A Devil’s Chaplain

Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science and Love

Selected Essays by Richard Dawkins

Scott Fuller refuses to send us his photo…

“Ever noticed that people who believe in Creationism look really unevolved?”
–Bill Hicks.

Amen. That is a sentiment which lurks just beneath the surface of
the latest book by Dawkins. There is a very good possibility that
Dawkins, unrepentant enemy of all religions, has finally lost it. In a good
way, mind you. Within the pages of this very accessible collection of
essays (mostly rants) ranging in length from a few pages to twenty-odd
pages, there are classic examples of trademark Dawkins rhetoric and the
unyielding contempt for all things woolly, comforting and remotely
romantic about the place of humans in the world. The best part about
Dawkins’ rhetoric is that it is Reason used as rhetoric. It is from
this perspective that he chooses his title, A Devil’s Chaplain (ADC), which he derived from a Darwin quote:

What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful,
blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature. (p. 10, ADC).

And with a hint from old Chuck himself, Dawkins continues the battle
against the perceived enemies of truth: creationists, hubris,
post-modernism, new-age fluff, all forms of religious belief, and good
ol’ fashioned human bullshit.
But in his dual role of both advocate for the cause of Darwin and as
advocate against the political and ethical incorporation of Darwinian
ideas into human affairs, Dawkins has the ability to be both absolutely
Ruthless in destroying his (and pretty much my) enemies and sensitive in way that can be quite surprising.

on to the content of the book, the first section basically explains the
manifesto of Dawkins’ brand of neo-Darwinism and the overall relevance
of science to modern society. The second chapter outlines possibly the
simplest account of the nature of scientific truth ever penned by a
scientist, but it is directed primarily against the ‘subjectivist’ and
‘relativist’ positions which still dominate most areas of the
humanities, such as some elements of sociology, gender studies,
post-modern philosophy, literary theory, and cultural anthropology. In
one of the most concise ad hominem arguments against epistemic relativism, Dawkins quotes from his own 1995 book, River Out of Eden:

Show me a cultural relativist at 30 000 feet and I’ll show you a
hypocrite… If you are flying to an international congress of
anthropologists or literary critics, the reason you will probably get
there — the reason you don’t plummet into a ploughed field – is that a
lot of Western scientifically trained engineers have got their sums
right. (p. 18 of ADC).

To those of you who are curious, this is an example of the pragmatic
conception of truth, one of the genuinely American contributions to
philosophy (though, as always, there are precedents to be found), and
it basically structures its refutations of the skeptics of a given
theory on the basis of a challenge:

If you think all theories are relative and that my
theory is just as valid as any other, then tell me how the Fuck it is
that my theory enables one to do x, y, etc., and yours doesn’t enable
anyone to do shit?

It is not unusual to find appeals being made for the veracity of a
given theory being hinged upon the practical applications of that
theory. For instance, to those who believe that electrons are ‘merely’
theoretical devices but which do not mirror anything ‘objectively’ in
the world, one could ask, “Well, if electrons don’t exist, then How The
Fuck do computers work?” Of course, these theories don’t usually curse
(stupid theories), but there is something at least superficially
convincing about these pragmatic appeals. The implication is that the
potential application of a theory to our lives can be a measure of its
veracity. I could come up with a hypothesis which claimed that my blood
pressure was a function of the collective activity of gremlins
squeezing my arteries, but if that theory did not allow one to combat
high blood pressure it could be taken as a circumstantial refutation of
the gremlin theory. But Dawkins doesn’t rest content with such an
instrumentalist account (very few scientists do) and he proceeds to
endorse what is sometimes known as the Natural Ontological Attitude (or
naďve realism), in which the truth of scientific theories is no more
mysterious or doubtful than the truth of ordinary, everyday truths. In
the best tradition of scientists attempting to explain just what it is
that makes science so unique, Dawkins ends his little rant on truth by
completely undermining his naďve realism by referring to the bizarre
nature of quantum theory. The opening essay is the weakest of the lot
and somebody (perhaps an editor?) should have told him that he is far
better at ridiculing the beliefs of others than he is at providing a
positive basis for his faith in science.

I can forgive him for his philosophical naivety (because I am
a biased cunt) for in the next essay, “Gaps in the Mind”, Dawkins
proceeds to expose the hidden metaphysical assumptions that most of us
implicitly adhere to in our thinking. He is out to expose what he calls
the ‘discontinuous mind’ — the type of thinking in which categories
have been erected or constructed by humans and are applied to the world
with a devout belief that everything in the world is either in one
category or in the other. No exceptions. Examples include the
human/nonhuman dichotomy which is prevalent in debates surrounding
abortion and embryonic stem cells: the collection of cells is either
human or it isn’t, and massive practical consequences hinge upon which
side of the divide the issue is settled (‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ is another
favorite of the morons). He refers also to the type of arguments that
one finds being leveled against evolutionary theory; we have all heard
at some point or another from creationists that biologists still
haven’t found the Missing Link between humans and the other apes. For
Dawkins, the very question is misguided for there is no ‘essence’ of
humanity which distinguishes it from other species, and what such
claims rest upon is an ultimately boring observation regarding the
naming rituals of taxonomists (“See, they have found the fossils of Australopithecus africanus and Homo Erectus,
but they haven’t found the fossil that bridges the gap between us and
these apes”). What is most surprising in this essay is that Dawkins is
making use of the still under-utilized philosophical revolution that
Darwin (and other evolutionists) had enacted with his theory: the
complete rejection of essentialism. By refuting the theological
doctrine of the immutability of species (which has its metaphysical
basis primarily in Plato and later transformed by Aristotle), what
Darwin had effectively done was to remove the ground from the type of
debates that dominate, for instance, the abortion issue. Simply put,
there are no ‘essential’ traits or properties that distinguish humans
from other species; whatever ‘distance’ there may appear to be between
humans and other animals is simply the result of the historically
contingent fact that the diverging ancestors of modern Homo sapiens
were killed off. The ultimate result here is that it will probably only
be until Christian theology is completely wiped off the face of the
earth that reason will ever reign supreme in the abortion and stem cell
debates (as well as many other places, of course).

The second essay, although pretty much assuming the audience’s
acceptance of Darwinism, provides a hint to the type of public
discourse that Dawkins believes would be enacted once irrational belief
systems and outdated metaphysical ideas are annihilated. A tantalizing
vision to be sure, but the aforementioned empirical rejection of
essentialism, like Nietzsche’s lightning bolt, has failed to arrive at
the minds of thinking folk in all of its implications. For instance, it
is not uncommon to find po-faced philosophers seriously questioning
whether or not the Darwinian concept of species is a ‘natural kind’.
For those of you who don’t know, ‘natural kind’ is a modern equivalent
of Platonism (or Aristotelianism, depending upon the formulation) and
is usually thought of in terms of Plato’s metaphor of a concept
‘cutting nature at its joints’. The ridiculousness of wondering whether
or not Darwin’s ‘species’ concept satisfies Plato’s metaphysics is
obvious — it is like criticizing Darwin for not providing a
naturalistic basis for supralapsarian theology. Anyhow, Dawkins seems
to be aware of this consequence of Darwinism even though he doesn’t
frame it in terms of ‘essentialism’ or ‘Platonism’, but the possibility
that Darwin has given us a whole new conceptual framework to think
through such contentious issues like abortion, stem cells, and the
human treatment of animals is one of the more exciting bonuses of
evolutionary theory.

Another example of the role that biology can have in avoiding
stupid arguments in our public lives comes in the next essay, “Science,
Genetics, and Ethics”, which was a memo that Dawkins sent to Tony Blair
(the current Prime Minister of Great Britain for you ignoramuses). It
starts off with some simple observations regarding genetics and makes
some interesting comments about the Human Genome Project (HGP). The
most prominent one is the basic methodological point about whose
DNA is being sequenced by the HGP. This is no small, insignificant
‘technical’ detail — Dawkins is concerned primarily with the value of
the empirical work (and treatments) that may result from such biased
sampling (and he is right), but for we future users of genetic
technology it is the legal issues that most spring to mind. I am no
geneticist, but the thought of biotech companies patenting a particular
DNA sequence from some random dude and then subsequently enforcing that
patent when it comes to treatment that I or others may receive, despite
the differences in our respective genomes, is one of the more fucked up
prospects that I can think of. Anyway, other issues resulting from the
HGP is the idea of a national database of DNA samples from the
populace. Dawkins doesn’t seem too worried about the Orwellian
overtones that the potential database may have, but his real public
concerns over the idea comes (not surprisingly, given an understanding
of evolutionary sexual strategies) from the fact that a large portion
of the population is not related to the people that they think they are
related to. He envisions possible domestic troubles, for example, if
and when a ‘father’ of a child finds out that he has been ‘cuckolded’
by his woman over his paternity.

These are all interesting, but Dawkins’ expose of the
stupidity of the ‘cloning’ debate is priceless. I have heard some
people express their doubts over the ‘status’ of a clone, or whether or
not the clone will be ‘really’ human, but Dawkins simply points out the
fucking obvious fact that there is no biological difference between
twins, triplets, etc., and clones. Whatever is true of twins will also
be true of clones: “Ooohh, spooky clones without a soul — ooohh those
damn freaky twins without souls”!! Whatever ‘principled’ objections
there are against cloning are best not thought of in terms of the
question of genetic identity, but are ultimately to be referred back to
questions over IVF, and fertility treatments (I object to these, not on
moral grounds, but purely because I don’t like the thought of humans
being assisted in despoiling the planet with more ‘little miracles’ —
who or what the resulting humans are is irrelevant). The lesson that I
take Dawkins to be making from this memo to Blair and the previous
essay on the ‘discontinuous mind’ is that a lot of public debate is
simply fucking stupid and rests upon a basic ignorance of the facts
(Okay, not really much of a surprise, but the cloning issue is
amusing). The following essay is a refutation of the idea of a jury,
not because Dawkins is an unabashed fascist, but because a jury runs
pretty much according to the sacred principles of mob rule and
dominance hierarchies: as such, faith in the verdict of a jury is
pretty much premised upon the truth-determining capacities of a mob
being ordered by dominant thugs.

The funniest piece of the entire collection comes from Dawkins’ review of the 1998 book by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Intellectual Impostures,
a brutal destruction of trendy post-modern philosophy. I assume that
not many of you keep up to date with the rather absurd climate that is
modern philosophy and literary criticism, but in 1996 the author of
this book, Alan Sokal (a physicist at NYU), published an article in the
trendy journal, Social Text. The brilliance of the article was
that it single-handedly exposed post-modern philosophy as a continual
exercise in posturing and propounding serious-sounding critiques in an
indecipherable and perpetually invented ‘language’. The title of
Sokal’s article is a work of genius: Transgressing the Boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity.
In case you don’t understand the title, that is precisely the point —
it is complete, undiluted Fucking Bullshit. The joke was that the
editors of this esteemed journal didn’t realize that a title with both the words ‘hermeneutics’ and
‘gravity’ (let alone quantum gravity!) is bound to be a fucking prank
and they proceeded in publishing it. This caused quite a scandal,
resulting in the nodding of heads of ‘serious’ philosophers and the
exchanging of glances of those who already knew, but on the other side
of the divide, the red-faced embarrassment of those who did (and still
do) practice this style of ‘theorizing’. The delight that Dawkins takes
in the exposure of these thinkers is undeniable – Dawkins’ sadism at
the very thought of the exposure is palpable.
Here is a sample of the type of crap that is being exposed. It is from
Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher who killed himself, I have been
told, by jumping out of the window of a hospital (one can maliciously
speculate upon the reasons), and this is from his 1969 book, The Logic of Sense:

For ordinarily the disjunction is not properly speaking a synthesis,
but only a regulative analysis at the service of conjunctive syntheses,
since it separates the nonconvergent series from one another. As for
the conjunctive synthesis, it tends also toward being subordinated to
the synthesis of connection, since it organizes the converging series
over which it bears as it prolongs them under a condition of
continuity. Now, the whole sense of esoteric words
was to turn this path around: a disjunction which had become a
synthesis introduced its ramifications everywhere, so that the
conjunction was already coordinating in a global way divergent,
heterogeneous, and disparate series, and that, affecting the details,
the connection already contracted a multitude of divergent series in
the successive appearance of a single one. (p. 175.)

The funniest part about this particular quote is that it
comes from a book which allegedly is attempting to understand the
difference between sense and nonsense!! Now, lest you think that I have done an unfair edit, rest assured, there is absolutely no way that a context can be provided for such a quote. There are other idols which are Ruthlessly
demolished, not necessarily by a critique from either Dawkins or the
authors, but simply by presenting their ‘arguments’. The ridiculing of
Jacques Lacan, profound thinker extraordinaire and influential
psychoanalyst (who also informed some of Deleuze’s ‘work’), is premised
upon this piece of unsurpassed brilliance (taken from ADA):

“They [the authors] go on to quote the following remarkable piece of reasoning by Lacan:

Thus, by calculating that signification according to the algebraic method used here, namely:

S (signifier)
__________ = s (the statement)
s (signified)

With S=(-1), produces: s=√-1

You don’t have to be a mathematician to see that this is
ridiculous. It recalls the Aldous Huxley character who proved the
existence of God by dividing zero into a number, thereby deriving the
infinite. In a further piece of reasoning which is entirely typical of
the genre, Lacan goes on to conclude that the erectile organ

…is equivalent to the √-1 of the signification produced above, of the jouissance that it restores by the coefficient of its statement to the function of the lack of signifier (-1).

We do not need the mathematical expertise of Sokal and Bricmont to
assure us that the author of this stuff is a fake.” (p. 57-58, ADA).

I am quoting this for two reasons: 1) I have actually tried to read this stuff before (I actually own
that book by Deleuze!?!), and I distinctly remember asking a lecturer
once what that ‘equation’ was supposed to be and how an erectile organ
has anything to do with the square root of minus one, to which I was
not given an answer; and 2) because of the unbearable similarities that
this shit has with the type of ‘reasoning’ that Erich identified at work in Ann Coulter, and also, in his reference to Dr Strangelove in The Misanthrope’s Guide to Classic Cinema, what Matt Cale
said about the dangers of such crap, “…the surest sign of a
civilization in decline is the perversion of language.” The irony is
that these very ‘theorists’ that are being exposed as frauds are either
so-called ‘radicals’ or provide the theoretical backbone of radical
feminism. The joke is that by retreating into obscurantist, impotent
and paralyzing ‘discourse’, the only result that these ‘radicals’ are
destined to achieve the elimination of the very possibility of change.
Very rarely, as Dawkins points out, are the works of such people as
manifestly fucked up as Lacan’s ‘mathematics of the erection’, but
Dawkins refers to one attempt at clarity by an interpreter of the
feminist Luce Irigaray. In what is a common sight to behold in the more
absurd regions of the universities, there are actually attempts being
made by these theorists to undercut or critique modern science — not
just the social sciences, which may in fact have some unexamined
prejudices informing them (which Foucault wisely restricted himself
too), but even physics!! On the basis of the mathematical rigor of
Lacan and others, people like Irigaray actually wage serious critiques
against modern physics. Dawkins quotes from an expositor of Irigaray
who made the deep mistake of presenting the thesis in a relatively
straightforward manner:

The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and
indeed the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she
[Irigaray] attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity.
Whereas men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have
openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids…From this
perspective it is no wonder that science has not been able to arrive at
a successful model for turbulence. The problem of turbulent flow cannot
be solved because conceptions of fluids (and of women) have been
formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated remainders. (quoted
in ADA, p. 58).

As Dawkins correctly points out, the reason why there has not been a
successful model of turbulence is basically because it is really
fucking hard (no pun intended, though it does undermine her case:
fluids are too hard).

I simply couldn’t resist
going into some detail over this review by Dawkins, and I recommend to
anyone who has had experience in trying to understand a great deal of
post-modern theory that they read the book by Sokal and Bricmont. For
those who will never enter such polluted waters, the review by Dawkins
will be a sufficient reason not to (I exempt the later Foucault from
these charges, because a) he despised psychoanalysis, b) he gradually
moved away from obscure language to very readable and unpretentious
language and c) because he doesn’t try to undermine all sciences, only
dodgy psychiatric practices, social theories that surround prison
issues, etc.).

The next few sections deal with various issues that Dawkins
believes still haunt the public understanding of evolution, and these
are relatively interesting, particularly Dawkins’ account of the
concept of ‘information’. This section is not something that those
familiar with Dawkins’ other books will not have encountered before,
but it can still be of some value even as a reminder of the issues
involved. What I really wanted to get to was the next section, “The
Infected Mind”, which is composed of five chapters dealing with
Dawkins’ views on religious belief. He is not anti-Christian,
Anti-Islam, etc., he is anti-religion.

I stated at the beginning that I thought that maybe Dawkins had
finally lost it, and I believe that he has — but in a good way. What
do I mean? Well, ever since his first foray into the public realm as a
popularizer and advocate of all things Darwinian, Dawkins has been
unrelenting in his contempt for all ‘believers’. Some of you may be
aware of his concept of ‘memes’ which he introduced in his first book, The Selfish Gene
(1976). The basis of the idea is that evolutionary theory, premised
upon the primary role of natural selection, was ‘substrate-neutral’,
meaning that evolution was not conceptually tied to genes or even
organisms in any conventional sense. All that was required was that
something be capable of being replicated and that there be a number of
different ‘replicators’ which compete for replication. In a nutshell,
the differential replication rates of those entities would be
sufficient for evolution to occur. What Dawkins did was propose that
cultural items — ideas, words, artifacts, etc — could be understood
in an analogous way to the manner in which evolution was understood. We
eventually arrive at the idea that beliefs can be understood as the
‘infection’ of an individual’s brain by these replicating ‘memes’; the
overriding function of the memes is to get themselves, not necessarily
their host’s genes, into future generations. So what a street-corner
preacher is really doing, according to Dawkins, is analogous to the
sneezing of someone with a head cold. The preacher has been infected
with memes that collectively make up whatever religion is being
preached and the selfish memes are using the body and organs of the
preacher to spread themselves around (the analogy with the head cold is
drawn from Dawkins’ idea that flu viruses ‘takeover’ the body of the
sufferer and by causing the sufferer to sneeze, the viruses get
themselves catapulted into other victims).

Needless to say, the image is not a flattering one, but there
are some serious difficulties with the idea, most notably the problem
of how to identify the ‘units’ which are selected analogously to genes.
Another problem is that it is of unlimited scope and when you arrive at
the demarcation between religious memes and scientific memes, the
manner in which Dawkins wraps things up is entirely unsatisfactory; the
other problem which Dawkins deals with is the problem of the fidelity
of transmission of information in cultures. You see, in order for
reliable patterns to emerge in evolution, the information content of an
organism needs to be faithfully reproduced in new generations — the
problem is that genes are ‘hi-fi’ while most cultural artifacts are
very much subject to rapid change and distortion. Nevertheless, the
idea that religious believers are to be understood in the same way as
someone with a viral infection is a priceless visual metaphor. I won’t
go into the details of his meme theory (or ‘meme’ meme) but instead
will move on to the parts where Dawkins has finally reached his
breaking point. He asks the basic question, in “Dolly and the Cloth
Heads”, as to why it is that in our modern, secular, liberal, and
democratic societies we still accord such an esteemed place for the
role of religious spokesmen. I know that this is a persistent theme in
the US, but in places like Britain (where Dawkins resides) and
Australia (where I reside) there is basically no public references to
religion on any given day (In fact, our wretched Prime Minister got
badly burned last year when he said that Australia was basically a
Christian nation). This is one of the reasons why I find the prevalence
of religion in US public life so fascinating and it provides one of the
major differences between other capitalist democracies like Canada,
Australia, and Great Britain. So unlike in the US, religious voices are
very rarely heard in normal public issues, but when it comes to
specific issues like cloning and abortion (which are public issues like
any other), even in places outside the US, religious figures get quite
a large forum to spout their bullshit.

In this, all Dawkins wants to know is why this still happens.
Of course, according to the principles of liberal democracy, religious
leaders can vomit all over the airwaves, but why is their word taken
seriously at all? I will quote from the preamble given by Dawkins at
the beginning of his tirade against all forms of religion:

To describe religions as mind viruses is sometimes
interpreted as contemptuous or even hostile. It is both. I am often
asked why I am so hostile to ‘organized religion’. My first response is
that I am not exactly friendly towards disorganized religion either. As
a lover of truth, I am suspicious of strongly held beliefs that are
unsupported by evidence: fairies, unicorns, werewolves, any of the
infinite set of conceivable and unfalsifiable beliefs epitomized by
Bertrand Russell’s hypothetical teapot orbiting the Sun…The reason
organized religion merits outright hostility is that unlike belief in
Russell’s teapot, religion is powerful, influential, tax-exempt and
systematically passed on to children too young to defend themselves.
Children are not compelled to spend their formative years memorizing
loony books about teapots. Government-subsidized schools don’t exclude
children whose parents prefer the wrong shape of teapot. (p. 138, ADA).

The idea that the media may consult an expert on teapot worship for
their opinions on abortion is manifestly absurd — but what is the
difference between this idiocy and popular idiocy? Obviously, Dawkins
makes no distinction. This is but the tip of the iceberg and Dawkins
goes on to barrage religious beliefs and practices with such an
unyielding mixture of hatred and disgust that it brought numerous evil
sneers on the part of this humble reviewer. In a particularly
passionate rant, Dawkins presents something that he wrote immediately
after September 11th. He makes no apologies for the fierce rhetoric
against not just Islam, but against all religious beliefs and
practices. In Dawkins’ mind, things have changed after that event: it
is “Time to Stand Up”,

The human psyche has two great sicknesses: the urge to
carry vendetta across generations, and the tendency to fasten group
labels on people rather than see them as individuals. Abrahamic
religion mixes explosively with (and gives strong sanction to) both.
Only the willfully blind could fail to implicate the divisive force of
religion in most, if not all, of the violent enmities in the world
today. Those of us who have for years politely concealed our contempt
for the dangerous collective delusion of religion need to stand up and
speak out. Things are different after September 11th. ‘All is changed,
changed utterly’. (p. 190).

This was what I referred to at the beginning. Dawkins has finally
lost it and can no longer stand by and watch idiocy reign supreme, and
I for one will be behind him all of the way.

About The Worst Teacher in Seattle