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Dawkins's Contributions as a Scientist Are Already Past Their Sell-By Date, Says Nature Reviewer


In the journal Nature, Nathaniel Comfort delivers a softly devastating review of Richard Dawkins's memoir, part two, Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science. Or let me rephrase that -- it's a devastating review of Dawkins himself as a scientist, including his enchantment with computer simulations. The problem with computers is that they're only as effective as the assumptions you bring to them. Garbage in, garbage out:

Much of Dawkins's research has been in silico, writing programs for evolutionary simulations. In his simulations, life is utterly determined by genes, which specify developmental rules and fixed traits such as colour. The more lifelike his digital animals ("biomorphs") become, the more persuaded he is that real genes work in roughly the same way. Dawkins's critics accuse him of genetic determinism. This synopsis of his work shows that his life virtually depends on it.

A curious stasis underlies Dawkins's thought. His biomorphs are grounded in 1970s assumptions. Back then, with rare exceptions, each gene specified a protein and each protein was specified by a gene. The genome was a linear text -- a parts list or computer program for making an organism --insulated from the environment, with the coding regions interspersed with "junk".

Today's genome is much more than a script: it is a dynamic, three-dimensional structure, highly responsive to its environment and almost fractally modular. Genes may be fragmentary, with far-flung chunks of DNA sequence mixed and matched in bewildering combinatorial arrays. A universe of regulatory and modulatory elements hides in the erstwhile junk. Genes cooperate, evolving together as units to produce traits. Many researchers continue to find selfish DNA a productive idea, but taking the longer view, the selfish gene per se is looking increasingly like a twentieth-century construct.

Dawkins's synopsis shows that he has not adapted to this view. He nods at cooperation among genes, but assimilates it as a kind of selfishness. The microbiome and the 3D genome go unnoticed. Epigenetics is an "interesting, if rather rare, phenomenon" enjoying its "fifteen minutes of pop science voguery", which it has been doing since at least 2009, when Dawkins made the same claim in The Greatest Show on Earth (Transworld). Dawkins adheres to a deterministic language of "genes for" traits. As I and other historians have shown, such hereditarianism plays into the hands of the self-styled race realists (N. Comfort Nature 513, 306-307; 2014).

Note the reference to "erstwhile" junk DNA, the acknowledgement by Comfort that epigenetics and its impact on evolutionary thinking are no flash in the pan, and the recognition that gene determinism plays into the hands of racialists -- and, one might add, genuine racists. Also see biologist Ann Gauger's comments here this morning on the design implications of "dynamic genomes."

Comfort, a science historian at Johns Hopkins, isn't impressed by Dawkins's atheist evangelizing, but he passes over that briefly. At Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne complains that Comfort doesn't try to argue against Dawkins on the God question. But he doesn't need to. The aggressive atheist stance shared by Dawkins and Coyne is supposed to be an inference from the science. If the science is already outdated, "curiously static" while science passes it by in the scientist's own lifetime, what more is there to say?

Everyone agrees that Dawkins is a terrific writer -- his "greatest gift has been as a lyricist," says Comfort. In that respect, we in the intelligent design community could profit by taking notes from him.

But a scientist whose legacy amounts to little more than his sparkling prose style is not going to go down in the history books, at least not prominently. Nor should anyone be concerned that his acid musings on faith will have much impact in the long run.

Image credit: David Shankbone (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.