The Selfish Genius
Dawkins - Darwin's Representative on Earth ?
Not my words but the slightly tongue in cheek representation of Professor Richard Dawkins reputation by an anonymous reviewer of my book in the Economist. Do we need a representative of Darwin on Earth – the very idea that one man should be elevated to this celebrity status is surely anathema to any academic let alone those who work within the scientific community. I would hazard a guess that this is also abhorrent to Dawkins who has always been very clear in highlighting the dynamic and reflexive nature of science.
During the widely celebrated Darwinian anniversaries in 2009 it is all to easy to focus on individuals within the broad fields of research that are encapsulated under the banner of evolutionary sciences. Historically we have so often tended to elevate individual thinkers to the status of lone genius, thus placing them on a pedestal. This myth of genius is something which is rightly challenged by historians and philosophers of science alike – even a basic analysis of the way that science develops over time shows this to be a very skewed and misrepresentative approach. Science as a practice is a dynamic group activity, not one that seeks to set up individual perspectives or ‘world views’ as irrefutable dogma – and the idea of a lone genius does not sit easily with this.
Darwin’s success was not that he was the first to challenge the idea that species do not change over time but that he comprehensively studied and successfully communicated evidence for an idea that is still central to the way we understand modern biology today. Darwin’s legacy was a brilliant theory which many diverse scientists have since debated, expanded, and developed. In effect it is not just Darwin the man we are celebrating this year, but also the many scientists that have in the last 150 years contributed to our greater understanding of how evolutionary mechanisms might work. Dawkins has himself made a valuable contribution to the way that we visualise and communicate evolutionary Biology, and his work will also rightly be subject to the same discussion and challenges that Darwin’s has been. There is some doubt in the minds of some scientists as to the wholesale applicability of Dawkins selfish gene metaphor in some emerging areas of biological thinking, but this does not necessarily invalidate his writing it merely reflects the way that we communicate ideas within and outside of academia. These kind of debates about how we describe or model complex mechanisms have and always will be part of the scientific and academic process. It is important that the diverging or converging debates in a field are communicated rather than just giving a monolithic view of science that does little to inspire and can constrain the thinking of next generation of researchers.
When communicating scientific thought, or indeed any system of ideas, we need to be aware that the really important work lies in the different debates, expansions and developments made to theories from many different contributors. To publicly focus on one individuals perspective – as there has been a tendency to do with Dawkins work – undermines this. Clearly, as research has become increasingly specialized no one individual within an academic community can give the final and definitive answer to all the questions that are raised within their discipline – much as we might occasionally like to think we can ! The way that we communicate our research should reflect this, and not just seek to promote the work of one individual.
Whilst, I may question and seek to open up debate into some of the ways in which Dawkins has communicated the historical and philosophical stances relating to his subject area, I am also concerned that to caricature Dawkins as ‘Darwin’s representative on earth’ does both men a disservice, both of whom have made their own differing yet fundamental contributions to the way we either understand and communicate modern biology, both of whom recognize that scientific practice necessarily involves debate and new challenges, and both of whom freely acknowledge that they rely on the work of countless other researchers to support their arguments.
Dawkins Dogma ? By Fern Elsdon-Baker in New Scientist