Richard Dawkins.   Some book reviews by 'Rerevisionist'

These reviews have been separated from because that file is too large.

v. 8 July 2016 03:24

The God Delusion
The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition
Appetite for Wonder (Autobiography part 1)
River Out Of Eden: A Darwinian View Of Life
Ancestor's Tale

'Rerevisionist' summary of Richard Dawkins' worldview and politics:-

19 Nov 2015 Christa Stempel +revisionist what exactly are Dawkins politics??

19 Nov 2015 Rerevisionist
+Christa Stempel Well, it's nothing official or even explicitly stated. But he is 'politically correct' and allied in effect with US 'Skeptics' who are just a jewish front. And so e.g. he accepts the holohoax, thinks there are no human race differences, has no idea about WW2, has no idea about eg Vietnam War, and has no idea that Christianity is not like Judaism or Islam, i.e. tribal - it was never compulsory, but always a sort of option. He seems to think all religions are the same, in the naive view it's sometimes expressed. It's a pity because it means pretty much every social statement he makes is flawed.
      NB he also doesn't understand that biological theory has flaws - see section on Harold Hillman. This means creationists are sometimes right - when they say some feature couldn't have evolved, they are correct - but the biologists have got it wrong. Probably this is one reason he won't debate with them, since cell biology is not his strong point. (One of his books has an artist's impression of the endoplasmic reticulum, an artifact of electron microscopy.) He is also weak on history - A R Wallace almost certainly predated Darwin. And he simply assumes Einstein was a great scientist; something highly doubtful. The common theme is Dawkins has no idea about Jewish cryptic influence.
Click for my detailed account of Harold Hillman's work
Click for my detailed account of Martin Gardner, who set the pattern for American 'skeptics'
Click for detailed account of Alfred Russel Wallace (but this is incomplete).
You might like my review of Judith Hooper's book on the peppered moth.
You might like my answer to the problem of 'why sex?' which Dawkins said puzzles him.

image   Review of Jewish interest   Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion

Media lapdog, not Darwin's Rottweiler. Unsatisfactory!, 16 Nov 2010

2 stars for the title. The credits list nine editors and critics, who, I would imagine, contributed much of the US interest and US-style short 'quotations'.

Dawkins defines (e.g. on p 41) what he considers most people mean by religion - something with supernatural gods, excluding, for example, ecstasy about the natural world. Obviously, this is a bit narrow. I'll try to survey his book by looking in rough categories, as the book is somewhat disconnected.

[1] BELIEF? GOD? Dawkins takes unnecessarily narrow views on such things as 'belief' and 'God'----

*** p.210 on children saying clouds are 'for raining'. Maybe they simply don't have a subtle vocabulary - as with children asked if sweets when spread out are 'more', and they say 'yes' - even though, if they believed it, they'd spread their sweets out to increase them.
*** Polytheism is discussed for just a few pages, around p 56. But the (allegedly) most impressive civilisation that ever existed believed in polytheism. Isn't that some sort of evidence of pragmatic value of religion?
*** Many people, when they say they "believe" something, specifically use the word to cover some official claim or catechism. A 'belief' MEANS something odd. Not being philosophical, they don't say they "believe" that chairs are for sitting in, or electricity comes from wall plugs; they just know and see these things. It's analogous to saying someone is "ignorant", referring to manners, by people with little idea of learning. So when people say they "believe" in God, often it's just a conventional phrase which they've learned to utter.
*** There is such a gulf between people with years of training in (for example) physics, medicine, engineering, or economics, that ordinary people simply feel utterly unable to compete. Hence interest in 'the occult', or Reiki, or strange massage techniques, or homeopathy. This is a sad state of affairs, but clearly one motive for claiming to believe in God is a sort of career move or self-esteem booster.
*** There's a difficulty with theology books. Probably they're not worth reading. But how can anyone be sure? I saw an idea in about 1970, that a being which could move at infinite speed would be omnipotent, because he/she/it would have an infinite time to beetle around moving things, which I thought was quite ingenious. The Dawkins solution is to mention the best-known 'proofs' which he of course correctly demolishes. I don't think anyone will come up with anything, but it needs tighter definitions than Dawkins furnishes to show why not.

[2] SOCIAL FORCES CAUSING AND CAUSED BY RELIGIONS. Dawkins has very little idea of social forces and religions. He seems to misunderstand many aspects ----

*** Christianity (arguably) was imposed by a polity which was facing the prospect of falling to pieces. Hence (arguably) rigging up a belief system in which people within that empire love each other - or at least don't kill each other - whilst also having a family, work and etiquette and contraception function and including a collection of supernatural beliefs, of familiar type, is not unreasonable. Even though it failed. Americans in particular at the present time seem reluctant to drop their belief in 'God' and one has to assume they don't like the feeling that a whole package of behaviours would be tampered with by dropping 'God'.
*** One of his breathtakingly absurd quotations, attributed to a stand-up comedian, is (p 195) 'All religions are the same: religion is basically guilt, with different holidays'. Dawkins has a single reference to Confucianism, which however appears to have held China together for a couple of millennia. Dawkins has no idea of the viciousness of tribal religions, the two most significant now being Judaism and Islam. He doesn't analyse the class and race basis of Hinduism. Let alone thuggism... or Marxism... or Shintoism...
*** His discussion of cargo cults (p 234), apparently relying on a TV presenter, naturally makes fun of the stupid primitives, who build model radio sheds and then hope for a boat or plane of goods to turn up. In fact (arguably) this attitude is common - many economists think the same way - that by introducing a framework, goods will appear. (I noted a comment by Dr William Pierce on Hesketh Pearson's book on 'Hayti': '... there is a bizarre blending of white forms with black substance. To the Haitains, the imitation of civilisation is as good as the real thing. They believe that if they are able to dress like white men and speak the white man's language and mimic the white man's institutions then they are as good as white men. What Hesketh observed of the Haitians applies equally well to blacks in the United States today. ...' - added 24 June 2014)
*** Dawkins resembles Victorian optimists - he thinks we have progressed. But his examples all postdate the rise of science, which has made some portions of the world rich. It's true (p 300) slavery has been abolished (if you don't look closely) - but this is only because we have machinery to do a lot of work. In fact he even believes there is a Zeitgeist (p 298) or consensus - he seems to have not the slightest grasp of the fanaticisms of Jews, Muslims, and plenty of other groups.
*** With regard to the USA, Dawkins doesn't seem to know the freight attached to the phrase 'atheistic communism'. As an example, p. 241 has what may be quotations from an insulting letter, calling someone a 'comunist [sic] whore'. Dawkins hasn't understood the interplay between Jews and Fundamentalists, nor the reality of the origin of modern Jews. (Catholics are less Biblically minded than Protestants).

[3] ETHICS: Ethically, Dawkins is a lapdog of political correctness.

*** Dawkins has no idea of the contrast between Talmudic beliefs of Jews (Kill the best of goyim, child sex, etc) and Biblical and Christian beliefs. In fact he sounds remarkably like American 'Christian Zionists' who have resulted from post-1945 Jewish media control. This is why he has little difficulty in getting publicised and published. He may even believe 'Jews' were entitled to Israel by Biblical prophecy. I've seen his defenders say, Why yes, he has criticised Jews very severely—he's said the Old Testament God is viciously cruel! True enough, but this says nothing about modern so-called Jews and their activities. [Added this rather obvious point 22 July 2014]
*** He states (p 283) 'Jesus 'was surely one of the great ethical innovators.' But is this really true? Did nobody before about 0 AD feel pity for others, or believe it made sense to have friendly alliances?
*** Dawkins takes (p 351) the modern PC view of Catholic atrocities: Crusades, Conquistadores, and the Inquisition. Plus (p 401) Indulgences. When I say modern PC view, possibly the Crusades will be reassessed! But I couldn't help noting Dawkins has never heard of the Belgian Congo under Leopold, one of the most notorious atrocities of the late 19th century. (It was swept under the carpet because of the myth of 'gallant little Belgium'). He hasn't heard of the Catholic minority in Vietnam, installed by the French, who encouraged vast atrocities.
*** Dawkins naively imagines (p 368) Martin Luther King was a moral leader.
*** Dawkins states (p 45) 'apartheid has no rational justification'
*** Dawkins gets incensed (p 368) at the fate of an Inca girl, believed to have been eaten, many centuries ago. But it's notable that, in full PC style, males don't get the same consideration. It's better for infantrymen not to act on their own initiative (p 200) as they 'will tend to lose wars'. Suppose a war is damaging or in some sense evil? Oh well—just some dead bodies. Dawkins does have an argument about modern war: After 'the American invasion of Iraq', casualty figures were 'orders of magnitude lower than ... for the Second World War'. (p 304).
*** Dawkins thinks it's weird that the feelings of the religious, or supposedly religious, should be respected - one example is the 12 cartoons of Mohammed, which event must have happened just as he was about to publish. However he says nothing about the traditional activities of Jews. Thus (p 282) he is in my view rightly incensed at Muslim destruction of statues of Buddha. But he says nothing about Jewish genocide in the USSR, when not only people, but churches, icons, and communities were destroyed; nor about American genocide in Vietnam. Needless to say, his writings are entirely PC by American media standards.
*** Maybe it's worth mentioning Peter Atkins, a friend of Dawkins, and Professor of Chemistry. He told an Oxford theologian (p 89) to 'rot in hell' for a pain-gives-people-a-chance-to-be noble comment on the 'Holocaust', which presumably Atkins, Dawkins and the theologian all believe in, despite two thirds of them theoretically approving of evidence. And yet chemists have produced napalm and bombs and chemicals causing birth defects - things as far as I know missing from Atkins' textbooks and world-view. No apology from him! Not much of an advertisement for the superior virtue of atheists. (Come to think of it, he might have commented on 9/11 - as might be expected, Dawkins says Muslims did it. But Atkins, with chemical expertise, might surely make some remark!).

[4] QUOTATIONS. Dawkins' book has very many short quotations, but it's difficult to see their relevance; maybe they're put there in the same spirit as cartoons or decorations or background music for adverts? I've already quoted the mistake that 'all religions are the same'. Here are a few more questionable quotes----

*** Gore Vidal (p 58) dislikes 'sky gods' and monotheism, because they are patriarchal and hate women. But why should there be a necessary connection between a patriarchal god, and dislike of women? Such a god could presumably just as well be even-handed or pro-women.
*** Buñuel (p 266) says: 'god and country .. break all records for oppression and bloodshed'. Maybe. Or maybe not! What did he know?
*** Neville Chamberlain (p 90) and McCarthy's Commies. These two aren't actually quoted and indeed don't need to be.
*** Martin Luther, one gathers, was in his day one of the most influential thinkers/writers in Europe. Dawkins gives him (p 221) just three sentences, and in English translation from the original language. This is a true insult to any intelligent reader. The three sentences all include the word 'reason', and the extracts are supposed to show Luther and all Christians should hate reason. And yet his whole dispute with Catholicism - one of the most significant events in Christianity - was based on dispute and argument. Probably the sense of the word in the passages was different from modern senses of it. (There are also references to Luther on Jews - with, of course, no consideration of their truth or otherwise).
*** H G Wells. There's a long quotation (p 305) from 'Anticipations' which is deliberately misleading, which I think annoys me more than any other part of this book. The book is downloadable; so anyone can check what I say. The passage talks of 'inferior races - black, yellow, jew' and their position in the 'world state' and the 'multiplication of those who fall behind a certain standard.. they have to go. .. it is their portion to die out an disappear.' Dawkins puts in a bit about killing of the 'diseased bodily or mentally' which is out of sequence, taken from an earlier paragraph. Wells assumed such people would dwindle away. Judging my modern population figures, he was wrong about that. I doubt Dawkins bothered to check the passage. This is irritating, especially as Wells was a populariser of biology. I'd go so far as to say the passage is deliberate deception. (Wells seems to come under a lot of attack, perhaps to deflect attention from his invention of the 'new world order'. See my review of a book by McKillop preposterously claiming Wells was plagiarised a historical manuscript).

[5] SCIENCE. Dawkins has many passages on science, or what may be science. Their function seems to be to provide some armour----
*** Dawkins idolises Einstein, for example, and his supposed religiose feel for the universe. Amusingly, Dawkins ridicules (p 54) the Trinity, but doesn't realise that relativity has as many absurdities, such as the problem with rotating coordinates, and the differential ageing paradox.
*** There's Pascal's Wager, which I've seen in action - many people must know persons who attend church just on the off-chance they'll go to heaven.
*** And Bayes Theorem, a simple probability idea, a favourite because it's easily misinterpretable.
*** There's 'irreducible complexity' (p 151) - a creationist argument from complicated bits which couldn't possibly evolve. Dawkins is wary of this, with good reason - there are mistakes in modern biology, and these mistakes include things which could not evolve. (I don't have space here for details!)
*** Computer software compared to the brain. Dawkins thinks (p 113) the brain has no difficulty in producing completely convincing veridical impressions. This actually is not true - as Dawkins points out in a discussion on physics, the brain has evolved to give usable information. Optical illusions are in fact very rare, needing special constructions. 'Photographic memory' is a myth.
*** Finally, it's troubling to read this, on p 252: 'even now full understanding [of natural selection] is confined to a minority of scientific specialists'. (This reminds me of A J P Taylor's analogous claim about 'trained historians'). Does Dawkins really think he has 'full understanding' of evolution?

For someone listing ten new commandments (p 299) including 'forming independent opinions' all this is rather sad stuff. Incidentally, those who know of the Wallace/Darwin priority dispute will find Dawkins hasn't even checked it. Dawkins states that (inter-war intellectual) Lancelot Hogben's writings are 'significantly marred by their anachronistic barbs'. I think Dawkins' book in the fullness of time will be seen to host more anachronisms than a virus-infected cell i believed to. It's a pity. Dawkins reminds me of J B Bury's 'History of Freedom of Thought' - the concentration on one single issue, excluding other far more important issues. Significantly, perhaps, Bury's book was published in 1913.

It's worth considering who this book might influence. I can't imagine many midwest Americans, perhaps women distressed by their thoughts on this subject, being helped, as it is too socially remote - it says nothing about problems such people face. Televangelists getting 'obscene' amounts of money (p 53) will ignore it; they know why it is they're allowed to continue. I don't think it would have any effect on the Church of England, which by now is just a parasitical unintellectual organisation with no concerns outside its own finances. I can't imagine Muslims will be very impressed as there's nothing much about the Quran - blasphemy in Pakistan (p 324) for instance may include anything in the Quran, not just 'God'. Jews like the book, because it systematically evades (and lies about) Jewish activity - it's no accident it's sold in Tesco supermarkets along with junk fiction, and that Shermer of the bogus American 'skeptics' is a friend of Dawkins.

Anyway ... two stars for raising the issue.

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image   Review of Evolutionary biology   Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition--with a new Introduction by the Author

Muddled morass with trademark PC plagiarism, November 25, 2010


I've watched Richard Dawkins speak several times; at one such event, he was asked: "Which came first—the chicken or the egg?" and he dodged the issue: "The egg—if by that we mean the self replicating mechanism.—the chicken, the body, is the temporary receptacle of the information... that's the essence of modern neo-Darwinism." Presumably, neither came first.

It took me years to grasp Dawkins's starting-point. If, like Dawkins, you assume that replication came first, it's natural to adopt a Dawkins-style view. But, speaking as a multi-celled organism, I had assumed more or less unconsciously that proto-life may have come first, into which replication somehow intruded. So far as I can tell, none of this is yet decidable; most evidence must have gone long since, disappearing as food or fertiliser into later forms of life.

Anyway ... Dawkins calls it 'neo-Darwinism', because the detail of genes in evolution was unknown to Darwin. (And one might add: Alfred Russel Wallace's priority is unknown to Dawkins).

By the 1990s, automatic gene sequencing (based on DNA of course) by machine became easy, with the results all supposedly put online. Dawkins is not a practising scientist in that sense; and the observations of animals—for example, accounts of rather weird parasites and the behaviours they cause in their victims, are mostly taken from other people's patient observations. His professorship was (is?) specifically in promoting public awareness of science, e.g. in 1991/2 Royal Institution lectures, and countless others His manner is very polite. He tends to say the right thing: he even said he was given 'a new respect' for the profession of TV filmmakers, after a 1985 TV programme on evolution.

Dawkins lists many general influences, along with individual papers. Niko Tinbergen (1953, 'Social Behaviour in Animals'). W D Hamilton and G C Williams on 'social ethology'. R L Trivers (1970s books on 'reciprocal altruism', 'parental investment', 'parent offspring conflict', 'social insects'). V.C.Wynne-Edwards, e.g. 1962 popularised by Robert Ardrey in The Social Contract of 1970. John Maynard Smith on game theory (simple grids with simple outcomes of actions—which assume there's some common measurement of outcome). Later titles (postdating his first edition) include cultural transmission—as in 'memes'.

One has to wonder how much of this is talked up, after the fashion of early popular writers on biology. For example, Dawkins quotes such things as the 'Utter selfishness of the Ik of Uganda', as described by Colin Turnbull, and the gentle altruism of Margaret Mead's Arapesh. He doesn't seem to know about Mead's exposure as a fraud—just one example suggesting he takes sources rather too much at face value.

Dawkins writes well, in the sense of describing individual modules of the world; it's pulling things together in an overview that's problematical. I'll try to identify some of these serious problems....

As many people have pointed out, there are problems with meanings. Let's look at 'evolution', 'selfish', 'gene' and 'altruism', and 'meme'.

The peculiarity of biological evolution is that its mechanism is built into the organism itself. Organisms are so remote from unliving matter, that they only exist because of ancestors—they don't spontaneously generate. 'Evolution' is the change in the totality of life forms from one time period to the next. But this is NOT the same as the 'evolution of ideas' or 'evolution of language' or 'social evolution'. Of course the verbal issue has been with us since at least the 19th century.

Assuming that genes generally operate at a low level—as surely most or all they have to, in order to code the fantastic complications of living things—most of the influences listed by Dawkins aren't anything to do with evolution or genes: he, or at least the reader, can hardly help confusing 'evolution' with things like 'social evolution', meaning change which in some way depends on what happened before. I don't think the issue is ever made clear.

Dawkins points out many times that 'selfish gene'—'thinking of the individual [gene] as though it had a conscious purpose .. is just a figure of speech. A body is really a machine blindly programmed by its selfish genes.' There can't be many authors who admit their book's title is misleading!

Dawkins is careful to define a 'gene' 'as a unit of convenience, a length of chromosome with just sufficient copying-fidelity to serve as a viable unit of natural selection. This allows for whole chunks of chromosomes to be selected, which allows the meaning of 'gene' to be stretched out.

Another issue is long-term changes in genes; since new alleles can form e.g. by mutation, it seems possible many genes are unstable in the long term. In fact, no genes from the origin of life can have persisted to the present day. This suggests genes may not be as permanent as Dawkins implies.

On 'altruism'—here's a typical passage: 'Recently there has been a reaction against racialism and patriotism, and a tendency to substitute the whole human species..' and 'The muddle in human ethics over the level at which altruism is desirable—family, nation, race, species, or all living things..' Dawkins never makes it clear what 'altruism' is. Just a set of well-meaning phrases? Propaganda? The suggestion people should be nice to each other? Genuine action of some sort? The word is often used in a sense which is entirely hypocritical—trying to persuade people to have costs offloaded onto them, as in pop-star fronted begging. It is significant that Dawkins, following others, considers 'altruism', 'lies' and 'deceit' in various forms at a simple level, such as nesting birds, but not hypocrisy and lies at the serious, global, political level; this of course is part of the unmentionable material of 'correctness' which allows politicians and others to bemoan mass starvation etc without doing anything about it.

Near the end of 'The Selfish Gene' is an elaborate account of 'memes', and this makes sense as a logical progression, since these have nothing physically to do with genes at all. I saw Susan Blackmore speak on memes (my tape recording is on this site), and was struck by her trivial examples—a bit of Beethoven's Fifth, a pop song, an ad jingle, a baseball cap worn backwards. In short, a 'meme' is usually something remembered, but not important enough to be worth considering as an 'idea'. The entire process of learning a 'meme' and interpreting it, relying on a lifetime's memory of language to internalise it, is complicated; it only seems simple because we're used to it. Dawkins's more complex examples of e.g. faith, fear of hell fire, and also the injunction to never ask for evidence, may have 'deep psychological impact', but rely on lots of repetition at school or whatever. There's some suggestive matter on 'memes' jostling for survival, but that's it.

Much of this book assumes there's a gene 'for' something—penis length is one example. I don't think Dawkins ever considers what limits can be expected from genes. There must for example be some sort of determinant of skeleton size and shape; but does every part of it have to be defined in detail? Would each finger and toenail need to be specified? Every blood cell? Surely not. His penis example sounds like a bit of sex put in to excite the punters.

A good example is a supposed gene to spread 'altruism'. Altruism in any of the normal senses means assessing some situation, and weighing up all the likely consequences of an action on more than one person (or other life form). This is an elaborate intellectual exercise involving the entire perceptual and memory system; how can there possibly be a gene for it?

Another example is survival. No organism in the world is descended from an ancestor that sampled death to see what it was like. How can fear of death be genetically determined? Such 'fear' certainly must exist—the human verbalised form isn't necessary—no doubt through avoidance of discomfort and so on; but at some point there must be some perception that something unpleasant to the organism may happen. How can there be a gene for that?

Dawkins gets around this: 'it can be perfectly proper to speak of a 'gene for behaviour so-and-so' even if we haven't the faintest idea of the ... causes leading from gene to behaviour.' But this is in a discussion on certain bees cleaning up larval cells in their hives, obviously a very stereotyped behaviour, nothing like something as abstract as 'altruism'.

Very possibly Dawkins is simply taking on the fantasies of Boas and other 'Jews' such as Steven Rose, who deny the existence of human races, despite being viciously tribalist 'Jews' themselves—an utterly fantastic position. DNA is part of the entire structure of any creature, and flaws are usually fatally harmful. It's as though someone denies houses have component parts—roofs, plumbing, doors, electricity, supporting walls, sound practical materials, good ventilation, rooms of useful sizes—and feels free to announce 'all houses are the same'.

'A body is really a machine blindly programmed by its selfish genes' illustrates Dawkins in behaviouristic mode. It's true that animals (like children) are highly egocentric and don't think much about the past, the future, or the universe. But it seems perfectly possible that animal brains are a lot better than Dawkins thinks when he brushes aside e.g. dog behaviour which he thinks only mimics purposive activity, such as looking for food. Animals are handicapped in the sense of lacking efficient mouth/tongue/ear elaborations. But I'd guess even though mute, animal brains are efficient and active. Since nobody knows what the brain does, apart from clearly being at the centre of nerves and senses, the point is difficult to to argue. It seems realistic to argue that genes define a body's plan and send out in the world to do its best. I'm not sure animals such as dogs are as brainless as Dawkins assumes.

[Even tiny animals—flies, spiders—sense danger and run away. How come? Do they think—I see a creature and know that if it contacts me with a large object I may be crushed and die; however by increasing the distance between us, the probability is reduced so I'm more likely to be safe? Can there be a gene which caters for all such situations?]

Throughout this book, Dawkins assumes organisms want to pass on as many genes as possible. And they should (e.g.) be indifferent between all their offspring. (It seems to follow that incest ought to be common). However all this seems based on a mistake.

Why have sexual reproduction? One of its strong points, paradoxically, is precisely that half the genes of each parent are not used. Assume (this is all simplified) the probability of a gene mistake is say .00001. Then the probability of correct copying is .99999. An organism with 100 genes has probability .99999^100 of transcribing correctly. Fairly simple algebra indicates that longer genomes will show errors roughly in proportion to the number of genes. The must come a point where females only will have a significant probability of passing on defective genomes, not reproducing properly. There simple life forms (aphids? worms? bacteria?) where breeding rates are so fast and easy that dead-end lines don't matter. But if women in an asexual world duplicated themselves wrongly, mistakes would build up to the point where costs of defective children would be too great.

If half the genes are thrown away, the result is something like regression to the mean. Parents with large numbers of genetic problems will cause many spontaneous abortions. It's also true that indisputably superior specimens will have little chance of having indisputably superior offspring. Sex supplies stability—essential for complex organisms—there's a sort of stabilising mediocrity. A descendant of (say) William the Conqueror may have none of his genes. This stabilising idea, where a small proportion of embryos are rejected as a quality control mechanism, is omitted by Dawkins. He claims parents should be indifferent between all offspring, even with lethal deformities which parents presumably would wish to not reappear.

There's some interesting material on why e.g. eggs should become 'large' and sperms small. And why there should be 50:50 males and females, attributed to R A Fisher—who however relied on the fact that modern creatures have 50:50 sperms from which it seems to follow. Does this prove there couldn't be a different arrangement?

There are (at least) seven types of writers on biology. The rather dim Fred Hoyle types, who seem unable to understand that vast ranges of time and space are usually needed for evolution. (I recall someone telling me: "I don't see cats turning into dogs"). And the Fabre type, emphasising repetitious stupidity (e.g. caterpillars that follow a leader—around the rim of a plant pot—for days). And the types (e.g. Bergson, G B Shaw) who have a rather fantastic attitude to evolution, expecting incredible new things to 'emerge'. There are also those who emphasise the incredible wastefulness of the evolutionary process: evolution compared with building houses by trial and error of techniques, leaving the world littered with the remains of innumerable incomplete houses. And the D'Arcy Thompson types ('On Growth and Form') who, as with J B S Haldane, consider lengths, areas, volumes, air pressure, surface tension and so on as influences on organisms. And the encyclopaedist types—H G Wells's 'Outline of Life' was brilliant—Faust mythically sold his soul for reference volumes of this sort.

Dawkins is influenced by all these types, but leans towards marvelling over the diversity of life, and the process of Darwinism, in my view unrealistically. He praises the 'miserly economy' and 'maximal efficiency' of 'survival machines'. A counter-view is that evolution is insanely wasteful, a series of bodges which just about work, but with numerous weak points.

- We saw this in the chapter on aggression. Even though a 'conspiracy of doves' would be better for every single individual than the evolutionarily stable strategy, natural selection is bound to favour the ESS.

Dawkins's oarsman example seems very weak. He talks of a typical university boat. But suppose there were 100,000 rowers—given colossal numbers of genes, replacing one by a better one surely can be expected to make almost no difference. I'd have thought something like a factory or city would be a better example, but with almost no job replacement—if one of the workers did the wrong thing, the whole affair could crash.

Dawkins loves or loved his Mac (and incidentally believes computer 'viruses' are simple to write, certainly a mistake). He seems to think the brain is similar to a computer generated display: 'The evolution of the capacity to simulate seems to have culminated in subjective consciousness. Why this should have happened is, to me, the most profound mystery facing modern biology. .. Perhaps consciousness arises when the brain's simulation of the world becomes so complete that it must include a model of itself.'

This seems to be a mistake of the same type as in 1930s drawings of the brain showing vision as something projected on a screen. And/or an overestimate of the ease by which the brain is fooled. Surely, in practice, optical illusions are quite rare and need careful design to work. Dawkins hasn't heard the idea that belief in ghosts fell as electric lighting rose.

Given an atmosphere of perhaps methane, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, with ammonia in the sea, and lightning, it's been known since the 1920s that a 'soup' could form—a dilute sea of organic molecules—carbon in almost unique in forming chains of almost any length. Dawkins puts emphasis on amino-acids and proteins, but metal ions, possibly dissolved from minerals by weak nitric/hydrochloric acid, and sulphate ions could be there too. If replicating chemicals appeared, the question is how the hell there could be some coded way for 'instructions' for life to develop from that. One might speculate that a molecule could attract a tiny shell or coating or arrangement of aquatic ions or other molecules, and maybe grow by absorption, and split at some point, carrying primitive instructions to repeat the process. I was disappointed that there's nothing on such possibilities, or indeed certainties.

Dawkins says little on the evolution of insects: at first sight, eggs -> caterpillars -> pupae -> flying insects seems impossible to square with evolution; perhaps more difficult than the eye. There must have been intermediate stages, such as pupae able to move (as in dragonflies), and some predecessor stage to eggs. It's easy to see the advantage of the process—an early stage of eating low-value food, followed by a winged phase of looking about to deposit eggs. But it's less easy to see how it could have taken place. Just as with the chicken and egg.

Another thing I missed was discussion on the very long term (though the 'ESS' = evolutionary stable strategy' incorporates this). Many books with a biological tinge have scenarios such as: one person having more children than another, and feeling they've won an evolutionary battle. Or people with lots of children, supported by social services, described as 'fit'. Or mass murders of specific types (for example, of intellectuals in the USSR) don't have any effects. It's easy to miss the extreme long-term consequences, especially of course with human beings, who tinker with the world more than any other species.

Dawkins' 'Selfish Gene' without doubt tapped into some need for understanding of the world. But I don't think, in cool retrospect, its influence was very positive. Many Amazon reviews show people interpreting it as sociobiological praise for selfishness, or as showing that ethical beliefs are meaningless, or worrying over determinism. I remember a woman in a radio programme saying "some men aren't interested in a loving relationship, because they want an heir; I read about it in a book by Richard Dawkins". Maybe they misunderstood it, of course, but the misunderstanding is only possible because the messages are muddled.

The book doesn't help much, even with topics which are explicitly discussed, such as 'fast women' and 'philanderers'. The undiscussed problems include killing, or getting killed, under military command; why people dying on the streets don't just desperately grab at money to survive; overpopulation problems; genetic defects. Nor are political group issues discussed much—tribal and other groups working in secret, propaganda and its meme effects, competition over resources. The book does have the vitally important underpinning of evolution. But the detail of the book is questionable. Three stars?

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Dawkins Appetite for Wonder   Review of Richard Dawkins   An Appetite for Wonder—The Making of a Scientist (Autobiography part 1)
Dead-Heads, July 2, 2014
'Dead-heads' was a theatrical term 'applied to persons who receive something of value for which the taxpayer has to pay.' (Brewer's Phrase and Fable). Many generations of ancestors of Dawkins' paternal grandmother were Anglican vicars; another batch descended from an 18th century MP; another batch were 'doctors'. Many Dawkinses attended Balliol College, Oxford, and of course in the mid-19th century half of Oxbridge went into the Church of England, achieving, no doubt, nothing much, but receiving their 'living'. But by the early 20th century, many graduates went to the colonies: Dawkins' dad went to Burma. I wonder if he met Eric Blair, the future George Orwell? Their classical education was regarded by Hugh Trevor-Roper/Lord Dacre as perfectly adapted to their lives as military/ administrator types: I suppose Caesar's wars against Africans etc might be regarded in that light, despite the complete omission of the money side, the Jewish aspect being completely censored. In practice, the entire class was oblivious of financial strings and trammels. Anyway, Richard Dawkins was born in 1941 in Africa, and a lot of description about his very young days is reproduced in his book from his mother's diaries. Which incidentally include the claim she once darkened her skin with potassium permanganate for an act.

This autobiography is published (in Britain) by Black Swan, 'an imprint of Transworld Publishers [which] publishes bestselling authors such as Bill Bryson, Sophie Kinsella, Kate Atkinson and Joanne Harris in paperback'. It carries his story up to 1976, the year of publication of The Selfish Gene. There's thus scope for one (or two) more volumes, perhaps coinciding with the 40th anniversary of The Selfish Gene.

There are considerable difficulties with this book.

On influences, Dawkins went to Oundle School, once famous for trying to combine practical and bookish skills. The odd thing here is that Sanderson Of Oundle, the once-famous headmaster, dead about 30 years when Dawkins started, was written about by H G Wells, himself a great populariser of biology, probably more famous then than Dawkins now. Wells' jointly-written and huge Science of Life in the 1930s must have been known to his parents. And yet there's no mention of Wells in Dawkins. Another of Dawkins' books has an absurdly mangled fake 'quotation' from Wells, so I suspect something odd happened in the editorial process of this book of Dawkins to remove Wells.

The large number of not obviously important hymns, doggerel and poems (one's in Cornish dialect) support this impression, at least in my view. The book seems to be unbalanced, as though chunks have been taken out. I'll try to list problematical parts of the book.

Despite the appearance of taking his family history seriously, Dawkins is featherweight on all serious issues. He has for example no feeling for e.g. the Napoleonic wars and impoverishment by Jews of much of England; or the opium wars and the impoverishment of much of China, for Jews; or of African history, such as it is. He thinks both world wars 'broke out'. Now I come to think of it, near the end of this book is a longish passage on Hitler and the odds of his not existing; Dawkins makes it clear he has a naïve Jew-friendly view of Hitler: it seems Dawkins has not the remotest idea about the world of the last few centuries. Whether this is him, or Black Swan's editorial people, is of course impossible to know.

A passage in his book ('West Coast dreamtime') about Berkeley (he was there for two years or so) shows he had no idea of Jewish power in the USA, expanding after Kennedy's removal. When he returned to Britain he experimented with chicks pecking at grains. He tried various hypotheses related to 3-D vision, and other behavioural things with simple organisms, but doesn't seem to have discovered very much. He doesn't claim to, and the absence of claim seems reasonable. (Steven Rose experimented on newly-hatched chicks, probably at much the same time, inspecting their brains to see if there were identifiable differences based on one event).

Dawkins' list of people at Oxford's zoology department makes, to me at least, agonising reading. There were about thirty of them, all no doubt well-paid, but instead of investigating immigration problems, or theorising on monopolists of paper money, or calculating in detail what beneficiaries of wars and atrocities got their hands on, they turned to nothingness, or at least very little. Probably there's an evolutionarily sound reason, in the short term, for evading realities remote to some individuals.

Another issue of great importance to evolutionary theory is the issue of priority, between Darwin and Wallace. Obviously, if Wallace was the true initiator of the theory of evolution, their relative importance changes spectacularly. But the issue isn't even mentioned; Dawkins shows no sign of any awareness of it. Another non-mention is E. O. Wilson of 'Sociobiology' (1975 - just before 'The Selfish Gene'). There's a mention of the book's title. Possibly a different publisher handled that book? Possibly they disliked each other? Barely mentioned are two Jews, Steven Rose and Lewontin, both as far as I know Jewish race supremacists and part of modern lucrative science fraud.

Dawkins' claim to be a scientist is, in fact, distinctly shaky. He mentions 'apoptosis' ('programmed call death') over which a big cloud of doubt has been cast by Harold Hillman. Ditto with supposed brain cell deaths. And with cell structure itself. Dawkins set out to study biochemistry, though without giving a reason for this choice: probably because the science of nutrition appeared to be firming up at the time. Luckily for him he was diverted into zoology.

Dawkins makes great play of the desirability of scepticism, with examples from his youth of gullibility and its opposite. This is all very well and sounds honest enough, but he has little idea of the complexes of inter-related instincts and beliefs as in Islam, Judaism, and so on, arguably far more important than the simple Does God exist? material. Conceivably, this is related to what seems a simple view of 'survival': 'Natural selection can only blindly favour short-term gain, because every generation is automatically filled with the offspring of those individuals who did whatever it took, in the short term, to manufacture offspring more effectively than other individuals of their own generation.' This reminds me of people who think abundant children in one generation must be 'survivors' in comparison with less fecund groups: who knows what will happen 50 generations along, a fleabite in terms of the evolution of life? J Philippe Rushton on human parental involvement suggests it may not be so simple. Who knows what genetic limitations have developed over the vast accumulation of previous genes? —For example, why are there so few really lethal creatures? How is the murder/ cannibalism rate kept down? How come sexual reproduction with shuffling of genes developed at all?

Dawkins was invited before publication to change his title from 'The Selfish Gene' to 'The Immortal Gene'. He kept his title, correctly I'd say, and it must have helped sell his book, and, by the way, introduce a lot of confusion, since obviously tiny parts of the reproduction mechanism can't individually be 'selfish'. One has to speculate whether he is something of a one-hit wonder, like 'Procul Harum' or, more appositely, Desmond Morris. Certainly his book has had some effect: I came across this typical nonsense in a mediocre probably Jewish-owned forum: Origin of Species was a great work for it's time, but it's probably not worth spending much time on it as it's so outdated. It works at the wrong abstraction. Natural selection works at the level of genes, not species.

There's some interesting material on writing: arguably he's far more an author than a scientist. Just as vicars practised their oratorical skills with sermons which made a large impression but little sense, so Dawkins liked poetry. He claims to have a word-perfect memory for many poems. He post-dates the Latinate/classical styles and is at home with Edwardians - Housman, Swinburne, and I think his father's handwritten collection of poetic favourites, which included undergraduate stuff. Dawkins rewrote considerably - 'Pretty much every sentence I write is revised, fiddled with, re-ordered, crossed out, and reworked. I reread my work obsessively... Even as I type a sentence ... at least half the words are deleted and changed before the sentence ends. ...'

Of course I'm aware that there are probably hundreds of millions of people who simply don't or won't understand evolution, which in outline seems simple enough. However, this situation isn't unique. There are just as many people with no grasp of science or history, and who think for example that blacks invented the modern world, that Jews were innocent victims of a mass murder, that men walked on the moon, that 9/11 was a Muslim atrocity, and that the USSR was 'socialist'. The common root of most of this is easy enough to find. However, the fact is that it's now 2014. There's no sign that Dawkins has absorbed, or criticised, work on the structure of genes—what they actually are, if it's known. There's nothing on genetic engineering. I just think Dawkins should have done very much better.

[Postscript: I noticed what looks like a genuine posting online by Dawkins, suggesting Shakespeare, Schubert, Darwin and Einstein as pre-eminent names. As the Americans say, I rest my case.]
[Another postscript: Browsing Hewlett Johnson's The Socialist Sixth of the World, on 'Anglo-Russian friendship' first published December 1939 (after Britain's and France's declarations of war on Germany) by a Jew, Victor Gollancz... I found this autobiographical note: '... A vita part of this training [in science and engineering, at Manchester] was the study of geology, in which my tutor was Professor Boyd Dawkins, friend of Richard Green, the historian, and a leading authority on primitive man. Dawkins, whose prize I won, was an enthusiastic disciple of Charles Darwin, and in a masterly way introduce us to the doctrine s of evolution...'. Johnson (1874-1966), famous as the 'Red Dean of Canterbury', thus overlapped Professor Sir William Boyd Dawkins FRS, KBE (1837-1929). Why on earth didn't Dawkins mention him in his book? Surely they were related?]

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image   Review of Science: Evolution   Richard Dawkins: River Out Of Eden: A Darwinian View Of Life

Popularised version of 'The Selfish Gene' which doesn't quite work, January 15, 2012

1995 book—about 20 years after 'The Selfish Gene' and a few years after his Royal Institution Christmas lectures. It is, or was, one volume in the 'Science Masters' series, which is something like a roll-call of American 'skeptics'. There's certainly a need for public understanding of biology; it's arguable that Darwinism could be downplayed, rather than being centre stage. I've met people who said jaw-dropping imbecilic things—"I don't see cats turning into dogs" and "You won't make a monkey out of me!" and "modern medicine is [sc. all] dysgenic" and "children are [sc. always] better than their parents". Clearly such people are likely to go to great lengths not to read books like this one, and I feel a bit guilty at only giving three stars.

However there are problems with this book, which in fact seems like an edited-down version of the Selfish Gene—many of the same names, often British evolutionary biologists, and R A Fisher, recur. Here are some weak points which I think many people would spot—

[1] Dawkins insists on DNA as 'self-replicating', but this simply isn't true. It needs some sort of body or structure, and the two go together. On its own, DNA is nothing. How can DNA have begun, and how can it possibly have some code for an animal or plant or whatever? Apart from a quote about crystalline clays as a possible starter, this essential question isn't even looked at.

[2] Dawkins is incomplete on sex. He recounts debates over sex ratios (does 1:1 make sense? What about elephant seals? What about bee males?) but never explains why sex might have evolved—very possibly because complicated DNA can develop mistakes, and if it does, it's useful to have a way of getting rid of them, which is what sexual reproduction can do. (Of course, it can also have the reverse effect).

[2a] His sex material strikes me as being weak where he discusses beauty—e.g. male bird plumage which apparently appeals to the relevant female birds. If it is expensive in resource terms, why doesn't such behaviour just fade away?

[3] There's a weakness in his comments on DNA and the 'African Eve'—an experimental result based on mitochondrial DNA of a sample of women from around the world. The idea was to try to identify the rate of DNA mutations in this supposedly unchanging DNA. (I'm skeptical of the accuracy of this work). Mitochondrial DNA is supposed to be pretty much unchanged and is carried in the female line only. The conclusion was that an ancestor of all living people was likely to have been African. However, there's a problem—if you went back in time and looked at the world's population as it was then, they too would have differing DNAs and might have come from somewhere else. Dawkins' very long account of this experimental material (which postdated 'The Selfish Gene') serves politically correct purposes but isn't sound science.

[4] Dawkins isn't good on the total, Gaia-style experience of life. In practice, nutrition, food, water, energy have limits, and life largely spends its time eating other life and recycling the various elements- nitrogen, oxygen, minerals, whatever—indefinitely. This must impose some sort of restriction on life. The only nod Dawkins makes to this is to point out that exponential growth if it were possible would soon lead to the entire volume of the earth being taken up by bacteria in a few weeks (or something similar).

[5] Another mild irritant is his emphasis on time, vast spans of time. But space is just as important—given vast acres of land, vast expanses of sea, there are simply more mutations possible.

[6] Yet another doubt is the assumption about 'God's utility function'. (There's quite a bit of reference to the Biblical 'God' in this book—including the 'Eden' and 'Eve' references). In some cases, this makes sense—the cost of a war and the body count together can imply a killing was valued at such-and-such. But in complicated cases, this is conceptually difficult. Maybe the reader has spent his/her life trying to get a secure job; or avoiding learning Chinese; or never travelling in foreign countries; or leaving a home town; or getting an average amount of exercise. Any number of hypotheses can be invented. Dawkins says in effect you can see that DNA is maximised, and if God existed, that's what might be reasonably inferred. But how can anyone be sure DNA was 'maximised'?

[7] The final chapter, describing a parallel between a supernova and the (possible) expansion of man through the universe, is obviously put in as a thrilling view of the possible future, just as the young Dawkins may have thrilled to the fake claims about moon landings. (With amusing naivete, Dawkins expresses no criticisms whatever about scientific fraud). Dawkins seems to assume space travel must be a technological adventure, as indeed it would be for us. But there's nothing in his self-replicating idea to rule out life in a very attenuated interstellar form. It's unlikely to be intelligent, though. His assumption other life must be wonderful is just an assumption.

[8] As a technical issue, outside the scope of most readers, Dawkins accepts the existence of the endoplasmic reticulum and cisternae in mitochondria, neither of which (I'll be polite) are likely to exist. I'm afraid young people may be attracted into biology by books like this, only to find later in life that what they've been taught rests largely on sand, or indeed quicksand.

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image   Review of Evolutionary biology   Richard Dawkins: Ancestor's Tale

'Meme pool' collected from Darwinian biologists and others (but pre-Darwinian social awareness), November 26, 2010

Very ambitious journey through the whole of evolution. It's in 39 sections, working backwards in time to about 2000 million years, and ending with 'eubacteria'. For completeness this obviously needs geography—the generally-accepted changes in the earth, including pangaea, laurasia, gondwanaland. It obviously also needs treatment of rocks and their changes, some of course (such as chalk) a by-product of life, some fossil-bearing. And oceanography. And climatology. Some is co-written by Dakwins' research assistant, Yan Wong.

With impeccable anthropocentricity, the various life forms are introduced in 'concestor' sequence—the neologism means going back in time until a common ancestor has been (probably) identified. Thus the accounts start with human prehistory—early types of man, then monkeys, apes, chimps. Each chapter has its branched diagram of the type that's existed more or less since Darwin, with 'today' at the top and the past at the bottom, dated from when the 'concestor' is believed to have separated evolutionarily. It's a hugely-prolonged family tree: for example, a few hundred million years ago we have a shrew, named 'Henry' by Dawkins, an ancestor of every human being alive today.

It's written, notionally, as a set of Canterbury Tales, though luckily each organism writes in modern English. 'The Host's Return'—a chapter near the end—is an interesting survey of devices which have evolved more than once. These are at the medium macro level, not the fine genetic detail—as an engineer might list the different types of engine, or different edged weapons, rather than things like split pins or capillary tubing. Thus hopping vs quadruped motion has evolved twice; eyes of assorted types about fifteen times, electrical weaponry, echo location, throwing and spitting, a claim to have evolved a wheel...

Dawkins is good on etymology, evidently to ease the reader through the Latinate and Grecian neologisms. It's interesting to note the recapitulation of the history of science and of mores: British-derived names (Cambrian, Devonian..), Germanic material from the Jura mountains, the later US contributions—Pennsylvania and Mississippi, and now China, Japan, Australia. And conventions which used to include species named after aristocrats, now after humble taxonomists. Very likely there are Confucian interpretations ('neutral' genes? As opposed to fighting and dominant and recessive?)

A novelty—to the non-professional biologist—is the inclusion of modern genetic information taken from DNA, including diagrams showing relatedness. He makes it clear DNA is unpunctuated code. He explains it as not like a blueprint, but a sort of process, something like origami.

Omissions: the origins of life are more or less omitted (as are viruses). If life started in an soup of salts, carbon-chained molecules, acid ions, metal ions, and dissolved gas, and started to replicate, the beginnings must have been at the molecular level, something very difficult for us to imagine, as our senses are far too gross to easily picture these things. Surface tension, the electric fields around water molecules, growth by diffusion and osmosis in viscous liquids, gases dissolved by huge underwater pressures, enzymes, membranes a single molecule thick, shells a molecule thick, strengths of tiny structures, the formation of complex metal based compounds (e.g. haemoglobin, chlorophyll), the molecular building-up of ice and snow molecules with their mysteriously generated symmetries ... all this sort of thing is not in The Ancestor's Tale; I think maybe Dawkins designed his book with the remotest past at the end, partly to avoid the thorny problems of origins.

Another omission is effects of physics at the D'Arcy Thompson macro level. Evolution recapitulating shapes (mammals returning to the sea evolving a fish shape; Bates on the Amazons finding a hummingbird the same shape as a hovering moth) for example I think are omitted.

There's not much on human genetics—for example, those people unable to digest alcohol, though he does mention cow's milk intolerance as a discussion on people having perhaps been domesticated, like dogs from wolves. The sort of things medical people necessarily know about—horrible deformities and mistakes, including man-made ones as by Americans in in Vietnam—are mostly omitted (except in fruit flies).

I have some negative comments, some of which will mean little to most people. In no particular order:
(1) He says nothing about fake fossils, something of an industry in China now. Fakes have bedevilled evolutionary research.
(2) The word 'syncitium' is misspelt also in the book as 'sincitium'—this type of structure (not the spelling!) is, or will turn out to be, important in relation to the brain.
(3) Dawkins has a chapter on the coelacanth, a supposedly fossil deepwater fish, which unexpectedly turned up off the South African coast. It's a very short chapter, suggesting the idea that it was a precursor to mammals was dropped. (One of Dawkins' fellow Royal Institution lecturers said this fish was referred to as 'old four legs' by African blacks—an outrageous piece of nonsense).
(5) There's a colour picture of an artist's impression of the supposed cell skeleton and endoplasmic reticulum, which are definitely phoney constructs.
(6) Viruses are not included, which in fact in my view is sensible, as an awful lot of unsound nonsense—such as 'AIDS'—has grown up around them.
(7) There's a misquotation from H G Wells' 'Anticipations'—basically the same one as in 'The God Illusion'—in which two parts have been swapped round, giving a false impression.
(8) There are several pages on Colin Powell being called 'black' (this was before Obama!) and Dawkins thinks this says something about 'us' rather than the media.
(9) The actual mechanics of dating rocks and fossils, and things relatively recently (carbon-14), is omitted, evading the considerable technical problems.
(10) He assumes all the DNA material is correct, but in view of mistakes in modern biology there must be question marks over the techniques.
(11) He gives no information on how 'similarity' between genomes is measured. For example the human genome may have been sequenced—Dawkins has a passage on whose exactly—but for chimps etc this has possibly not been done. Here's a problem: '.. we [he means people with DNA sequencing equipment] can measure the fraction that is associated with the regional groupings that we call [human] races. And it turns out to be a small percentage of the total: between 6 and 15 per cent depending on how you measure it...' This is surely a preposterous argument. Human beings have 46 chromosomes. 6 to 15% difference could mean up to 8 entire chromosomes being different! If that's negligible, I'm a Tasmanian Tiger.
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HTML and all content ©Rae West. This file of Russell-only reviews first uploaded 3 Oct 2015.