the response to the polemical The God Delusion (2006). The book relentlessly points out the logical fallacies in religious belief and ultimately concludes that the laws of probability preclude the existence of an omnipotent creator. Dawkins used the book as a platform to launch the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (2006), an organization that, in dual American and British incarnations, sought to foster the acceptance of atheism and championed scientific answers to existential questions. Along with fellow atheists Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel C. Dennett, he embarked on a campaign of lectures and public debates proselytizing and defending a secular worldview. Dawkins launched the Out Campaign in 2007 in order to urge atheists to publicly declare their beliefs.
In the memoir An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist (2013), Dawkins chronicled his life up to the publication of The Selfish Gene. A second volume of memoir, Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science (2015), recorded episodes from the latter part of his career.
Dawkins’s prose is lucid and powerful, his arguments difficult to contend. Science in the Soul is Dawkins’ 14th book and contains the usual vivid explanations of Darwinism and kin selection, replicators and phenotypes, written in sentences that grab you by the throat. He is brilliant, as ever, at evoking a sense of wonder about nature – a fly’s compound eye, the waggle-dance of a honeybee – then showing how the scientific reality is infinitely more complex and beautiful than the appeal to the supernatural.
It is a shame that Dawkins is now perhaps better known for his irritable contempt for religion, since his true legacy is The Selfish Gene and its profound effect on multiple generations of scientists and lay readers.
Setting aside the response to his views on religion and politics, there have been plenty of attacks on the idea of the selfish gene. The Selfish Gene has been attacked variously by philosophers, comedians, vicars and journalists. Much of the enmity stems from people misunderstanding that selfishness is being used as a metaphor. The irony of these attacks is that the selfish gene metaphor actually explains altruism. We help others who are not directly related to us because we share similar versions of genes with them.
Richard Dawkins is one of the great thinkers of the 20th and 21st century. He is erudite, considered in his statements and unapologetic in his insistence that facts, empirical evidence and reason take center stage. He received a standing ovation at the end of his talk and rightly so!
Consider this statement from Kurt Wise, who has a Ph.D. in paleontology and an M.A. in geology from Harvard University, and a B.A. Geology from the University of Chicago:
Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.
Here is someone who despite having the ability and knowledge to engage in critical thinking and think for himself, deliberately chooses not to. And admits it out loud!
A number of Stanford studies became famous for the contention that people can’t really think straight and reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now.
Richard Dawkins doesn’t have any answers for how people can embrace critical thinking and empirical evidence and reason. But he most definitely does not use abusive language towards anyone, individual or group, and while some of his statements might make you cringe, well… the truth sometimes hurts. Criticism is not ‘abuse’. People may get offended and hurt by honest criticism, but that’s still not abuse. And it is noticeable that many of the attacks on Dawkins are ill-tempered spats full of abusive language, while he remains calm and rational and backs up his arguments with evidence.
We don’t have the answers either, and it is quite likely that we have even less optimism than Dawkins that humanity as a whole will evolve to the next stage of overcoming the evolutionary and cultural conditioning to fully embrace facts, empirical evidence and reason.
Consider what’s become known as “confirmation bias”, the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. Of the many forms of faulty thinking that have been identified, confirmation bias is among the best catalogued; it’s the subject of entire textbooks’ worth of experiments. One of the most famous of these was conducted, again, at Stanford.
Some cognitive scientists prefer the term “myside bias”. Humans, they point out, aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own.
An experiment performed by a group of cognitive scientists neatly demonstrates this asymmetry. Participants were asked to answer a series of simple reasoning problems. They were then asked to explain their responses, and were given a chance to modify them if they identified mistakes. The majority were satisfied with their original choices; fewer than fifteen per cent changed their minds in step two.
In step three, participants were shown one of the same problems, along with their answer and the answer of another participant, who’d come to a different conclusion. Once again, they were given the chance to change their responses. But a trick had been played: the answers presented to them as someone else’s were actually their own, and vice versa. About half the participants realized what was going on. Among the other half, suddenly people became a lot more critical. Nearly sixty per cent now rejected the responses that they’d earlier been satisfied with.
This lopsidedness might reflect the task that reason evolved to perform, which is to prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group. Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments.
And this social game has not changed much over centuries and millenia. The unwritten rules for success, failure, belonging, and other key attributes of people’s lives remain similar to the hunter-gatherer times. People need to fit in, to behave in ways that are acceptable to the groups to which they belong. What has changed are the toys people use in playing the game.
Little bears don’t suffer from the hunter-gatherer conditioning, they weren’t around then! 🙂
It says that the book is written by a passionate rationalist for other passionate rationalists…