I watched Rod Liddle's The Trouble with Atheism last night. It makes me sorry that I missed Richard Dawkins' The Root of All Evil? as this show was clearly intended as a response to it. I caught the end of the first part of Root where, after a series of encounters with religious nutjobs, Dawkins explained he was going to speak to a more moderate religious voice: a Jewish Israeli who had converted to Islam, and who Dawkins expected to have a sensible insider's view of religious conflict. Instead, Dawkins found himself sitting across a table from the most memorable lunatic of that year in television, a man who responded to one of Dawkins' questions with one of his own: "Why don't you [in the west] sort out your women?"
Liddle's show was an attempt to show that faith is not a problem and that disbelief can be as dogmatic and dangerous as the religions it opposes. I think that Liddle's attempts in this regard can be left as they are. "Atheism is a peculiar thing," Liddle told us early on, "it's a belief in a negative." No, it's just not believing in any gods. It's not peculiar: it's the way you're born. What I really want to tackle here is the reason that I watched the show in the first place, Liddle's rather embarrassing argument against 'Darwinism'.
Thankfully, Liddle, while ignorant, is clearly not stupid. He didn't take a creationist stance at all, instead an eminently sensible (but shamefully ignorant) scientific view of things. Darwin's The Origin of Species is atheism's 'sacred text' Liddle told us. After explaining how Darwin's fantastic intuitive leap described the natural process that shapes the variety of life on Earth, Riddle then claimed that 'Darwinism' is the keystone of atheism - atheists using it as dogma rather than science.
This would come as a surprise to population geneticist George Price. An atheist, Price was one of the main scientists responsible for our understanding of the evolution of altruism. Price was so astounded to see that goodness arose from natural law that it convinced him of the existence of God and he became a devout Christian. It also comes as a surprise to me. I lost my shred of religion while reading Carl Sagan muse about why we felt the need to invent supernatural and mystical ideas with no evidence to support them when such beautiful natural phenomena exist right in front of us.
So why does Liddle assert that Darwinism is such a big part of atheism? The obvious answer is that Darwin showed how natural law could lead to the beauty of the world, without recourse to a creator. This much, I'll agree, is correct. But, before Darwin came along, the lack of evidence for natural processes wasn't evidence for gods. And if we take Price's tack, evidence for natural processes isn't evidence against gods either. Liddle went further, asserting that Darwinism is the 'only' such natural law, and therefore is of fundamental importance to atheism. But what about continental drift? It explains how breathtaking mountain ranges were created by natural processes. Does that mean that before we had evidence for continental drift, that was evidence that Thor chiselled out the Himalayas with his hammer? And does it mean that continental drift is now an important part of atheism?
Liddle also asserted that atheists are taking Darwinism too far. He certainly got a few talking heads - philosophers and historians - to say that, yes, Darwinism is now being applied to things where it has no relevance. What exactly? Liddle gave us only one example: that Darwinism is being used to explain the existence of religions. Specifically, that religions are 'memes': viral ideas that propagate by a kind of 'survival of the catchiest'. Liddle rebutted this by speaking to a Christian immunologist who thought it was preposterous that religions were like 'viruses that infect you in your sleep'. While he was clearly being humorous here, it isn't much of an argument. If Liddle wanted to show that religion isn't viral he should perhaps have shown us how people choose religions by weighing up their pros and cons, rather than just being inculcated with the same one as their parents or culture. I wonder why he didn't? More seriously, he could have looked at the world's main religions and seen which one's have viral characteristics, for example which ones say that you'll go to Hell if you don't believe in them. I don't know, perhaps those ones are actually in the minority. I certainly didn't find out from Liddle.
Most embarrassing was Liddle's attempt to argue that Darwinism is dogma. It's '147 years old', Liddle tells us, implying that it hasn't changed in all that time. He failed to show us images of biologists in labs and jungles looking at nature, then consulting the Origin of Species and going, "Ah yes! It's really all in here!" Again, I wonder why.
It was when Liddle claimed that 'many scientists' believe that there are holes in Darwinism that I expected him to visit the Discovery Institute or something similar. Imagine my surprise when he spoke to an evolutionary biologist, and I realised that he was quite right. The problem is that he was also enormously ignorant. The biologist (who Liddle keenly told us was 'agnostic') argues that while Darwin explained how adaptions propagate, there is another (natural, genetic) explanation for where the adaptions come from. As near as I could tell, Liddle has been confused by one of the genuine controversies about evolution - the respective importance of natural selection and genetic drift. This scientist clearly felt that the latter was the more important - but did not dispute the fact of the former.
Liddle took the information that Darwin doesn't have the whole story as evidence of atheist dogma. Darwin will eventually be 'superseded' by a better understanding of evolution, Riddle asserts, as is the nifty way of science - thus flying in the face of atheists. And therein lies the spectacular ignorance - an ignorance whose perspective I've been writing from since the third paragraph. Liddle must be living in a cave, or have very, very old biology textbooks. 'Darwinism' has already been superseded by better science. In fact, our understanding of evolution is now properly called Neo-Darwinian evolution.
Lets go back to Dawkins. Dawkins acquitted himself very well in the show, but strangely didn't feature at all during Liddle's attack on Darwinism. Dawkins, when writing on evolution (he is an evolutionary biologist, lest you forget), asserts that, from the standpoint of evolution, all that matters are genes*. But hang on: Darwinism is 147 years old… and we've only known about genes for half a century or so! What's going on? Time travel? Perhaps Darwin wrote about genes, but no-one noticed it until recently? Or is Dawkins an anti-Darwinist himself? The fact is, Darwin didn't write about genes, because he didn't know about them. There were also things that he got wrong, and there are some aspects of evolution that Darwin proposed which are now under debate (such as sexual selection). The Origin of Species is not the holy book that Liddle would like us to believe. It's a scientific book, and as such has been tested, altered and expanded upon - by both atheist scientists and scientists of many different religions (although most scientists are atheists). No religion does this with their 'sacred text'.
Liddle says that Darwinism is a fundamental tenet of atheism.
-This is false. The only tenet of atheism is not believing in any gods.
Liddle implies that Darwinism is dogma.
-This is false. We have a much better and considerably different understanding of evolution than Darwin did.
Liddle says that Darwinism will be superseded by better science.
-This is sort of true and sort of false. It has already been superseded by better science.
What exactly was the point of that? I really don't understand what Liddle thought that this would achieve. I half believe that Liddle originally intended to launch a creationist assault on evolution, realised how stupid that would be and then tried to create a more nuanced, (mostly) scientific attack on 'Darwinism'. On the plus side, he may have given some religious crazies a mildly better understanding of biology. I can only hope that someone does the same for him.
*This is of course from the standpoint of evolution. From the standpoint of, say, everyday life, genes aren't important at all, instead things like kindness, sense of humour and taste in movies are what matters. In the same vein, from the standpoint of shampoo what matters is whether you're greasy, dry or frizzy, but this in no way implies that we should segregate people by their hair-type or something. More on this in my next post.