Richard Dawkins

Richard DawkinsIf you are following at all the skeptic / atheist / humanist / freethought movement(s) (henceforth, SAHF), last week has been an exciting and/or troubling one for you. First, the announcement that the Richard Dawkins Foundation had merged with (or taken over, depending on whom you ask) the venerable Center for Inquiry, up until then the chief remaining operation established by one of the founding fathers of modern skepticism and humanism, Paul Kurtz.

Then, a mere six days later, the organizers of the North East Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS), likely to soon become the major skeptic conference in North America (given the apparent demise of The Amazing Meeting), dropped a bombshell: Dawkins was being disinvited — probably a first in his career — on grounds of yet another obnoxious tweet he had thoughtlessly sent out to his 1.35 million followers.

It seems, therefore, like this is as good a time as any to take stock of Richard Dawkins and of the SAHF community and see where they stand. I will begin with my personal assessment of Dawkins as a scientist, science popularizer, and public intellectual. I will then get into some (not too lurid) detail about the latest twitter-storm, and conclude with a few reflections on the significance of all this for the SAHF movement(s) at large. Needless to say, everything that follows reflects my own opinions, not those of Plato…

Dawkins the scientist, popularizer, and public intellectual

I have met Dawkins a few times throughout my career as a biologist and a philosopher, and every encounter has been as cordial as it could be expected between colleagues who disagree on a number of issues. The first time, actually, was before I became a professional biologist. I was an undergraduate student at the University of Rome, and was sent by the Italian magazine “Sapere” (To Know) to interview Dawkins in Florence, where he was appearing as an invited speaker to a public conference on evolution. The second time was in the mid-90’s. By that time I was an Assistant Professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee, and my Department invited Dawkins to speak as part of his book tour (very likely for Climbing Mount Improbable). It was also his birthday, which we celebrated with cake and all the rest, following his talk. There have been a couple of other meetings after that, but the last time I saw him in person was at a workshop on philosophical naturalism organized by cosmologist Sean Carroll. Interestingly, over lunch during one of those days, I experienced Dawkins in what is a rather uncharacteristically humble mood: he confided at our table that he felt a bit intimidated, being surrounded by so many professional philosophers (he wasn’t talking about me, I assure you, but more likely of Dan Dennett and Alex Rosenberg, among others). It was interesting to see that rather unexpected (from his public appearances) side of him.

Okay, personal history dealt with, let me move to the interesting stuff: what do I make of Richard Dawkins as a scientist, popularizer, and public intellectual? It’s a complex issue, to be sure. For one, he and I have never seen eye to eye, and this is way before he published The God Delusion — a book that had I read it as a youngster would have certainly excited me, but that as a professional philosopher I found simply ghastly in its cartoonish simplicity.

To begin with, I never bought his argument in The Selfish Gene (TSG), the book that (rightly) launched him as a top rate science popularizer, back in 1976. I read and appreciated the book for the first time a few years later (I was in middle school when it came out), but I always thought that his arch-rival, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, while himself an interesting, shall we say, character, was much closer to the mark. In a nutshell, TSG presents an exceedingly reductionist view of biology that is simply incapable, in my mind, of taking in the bewildering variety of biological phenomena that we have documented ever since Darwin. Dawkins’ focus on the gene level and only the gene level, his refusal to take seriously the idea of multi-level selection, his (later) casual dismissal of epigenetics, his ridicule of advances coming out of paleontology, his utter ignorance (judging from the fact that he hardly wrote about it at all) of important concepts like phenotypic plasticity, phenotypic accommodation, niche selection, robustness, and evolvability — to mention but a few — meant to me that his view of biology was hopelessly limited.

His long feud with Gould was highly influential on my formative years as a young scientist. You can get a feeling from the (overall pro-Dawkins, but generally balanced) booklet written by philosopher of science Kim Sterelny, and aptly entitled Dawkins Vs Gould: Survival of the Fittest. (It was published before Gould’s untimely death, or the title would have been in real poor taste!)

A few years later, when I was a full professor, but still at the University of Tennessee, I actually taught a graduate seminar on the Gould-Dawkins rivalry, and that’s where I learned something that still few people seem to realize. You see, Dawkins is often portrayed in the media as “a leading evolutionary biologist.” But if by that one means an active research scientist who has actually made major contributions to his field, then that title really ought to describe Gould, not Dawkins.

Dawkins essentially ceased publishing in the primary literature (with a few exceptions, mostly commentaries) after he wrote TSG. Absolutely nothing wrong with that: the man had found his true calling as a science popularizer, and Zeus knows we need a lot of ’em! But even TSG was just that, a popular book, not the presentation of original ideas (except for the whole “memes” thing, more on that in a minute). Indeed, TSG was the popularization of notions developed in the preceding couple of decades by true giants of the evolutionary field, including George Williams (nature of natural selection, criticism of group selection), William Hamilton (kin selection), and Robert Trivers (reciprocal altruism). (Here is a short article I wrote for Skeptical Inquirer about going beyond the selfish gene.)

As I mentioned, the one really novel idea Dawkins presented in TSG was the concept of memes, a cultural analogue of genes, introduced with the express purpose to convince his readers that “Darwinism” applies universally, not just to straightforward genetic systems. (This eventually led Dan Dennett to his famous idea of Darwinism as a “universal acid,” in his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea — an interesting book in which, however, Dennett gets rather uncharacteristically, and in my mind unjustifiably, nasty about Gould.)

Now, I have written elsewhere why I think “memetics” is a bad idea, as memes are just metaphors, and they are not particularly useful to understand what they are supposed to help us understand, cultural evolution. Sure enough, after their 15 minutes of fame, thanks largely to a book by Susan Blackmore, memes have receded to generic metaphor for successful ideas that spread virally. Indeed, the Journal of Memetics, the only peer reviewed publication on the topic, has long ago closed down for lack of interest in the scholarly community.

Finally, let me get to Dawkins the public intellectual. For a number of years he held an endowed chair as Professor of Public Understanding of Science (an excellent idea, which ought to be replicated elsewhere!) at Oxford. During that period (and before) he published a series of excellent books on evolutionary biology, my favorite probably being Climbing Mount Improbable. That, I think, was Dawkins’ golden age, during which even those who criticized him on professional grounds (like myself) were nonetheless eagerly reading his books (as I did).

That golden age, in my mind, came to an abrupt end at the very moment Dawkins’ popularity made a huge leap, with the publication of The God Delusion. Again, I’ve written about it elsewhere, so I will not rehash that particular controversy. As is well known to my readers, I’ve been critical of the New Atheism in general, and of the decidedly scientistic turn that it has imparted to the SAHF movements, a turn that I’m confident would have been frowned upon by some of the early leading figures, such as Kurtz, Carl Sagan, and Martin Gardner. There is definitely room for disagreement here, but the current essay is about my own assessment of the Dawkins phenomenon, so there it is.

The broader point is that I think Dawkins has been sliding down ever since he became a (very) popular spokesperson for atheism. Which is highly unfortunate, because atheism does need good spokespeople. But the most effective ones, I would think, are those that come across as reasonable and articulate, and who are very careful about what they say in public, especially on social media. Dawkins is articulate, but doesn’t come across (to non atheists, and indeed even to some atheists) as reasonable. And he’s definitely not careful about his public statements, as we’ll see below.

So, to recap my thinking so far: not a leading evolutionary biologist (never been); a top notch science popularizer (until The God Delusion); a problematic public intellectual (after The God Delusion).

The latest twitter-storm

Which brings me to what happened last week. The trouble started when Dawkins posted the following tweet (he deleted it since, hence the screenshot):

Dawkins tweet-1

The video linked to in the tweet, and which Dawkins clearly endorsed, can be found here. It is an egregious, unqualified, piece of racist and misogynist garbage. Please, pause reading this post for a couple of minutes and see for yourself. It’s simply horrifying.

Then again, this was not an isolated incident. Dawkins had racked a considerable number of similarly embarrassing tweets over the past few years. Here is a sampler, ranging over such light topics as abortion, rape, pedophilia, and Islam (of course!). Use Google to find many, many more.

Much has been said about the most recent episode, particularly because it has led to the NECSS organizers dumping Dawkins from their conference, but some people seem to have missed at the least part of the point.

For instance, Dawkins took the tweet down after being told that the “feminist” in the video is not just a generic caricature, but represents a real woman, who has received plenty of threats and harassment in recent times, as a result of an admittedly rather embarrassing video of her during a protest in Toronto.

What needs to be noted here is twofold: a) Dawkins, despite having deleted the offending tweet, does not actually seem regretful at all (contra to what he wrote in a press release from CFI about the NECSS incident):

Dawkins tweet-2

“The rest was very funny, right on point and beautifully executed.” No Richard, it was none of those things. Not at all.

This is why the NECSS organizers (to be clear: I am not one of them) took the extraordinary, and likely costly, step of withdrawing the invitation to Dawkins to come to New York. You can read Steve Novella’s full explanation here, which I find convincing and earnest. If anything, in my mind, the question is why was Dawkins invited to NECSS to begin with, considering that his socially erratic behavior was notorious. But I suppose it’s hard to resist the cachet of a celebrity, and Dawkins sells tickets at whatever event he is invited.

This time, however, the NECSS folks took a stand, one that, as I said, is likely to cost them financially — though they have certainly augmented their reputation in terms of integrity, an increasingly rare asset these days. The cost is going to come from the fact that a number of local and non-local atheists have already decided, or are at the least deliberating about, boycotting  NECSS because they think the whole incident is much-ado-about-nothing, and that the organizers overreacted because of  rampant political correctness. Which brings me to the last part of this post: the community.

Impact on the SAHF communities

The SAHF communities have seen a significant amount of turmoil in recent years, largely to do with a double internal split, as far as I can determine (I’m speaking from personal experience here, I haven’t seen any systematic sociological studies of the matter).

First, there is the political split: there are (notoriously, unfortunately) few conservatives among skeptics and atheists. This is to be expected as far as the humanist crowd is concerned, since secular humanism has always (or almost) been a philosophy of progressive liberalism. But there is no reason whatsoever why a conservative shouldn’t be an atheist, or skeptical of claims of the paranormal and such.

I suspect, however, that the common origins of SAHF in the United States, with a few pivotal figures (like Kurtz) blazing the trail in the 1960s and ’70s, is a main reason for this situation. Kurtz was not just an atheist and a skeptic, but a secular humanist, and he saw no sharp boundaries among those branches of the movement, which means that the progressive liberalism of secular humanism got sort of automatically imported into the other branches as well.

Notwithstanding the virtual absence of conservative SAHFs, there is a strong, and vocal, minority of libertarians to be reckoned with, including some of the leading figures of the last few years, like Michael Shermer and Pen Jillette. Predictably, the clash between the libertarian minority and the progressive majority has led to major disagreements and some embarrassing moments, for instance when prominent libertarian skeptics declared themselves “skeptical” of global climate change. (Shermer was one of them, though to his credit he has since changed his mind.)

The second split, not at all orthogonal to the first one, separates defenders of “free speech” (who tend to be libertarian, but not exclusively) from advocates of “social justice” (who tend to be progressive, but not exclusively).

This also has led to nasty exchanges, with accusations of Islamophobia and misogyny being hurled (sometimes appropriately, at other times not so much) to people like Sam Harris, comedian Bill Maher, and, of course, Richard Dawkins. The response from those so accused has been that the other side is stifling the right to free speech, a standard tactic that has already emerged in reference to the latest Dawkins debacle. Except, of course — as Steve Novella has pointed out — that NECSS, for instance, is a private organization whose own free speech is exercised by the choice of who they do and do not invite, not to mention that to claim that Dawkins’ speech is being stifled, considering the huge number of followers and endless number of platforms he has available, is more than a bit ridiculous.

In all of this, it hasn’t helped that some on the progressive side (a side with which I identify, broadly speaking) have confused atheism (technically, simply a negative metaphysical stance) with secular humanism (a truly politically progressive philosophy), a confusion made all the more maddening by the vocal stamping of a number of high profile characters who relish in (and profit from) making outrageous statements with the transparent purpose of increasing web traffic while vilifying and insulting some of their own readers (you know who you are, no need to mention names).

Now, let us step back for a second. Remember what the SAHFs evolved for: to further reason and critical inquiry, to promote science and debunk pseudoscience, to build a community of like minded people, to provide a civil alternative to religion. Does any of the above sound anything like this set of highly worthy goals?

No, clearly. But there are countless good people involved with SAHF, and they deserve to be able to return to the original goals of what they set out to do, shutting off the insanity and incivility, taking a stand again in favor of reason and decency.

That is why I applaud the step taken by the NECSS organizers. That is also why I wish (I know it’s not going to happen) that CFI divested itself from its link with the Richard Dawkins Foundation, engaged in some serious soul searching, and regrouped around the basic principles set forth by Paul Kurtz. I met Paul, and he was no saint (who is?). But I’m pretty sure he would be disgusted by the shamble in which his intellectual heirs currently find themselves.

So the Dawkins-NECSS debacle is a splendid opportunity for the good people within SAHF to step back, appreciate and remind themselves of all the good they have done in decades of activism, but also conscientiously and critically inquire into the bad or questionable stuff. Every movement goes through growing pains, and this is just one of those moments. I sincerely wish them all the best for a speedy and safe transition to maturity.

208 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins

  1. ejwinner

    Well, I confess myself somewhat pleased that, even in my dotage, I can write something offending an ideologue – even if what I write, as David Ottlinger pointed out, has to do with ideas rather than personalities.

    I spent years deconstructing Marxist determinism; I’m hardly going to do a 180 here and embrace Scientismist determinism.

    And I capitalize the initial ‘s’ because I think we should acknowledge that Scientism is at least a cult, possibly a religion, predicated on the hope that someday, some way, ‘science will explain everything.’

    That shouldn’t be what science is, or what it offers us. Science should be about exploration of natural phenomena – Not a determination of social phenomena (to which it has little claim – and always, as I ever point out, probabilistically).

    One person at the right time and place could have changed the world; one person at the right time and place, could still change the world.

    The notion that economics is decided in advance by the ‘fundamental laws of physics’ (under quotes because ‘laws’ is a metaphor for regularities) is simply laughable. Unless, of course, one *believes* – has *faith* in – the totalistic power of ‘science’ (as understood as a ground of this faith) to resolve all human experience and its problems.

    One might as well believe in god. I didn’t forsake that faith to accept another.

    At least some religions ‘make sense’ – ie, they have a well developed argumentation wherein, assuming the premises, the conclusions follow.

    But with Scientism, one has to allow that the ‘laws of physics’ lead inevitably, not only to our economic system, but to whether I pick my nose, – without argumentation, narrative coherence, or any evidence – just on blind faith.

    Allow me to pick my nose here, and toss the snot on yet another attempt to suppress difference, chance, and our human ability to change our minds and choose otherwise.

    ‘X discovered Y because Z; therefore X will discover A, B, C, because Z.’ Except that A, B, C, are *different kinds* than Y. Therefore a method of discovery entirely different than Z must be deployed to understand them.

    On this rock the ship of Scientism crashes.

    Economics is a social phenomenon, not a physical phenomenon. The feelings of women regarding rape constitute a set of experiences beyond the closure of certain logical demands. Conversation and satire are cultural manifestations, with no narrow definition or prescription of boundaries – yet those boundaries exist, because we agree to them, and cannot communicate civilly otherwise.

    The communal experiences of Muslims, which entail their belief in Islam, lie outside the narrow purview of detached reasonable demands.

    That doesn’t make those demands wrong. It does mean that they need to be presented in a way that respects the history, experiences, and possibility of choice of those involved.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    My question was whether the members of the Goldsmith femsoc deserved to be “satirised” like this …

    And I’ll repeat my answer: yes, 100% so.

    You seem to treat satire as an exceptional event that needs a strong justification. No, it’s just the normal way of things. Some satire is good and funny, some less so, some hits the mark, some less so. Really, this fuss is ridiculous.

    As for your suggested New Atheists video, go ahead and make it, no one will care. Whether it seems to be about all NAs or some NAs, well we’ll see how it turns out.

    And if anyone questioned whether it was even a remotely fair comment about anybody I could say “It is satire, not documentary”.

    Yep, exactly.

    Hi marc,

    But adding ‘ist’ or ‘ism’ to Islam doesn’t imply a violent subgroup within a subgroup of Muslims (followers of Islam).

    The term “Islamist” has a widespread use and understanding as being the Islamic religion coupled with the political desire to impose that religion on others and on society as a whole. It is an entirely legitimate usage. e.g. see here.

    Moreover the video does clearly reference Muslims: “So do you mind if I rape you now? — Oh don’t be silly it’s not rape when a Muslim does it”

    And *that* line was in the mouth of an SJW. In their eyes — exaggerating here — everything is the fault of the rich, white, male, capitalist, imperialist West. Concepts such as “racism” and “rape” are about those people imposing on the oppressed (Muslims, women, etc). Hence the tendency to say the oppressed can’t do wrong, and to blame any wrong doing not on them but instead on the rich, white, male, capitalist, imperialist West E.g. the Cologne events do not illustrate anything wrong with *their* values, it’s a result of how they’ve been treated by the rich, white, male, capitalist, imperialist West. That was the ideology being exaggerated and satirised in that line.

    If a public figure puts something on a public medium like twitter and all your context is needed to ‘understand it right’ there is a clear problem.

    I do agree that lack of context is a general issue with twitter. But that doesn’t excuse willfully ignoring what context there is and doing ones best to misinterpret it.

    Hi David,

    I intend for this to be my last comment on this subject.

    So you’re not going to even attempt to explain your claim that the video is “racist”? Noted. (Also note that if the best explanation you could manage would be along the lines of a “if you can’t see for yourself then nothing I can say …” non-answer then don’t bother.)

    But the point of the parody is that many of these feminists are disingenuous, controlling for controlling’s sake, motivated by petty hatred and without a moral point.

    I note how you have to totally paraphrase the video — in an unfair way — to criticise it. No, the point of the parody is more specifically about specific ideological SJW doctrine that, in my opinion, are ripe for satire.

    they all criticize [Dawkins’s] thought and argument which is as weak as the remarks make them out to be.

    And this video criticizes the thought and argument of the Islamists and the SJW feminists.

    Hi ej,

    Your characterisation of scientism is wildly erroneous, but this isn’t the time.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Robin Herbert

    Hi Coel,

    “go ahead and make it, no one will care”

    I don’t know Coel, you have always taken my satire to heart so much in the past and NA’s are notoriously glass jawed.

    And if these relentless RWNJ jokes about feminists being raped by muslims count as satire then my little jokes must surely count as satire also.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    … NA’s are notoriously glass jawed.

    No, I don’t think so. Overall the amount of opprobrium directed at NAs much exceeds anything they give out.** Of course NAs also stand up for themselves, but there’s nothing improper about that.

    **That statement excludes PZ Myers, who nowadays is vastly worse than everyone else put together, but since he’s officially resigned*** from the movement (wahay!) he presumably no longer counts.

    ***Since he’s gone full-on SJW ideologue and doesn’t want to be in any “movement” that has Dawkins in it; or really in any movement with any non-SJW-ideologues in it.


  5. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi EJ,

    > The notion that economics is decided in advance by the ‘fundamental laws of physics’ (under quotes because ‘laws’ is a metaphor for regularities) is simply laughable.

    I don’t think economics is decided in advance by the fundamental laws of physics. But I do think that our economics is likely to be only one of a very few stable solutions to how you get rational self-interested agents to co-operate and specialise and so on. As such I would not be at all surprised to find it repeated in other universes with entirely different laws of physics, as long as those laws support rational agents.

    You still assume that things could have turned out any way at all, without any real evidence that alternatives would be workable in the long term.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Robin Herbert

    “And this video criticizes the thought and argument of the Islamists and the SJW feminists.”

    No, of course it doesn’t, it just lists off a bunch of fashionable RWNJ prejudices about feminism.


  7. Coel

    DM’s point is a good one. There are many examples of “convergent evolution”, that is, engineering constraints leading to the same things evolving in different situations. Eyes and wings are examples of things that evolved several times independently.

    In terms of social interactions between animals, we can see similar social structures that have evolved independently in different species. It is not at all silly to suppose that there are only a few long-term stable economic solutions that a species such as ours could adopt. Some economic solutions that have been tried, for example communism, don’t seem to be long-term stable.

    Whether this sort of speculation is sensible or not, just yelling “scientism” is not a refutation of it.


  8. labnut

    There has been much sound and fury, signifying nothing. Time for a post mortem.

    We have heard the defence and its strident defiance of the facts was unconvincing. We have seen faux reason deployed in the service of tribalism and in the face of such tribalism there is no point in further discussing the merits of the matter. Tribalism evidently places people beyond the reach of reason.

    This has been something of a watershed where nu-atheism has crossed a bridge and it was in the wrong direction. It is time to draw some lessons from its demise. We can safely call it a demise because it is fragmenting and the remaining rump of tribal activists have isolated themselves from mainstream thought. The disinviting of its most prominent tribal elder is a powerful signal of this process.

    What can we learn from this not unexpected development.

    1. Its moral nature. As Dawkins’ tweet shows, it has shed any pretence to fairness, decency, tolerance, balance or respect. It stands revealed as the ugly instrument of the angry, the resentful and the schadenfreudenistas. How did this happen? It explicitly embraced assault rhetoric as a tool and this in turn strongly appealed to a narrow segment of society, the angry resentful, who flooded on board the ship. They have taken over the ship. The thoughtful and the moderates are abandoning the ship. The moral nature of nu-atheism is being shaped by the remaining disgruntled who make no pretence to fairness, decency, tolerance, balance or respect.

    2. Its tribal nature. Nu-atheism passionately defends its own, no matter what the facts. Membership of the group is its own justification and this is the hallmark of tribalism.

    3. Its rational nature. They claimed the mantle of rationalism but never practised it because they were content with the shallow logic of Dawkins. The subtleties of context, history and contrasting viewpoints were thrown under the bus. Ignorant rhetoric is never a substitute for thought.

    4. Its goals. It set as its main goal, the destruction of religion. This was unrealistic and they have failed. Pope Francis wins universal acclaim, from the man in the street to national leaders, while Dawkins is destined for ignominy. He will never get his much desired knighthood. Religion has declined in affluent countries and this seems to be a feature of affluence and not the result of nu-atheism. Religion is growing strongly in Africa and is recovering nicely in China and Russia from the total onslaught of Communism. There is no doubt that religion will continue to be an enduring and important part of society, though smaller in affluent societies.

    The reform of religion could have been a worthwhile goal, its destruction was never on the cards.

    5. Its results. Nu-atheism continues to be a disliked minority. It has barely made a dent in religion.

    6. The future. Nu-atheism has run out of ideas. Its stale, parroted message has little appeal and it is difficult to see where it can go. The future could have been compassionate, caring humanism but the angry, resentful nature of nu-atheism makes this impossible. There are encouraging signs that other parts of the broader atheist community are turning to compassionate, caring humanism. This is a heartening trend that will be welcomed by religion. Needy humanity does not care about the ideological label on the aid boxes.

    7. A note of sadness from a Catholic. Religion needs a thoughtful and vigorous opposition because it reveals abuses and prompts reform. It stimulates the believers to re-examine their reasons for belief, placing belief on a stronger and more rational foundation. It stimulates them to re-double their works of compassion and mercy. The right kind of nu-atheism could have evolved into compassionate, caring humanism that would have been a worthy partner to religion. Nu-atheism could have been a force for good, holding religion to account while doing good. That will never happen now because the rump of hardcore tribalists are beyond the reach of ethical reasoning.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thomas Jones

    Mr. Kwok, thank you for taking the time to elaborate on your thoughts regarding the decision by the NECSS to disinvite Dawkins. I truly appreciate your POV and the idealism of your standards in stating it. But you continue to ignore the simple fact that Dawkins himself plays a role in this matter and that his own behavior may not currently exemplify or be indicative of the idealistic standards you ascribe to the NECSS as if by fiat. You make statements like this:

    “Private organizations have the right to determine who to invite at their events. However, they have an obligation to treat those they invite with ample professionalism, and it is clear to me and many others that NECSS failed in its professional obligations by deciding to dis-invite Dawkins without consulting with him first, instead of notifying him only through its public statement. I know of no other professional institution or organization . . . ,” etc. In short, they “dissed” him. The horror.

    Yes, yes, yes: “obligation to treat,” “ample professionalism,” “failed in its professional obligations” and so on. But nothing relating to Dawkins himself or the character of his “professionalism” of late.

    You then add:

    “I know of no other professional institution or organization . . . that deals with speakers in a manner reminiscent of NECSS’s recent actions towards Dawkins, and regrettably, this is a valid point which Massimo has either missed or ignored.”

    Come, come. You are clearly far too intelligent and experienced to accuse of naivete, but in fact seem to be affected by tunnel vision in this matter. And, no, in my reading of Massimo’s piece I noted his remarks to be fair enough regarding the controversy surrounding the merger of organizations that involved Dawkins.

    Again, welcome to the real world. And, again, let me remind you that, as I understand this matter, the NECSS is simply a vehicle for organizing a single conference yearly that is sponsored (i.e., funded) by a number of other private, non-profit organizations This combination often tends to result in socio-political shenanigans.

    As a non-scientist, but somewhat skeptical person, I find it strange that within a community of scientists and skeptics a man like Dawkins, despite his past accomplishments, should acquire a near cultist following which views any criticism of his “broad social” commentary (to quote another here) as sacrosanct. Aside from your commentary and a select few, the commentary on Massimo’s essay strikes me as little more than high-toned melodrama.


  10. Coel

    Hi Thomas,

    I find it strange that … a man like Dawkins … should acquire a near cultist following which views any criticism of his “broad social” commentary … as sacrosanct.

    What I find strange is the sheer amount of hostility to Dawkins, such that even fair minded and reasonable defenses of him just get dismissed as “cultish”.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. John Kwok

    Thomas Jones –

    If Richard Dawkins should be held responsible for his acts as reasons for his dis-invitation from NECSS, then surely Rebecca Watson, and especially, PZ Myers should have been held accountable for theirs when NECSS invited them to speak at prior conferences. Obviously that didn’t happen and NECSS is guilty now of a hypocritical double standard by ignoring – especially in PZ Myers’ case – the online abrasive and abusive behavior exhibited in their blogging and endorsed by their fans.

    I stand behind what I said, and I might add that other nonprofit organizations I am familiar with, including the Onassis Foundation USA, Czech Center New York and Austrian Cultural Forum New York – the latter two are actually cultural institutions run by government employees of the Czech Republic and the Republic of Austria – would never, ever, act as irresponsibly as NECSS has in its dis-invitation of Dawkins, and I note this as someone who isn’t a diehard fan of his thinking, as I have made quite clear in prior comments posted here.

    Respectfully yours,

    John Kwok

    Liked by 1 person

  12. brodix


    The problem isn’t just to do with the underlaying premises of science, but the extent to which various “naive intuitions, ad hoc patches, abstract simplifications have been incorporated into the holy canon and cannot be excised by mere logic.

    This goes to math as well. For instance, there is the whole platonic mathematical universe hypothesis, yet if something has a zero dimension, that doesn’t somehow make it physically foundational, but physically non-existent. Such as a dimensionless point as an ideal of location. If you erase all area and duration, it has no location.

    Just to irritate Coel, consider the idea of saying space expands, while retaining a constant speed of light in a vacuum as the denominator to measure it against. If this stable vacuum is the denominator, that is space! If you want to argue the supposedly expanding distance between galaxies is the real denominator, then the question is as to why light takes longer to cross,in order to redshift and it becomes a tired light issue.

    I could go on, but work beckons and my luck in starting such debates is poor. So just as the philosophic debates seem mired in offended personalities, so to does science have its own fog to clear away.


  13. Massimo Post author

    I hope to have time to add a few more substantive comments to this thread later today.

    Meanwhile, regrettably, the level of discourse has once again dipped below acceptability in a number of instances. Which is why, after several unheeded warnings, I deleted a few comments, all from Coel, DM, and labnut.

    Guys, your contributions to this forum are highly appreciated. They are smart, thoughtful and provocative. But you really need to quit sniping at each other. It’s getting on my Stoic nerves. Thanks.


  14. Massimo Post author

    John K.,

    “one must acknowledge – and here I will disagree respectively with Massimo – that Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” remains one of the most important, most influential, books in the recent history of evolutionary biology”

    Uhm, no. One of the most influential popular books about evolutionary biology. Looking at the field from the inside I can tell you that it influenced no professional. Those ideas were already well known within evolutionary biology.

    “Clearly the importance of “The Selfish Gene” weighed heavily in the thoughts of some on the NECSS committee”

    Again, having inside info, no, I don’t think so. Dawkins was invited as an atheist celebrity, not because of TSG. I sincerely doubt the organizers even knew of the 40th anniversary.

    “The ball is now in NECSS’s court. If the NECSS committee is unwilling to discuss the issue further with Dawkins”

    Many people really seem not to have read much of my OP. Steve Novella has publicly invited Dawkins to discuss his point of view on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, the most popular skeptic podcast, reaching far more people than NECSS. Talk about not been given a platform…

    “If Richard Dawkins should be held responsible for his acts as reasons for his dis-invitation from NECSS, then surely Rebecca Watson, and especially, PZ Myers should have been held accountable for theirs when NECSS invited them”

    I haven’t paid attention, but I’m not aware of anything from Rebecca that would have warranted that. As for PZ, he was invited years ago, when he was just beginning to accumulate increasingly objectionable behavior. Dawkins has been given a free pass for years too (“Dear Muslima”). I seriously doubt that PZ would get invited today. And at any rate, just because NECSS may have made a mistake before they should continue to do so, in the name of perennial coherence?


    “Since you’ve brought this up however, should we consider true sensations of vindication, to indeed be negative, or perhaps even shameful?”

    Separate discussion, really. But yes, for a Stoic to relish in one’s vindication is not a good thing. One should strive to accept both failures and successes with equanimity. That said, I’m not a perfect Stoic…


    “And if these relentless RWNJ jokes about feminists being raped by muslims count as satire then my little jokes must surely count as satire also.”

    Right, this discussion does bring up the question of what one should count as satire. It’s a complex one, but I thought it pretty well established that satire is supposed to be insightful, funny/humorous, and speaking to power. None of those criteria are met by the infamous video. It’s just a piece of angry garbage.


    “What I find strange is the sheer amount of hostility to Dawkins, such that even fair minded and reasonable defenses of him just get dismissed as “cultish”.”

    There is no question that Dawkins attracts hostility. But if you truly don’t see a cultish element at play here, especially in other fori where NECSS, I, and a few others are being vilified and where no one even remotely concedes that there *might* have been a problem with the tweet, then I think you are not paying attention.

    Liked by 4 people

  15. John Kwok


    You know the NECSS committee members, I don’t, so thanks for the corrections. However, my points regarding NECSS’ lack of professionalism in stark contrast not only with the American Museum of Natural and the World Science Festival but also the Onassis Foundation USA – Simon Critchley is on its board of directors and I’ll ask him if he might consider having a conversation with you as an Onassis Foundation event – Czech Center New York and Austrian Cultural Forum New York are valid, and, as I am sure you are aware, Michael Nugent has arrived at a similar conclusion in his recent blogs pertaining to this matter.

    I’ll respectfully disagree with your assessment of PZ Myers’ online behavior back in 2012 as “…. just beginning to accumulate increasingly objectionable behavior.” He already had a “notable” reputation in light of his communion wafer stunt which Greg Laden assisted, and in his “rusty knife” rape and death threat episode back in March, 2010. (You may recall that I brought it to your attention, and you told me that you felt powerless to do anything.)

    Anyway, on a more positive note, I share your concerns regarding the recent merger between CFI and the Richard Dawkins Foundation, and endorse your thinking on expanding the “Modern Synthesis” – that is current – evolutionary theory. We are just going to agree to disagree about NECSS’s recent conduct towards Richard Dawkins.

    Sincerely yours,



  16. Coel


    I deleted a few comments, all from Coel, DM, and labnut. […] you really need to quit sniping at each other.

    I think you’re over-reacting. The remarks you deleted were flippant, mild teasing at worst. I doubt if any of the three you just named were actually offended by any of them.

    As I see it lots of the comments in this thread that have not been deleted are vastly nastier in disparaging intent.

    Besides, how else is one supposed to reply to that comment of labnut’s that I replied to (other than, perhaps, not at all)?


  17. SocraticGadfly

    Wait, wait, I have a solution.

    Re-invite Dawkins, but require him to speak on a particular topic.

    Samples would be
    1. Is there an “Islamist gene”?
    2. Is there an “offensive British curmudgeon gene, or meme”?
    3. Please give a multi-level selection account for the evolution of Gnu Atheists
    4. Is there a “brights gene”?

    Thanks, folks, I’ll be here all week.

    Liked by 3 people

  18. brodix

    To add some thoughts on the issue of offense given and taken;

    Giving offense is not complicated. Bullies and animals do it all the time. Nor is being offended really any more complex.

    The larger picture comes into play with turning the other cheek. To be able to see beyond what is to your immediate peril, or insult.

    As an evolutionary process, biological nature is a bootstrapping process, in which higher orders build on and consume lower orders. Predators and prey. Lions and wildebeest.

    Now the conservative/libertarian view is that anyone who tries hard enough can be a lion and wildebeest are just losers. While the liberal/politically correct view is that lions don’t have any right to act the way they do and should be outlawed.

    Yet if we are going to rise above these play ground shoving matches, it will require objectively understanding how these larger cycles work and feed back on themselves.

    In order to have any structure, there will always be higher and lower orders and they will look at each other from opposite directions. Some will see it as all bottom up and some will see only the top down view as fully informed. The reality is they are two sides of a larger dynamic and when the relationships are stable and effectively feed back and cycle, like feet and brain, it provides a healthy environment for everyone.

    If those at the top destroy the foundations on which they rest, they will fall. If the lower orders don’t have a weeding process, they build up and crash.

    Not to say we all don’t have our tribes and feelings, but there is the entire internet to vent. If a forum of scientific philosophy can’t even see beyond personal grievances, where do we turn?


  19. SocraticGadfly

    Oh, I should add, Massimo, that I’lm expanding that list, and … off to blog! (Part two of the list is a co-invitation to Herr (sic) Dawkins and a certain woman often known as … RW.)


  20. marc levesque

    I regret I quoted from the video in my last comment, I got carried away, I didn’t need to actually spell it out.

    In the video those words are referred to as a joke, but for me, first and foremost, and as far as I can tell for most feminist and Muslims, those words are simply a vile insult.

    And I don’t think that when Dawkins tweeted the video he realized the depth of his oversight.


  21. Coel


    There is no question that Dawkins attracts hostility. But if you truly don’t see a cultish element at play here, especially in other fori …

    I’ll avoid commenting about forums that I’ve not read, but there seems to me just as much of a cultish element among the anti-Dawkins faction.

    They’re the ones who regard Dawkins as The Great Leader whose twitter feed needs to be freaked out over. They’re the ones who compare him to an infallible idol and then dissect the ways in which he falls short. They’re the ones who treat his personality (as opposed to ideas) as an important issue, and write blog posts about him as a person. Ophelia Benson has over 60 blog posts tagged “Richard Dawkins”, nearly all of them critical. Is there a term for a cult of anti-adoration?

    In contrast, people who are in favour of Dawkins tend to see him as a human being, with strengths and weaknesses like everyone else, who you can either agree with or disagree with as appropriate for the topic.

    But why am I, for example, defending this video? Actually, “Dawkins” is only one angle, and not the main one.

    In the UK there is getting to be a huge censorship problem, in that most of the mainstream media do their best to avoid criticising Islam or Islamism. Attempts to do so are often shouted down as “Islamophobia” or just “racist”.

    The attempts to ban Maryam Namazie (about as little racist as you can get) are symptomatic. The Guardian — the UK’s main left-leaning paper — routinely does hatchet jobs on her because she criticises Islam and Islamism.

    People like Maryam and Maajid Nawaz (who want to reform Islam and recognise that accepting the defects of Islam and thus openly criticising Islam is a necessary part of that) talk about the “Regressive Left” of people who shout down anyone who criticises Islam, and talk about the “Voldemort effect” where everyone tries to pretend there are no problems with Islam. The mainstream media have mostly sided with the “Regressive Left” and self-censor and keep silent.

    It then gets utterly bizarre when student feminist and LGBT groups, playing intersectional identity politics, then side with the Islamists and join in the shouting down of anyone who wants to criticise Islam and Islamism.

    So then we come to this video. Which is rather crude and not all that funny. And it satirises both Islamism and the radical wing of feminism that bizarrely sides with Islamism, and in that regard it is fairly spot on — correctly satirising parts of their ideology and their methods of shutting down debate.

    And the responses to this video are to freak out, to faint with horror, calling it a “piece of racist and misogynist garbage”. It’s the same cry of “racism” that is routinely used to shout down any criticism of Islam or Islamism, though the charge actually makes little sense, and those making it cannot substantiate it when asked to.

    We have in the West a hard-won right to criticise and lampoon the Christian religion. That right underpins all our freedoms. It is necessary for the good of the world to establish the right to criticise and lampoon Islam.

    Those of the regressive left who just cry “racism” at any such criticism are truly regressing into a much worse past.

    I’m glad that Dawkins is unrepentent about retweeting this video, and I laud him for that.

    Liked by 4 people

  22. labnut

    Besides, how else is one supposed to reply to that comment of labnut’s

    Coel, we’ve had our say, we heard each other and that is enough. I thought it was quite an amusing interplay with my reference to tennis and squash and I appreciate the fact that you took it in that spirit. People who are not squash players would not understand my quip about hitting the tin and would very likely see my remark as offensive. That is why I accept Massimo’s judgement.

    I made a broad attack on nu-atheism which you feel needs a reply. Why not do that by giving a considered assessment of nu-atheism, stating its achievements, what is good about it and what its prospects are. I would enjoy reading the other side of the argument. It might be a good antidote to my, err, polemical comment.


  23. marc levesque


    “The term “Islamist” has a widespread use and understanding as being the Islamic religion coupled with the political desire to impose that religion on others and on society as a whole. It is an entirely legitimate usage”

    I agree with your first part, in some countries it has taken on various negative connotations, including the one you mention, and it’s fairly wide spread. And at times it takes on much more negative connotations as I’m sure you know. But like when the name of a some minority starts shifting towards a meaning with more negative connotations or starts acting as an insult, it doesn’t follow that that’s a legitimate usage of the term.

    “I do agree that lack of context is a general issue with twitter. But that doesn’t excuse willfully ignoring what context there is and doing ones best to misinterpret it”

    Look at it from the other end, from the perspective of the average Muslim or feminist who stumble on the video. And consider the potential (probable?) public relations nightmare you could end up with.


    Liked by 1 person

  24. labnut

    We have in the West a hard-won right to criticise and lampoon the Christian religion. That right underpins all our freedoms. It is necessary for the good of the world to establish the right to criticise and lampoon Islam.

    1. Freedom of speech was a right we won to protect us from oppression by the state. This is what is protected by law.

    2. By convention it has slowly been extended to other speech in other contexts.

    3. It is not an untrammeled right and the law places several restrictions on freedom of speech.

    4. It is not always wise to insist on the exercise of a right. Your freedom to satirise can cause considerable harm by alienating and polarising society.

    5. When you insist on a course of action that will cause great hurt to many people you need a carefully thought out rationale. This rationale must demonstrate a greater good that far outweighs the harm. The rationale must also take into account the unintended consequences that invariably accompany this kind of action.

    6. You must carefully examine your own motivations and ask whether you are really being driven by your own emotional needs. Acting in the service of your own emotional needs is always unwise.

    7. Respect, restraint and decency are always good things to strive for.

    The right to do something is not always the right thing to do.

    Liked by 3 people

  25. Daniel Kaufman

    It is striking how much of the conduct surrounding this affair constitutes little more than elaborate exercises in signalling, both on the part of the Dawkins crowd and his critics. What little substance there is evaporates as one consumes it, much like a meringue or cotton candy. After all, who really, seriously, unposturingly (not a word) gives a crap about some stupid, crude video on Youtube or what Richard Dawkins thinks of it?

    I blame a lot of this on Twitter, a technology whose overwhelming (First World) purpose is little more than to provide a platform for signalling. But it also, more generally, is a sympton of the internet and life lived on it, which gives every jerk on the street the illusion that what he/she thinks and says is actually important.

    Liked by 2 people

  26. SocraticGadfly

    Well, yes and no, Daniel. The anti-anti-Twitters could say that an anti-Twitter stance is itself signaling. The desire to semiotically deconstruct a supra-holistic intent on usage of a social media psycho-platform by referring to it as “signaling” is a clear post-Lacanian move toward deliberate linguistic alienation.

    See how simple that is? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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