Science in Christian Perspective


Richard Dawkins as Bad Poet

Ben M. Carter*

Marbletree Apartments #2030
4077 N. Beltine
Irving, TX 75038

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 52 (September 2000): 181-186.

At the end of his life, physicist Max Born (Nobel laureate, 1954) wrote about an intellectual division between the sciences and the humanities, a division he believed was exacerbated by those in the humanities. He observed:

My personal experience is that very many scientists and engineers are fairly well educated people who have some knowledge of literature, history, and other humanistic subjects, who love art and music, who even paint or play an instrument; on the other hand the ignorance and even contempt of science displayed by people with a humanistic education is amazing.1

The antagonism those in the humanities evidence toward those in science rises and falls with the scholastic tide, as the physical chemist Brian Silver, in his recent The Ascent of Science, points out. As examples of writers and poets in the recent, or near recent, past who were highly critical of the scientific enterprise, he refers to Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence, William Blake, and Thomas De Quincy among others.2 In quiet counterpoint to these "trashers," Silver peppers his book with literary references that indicate his own familiarity with, and appreciation of, the humanities. But he, too, is keenly aware that today the anti-science tide is at the full, as he relates his own dismay at the aversion so many literati express toward science.

This concern has motivated Richard Dawkins to write Unweaving the Rainbow. The title comes from a poem called "Lamia" that John Keats penned in 1820 and in which he laments a "cold philosophy" (i.e., empirical science) that will "unweave a rainbow."3 Dawkins wishes to respond to Keats by pointing out how science opens the door to a world of wonder that, rather than anesthetizing aesthetic experience, can help one break through "the anaesthetic of familiarity" and see nature in unfamiliar ways.4 He writes: "Science is, or ought to be, the inspiration for great poetry ... 5 Science is poetic, ought to be poetic, has much to learn from poets and should press good poetic imagery and metaphor into inspirational service."6

As one who is keenly aware of the current level of hostility toward science among many trained in the humanities, as one who believes that this hostility is unwarranted, and as one who loves poetry and is acutely aware of the wonder science evokes, I had high hopes for Unweaving the Rainbow. However, I believe that Richard Dawkins has failed, not because his basic project is wrongheaded but for a much more interesting reason. He fails because he is a bad poet, and it is science as a vehicle for bad poetry, not science itself, that lies at the heart of the hostility so many aesthetics express toward the discipline.

The problem is metaphor. As Roger Lundin has argued: "Metaphor helps us explicate the symbolic and revelatory grounding we have been given in the world [and] provides us with the assimilative processes by means of which we organize and operate in our world."7 The role of metaphor in science has gained greater appreciation over the last decades. Barry Casper and Richard Noer in their discussion of scientific revolutions conclude:

The development of a physical theory involves a great deal of guesswork guided by such supposedly nonscientific factors as intuition and aesthetic and philosophical prejudices. In short, it requires a creative insight, an insight glossed over in the usual presentation of the scientific method.8

Noting that pre-existing theoretical frameworks help researchers determine the importance of data,9 Casper and Noer distinguish between "public" science, which presents conclusions in an orderly, logical, and elegant way, and "private" science, which they describe as an "imaginative, intuitive, groping process."10 Here metaphor plays a key role. Not only do metaphors help researchers structure data into theories, but theories once they are formulated act as metaphors, that is, they become phrases that denote conceptual relationships between objects of study.

Root metaphors are particularly significant. According to Erica McAteer, who uses computer as brain as an example, root metaphors "encode and organize our knowledge about what we experience [and] operate diaphorically.11 Their function is to suggest a primary way of looking at 'whatever' which will give us a handle for thinking about it."12 Thus metaphors lie at the very heart of scientific epistemology and help to structure those paradigms through which science moves as it struggles to understand the world. But, as J. P. Moreland has pointed out, science as it grapples with reality assumes a correspondence theory of truth. We arrive at truth when we describe something the way it really is.13 As Kant would have said, truth is the agreement of the cognition with its object.14 Dawkins seems to concur with this, as much of his book is an attempt to use science to unmask delusion. Such an intellectual agenda favors concrete metaphors, and the more concrete the better.

Because of their importance, metaphors must be crafted carefully, as a skilled poet would craft them. Dawkins is very aware of this. He writes: "Skill in wielding metaphors and symbols is one of the hallmarks of scientific genius."15 Then quoting C. S. Lewis's distinction between magisterial poetry where metaphors are used to explain what we already understand, and pupillary poetry where a person uses metaphor as an aid in private reflection, Dawkins focuses on the latter and begins to criticize those scientists who, "drunk on metaphor," that is, "seeing connections which do not illuminate the truth in any way," construct a kind of theology out of science.16 Among his examples--beyond a few isolated "New Age" quotes with no attribution-- are progressive evolution defended by Herbert Spencer, Julian Huxley and Teilhard de Chardin,17 episodic evolution defended by Stephen Jay Gould and, at least in its punctuationist form, by Niles Eldredge,18 and evolutionary long jumps or phylum level leaps as described by Stuart Kauffman in At Home in the Universe and by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin in The Sixth Extinction.19

Dawkins, who in this section evidences a keen eye for faulty metaphor, obviously relishes his role as debunker, one he has played with equal gusto when ridiculing the inanities of astrology20 or exposing the intuitive errors that underlie much of what we commonly experience as uncanny.21 Since his purpose is to winnow science from delusion, it seems strange that he would fail so completely when constructing his own metaphors. Yet he does. The metaphors that Dawkins uses are confusing. Thus they do more to obscure the world he wishes to present in a new and exciting light than they do to startle us into a fresh appreciation of it. He does not unweave or reweave the rainbow. Rather, he scrambles it. I will give two examples to illustrate this: (1) his personification of genes (ascribing to them qualities like selfishness or cooperation or experience), and (2) his de-personification of human beings. However, I believe that, when seen against the background of his larger agenda, these metaphors are not so strange. Instead they enable him and other materialists to perform an intellectual sleight-of-hand and pluck the rabbit of consciousness from the top hat of non-consciousness. It is a surprisingly clumsy effort.

Let us look first at the personification of genes. Dawkins' most famous book is The Selfish Gene. We read that genes cannot "grow senile," that they are "the immortals,"22 that from the standpoint of the gene "altruism must be bad and selfishness good" (he tells the reader "this follows inexorably" from the definitions he has crafted), and that "the gene is the basic unit of selfishness."23 The careful reader will notice that Dawkins is using selfishness as a metaphor for stability. He tells us that "atoms tend to fall into stable patterns,"24 and he reminds us that shorter genetic units (which are collections of stable atomic patterns) are likely to endure over more generations than longer genetic units.25

This use of metaphor may strike the reader as strange, and, indeed, it has been the source of much criticism and/or confusion, so much so that Dawkins in subsequent books laments almost pro forma that people have misunderstood him. Of course, quality metaphors are not misunderstood so regularly. We may wonder then why Dawkins persists in using it. Perhaps he is just being provocative, but I think there is another reason. By cultivating the idea of genes as little units of awareness, he wants us to discover that genes are not only selfish. They also cooperate. He writes: "Selection has favored genes that cooperate with others."26 "Genes are selected, not as 'good' in isolation, but as good at working against the background of the other genes in the gene pool."27

These images of genes as selfish personalities that compete and cooperate with one another becomes so ubiquitous in Dawkins' books that in Unweaving the Rainbow, he is obliged to remind the reader that "'the selfish gene' is a metaphoric image, potentially a good one but capable of sadly misleading if the metaphor of personification is improperly grasped."28 A couple of pages later he reminds the reader again that "the personification of the gene is not to be taken literally,"29 and that the word "experience," so as not to mislead us, "must be taken metaphorically."30 But what kind of a metaphor is this? How would a book, purporting to be serious science yet describing crystals "metaphorically" as selfish or atoms "metaphorically" as having experiences, be received? What is it that gives credibility to the symbols Dawkins has chosen?

We get a clue to the answer when we compare the metaphors Dawkins uses to describe genes with the metaphors Dawkins uses to describe human beings. If genes "are highly cooperative,"31 united in "an anarchistic, 'each gene for itself' kind of cooperation,"32 if "at the genetic level all is selfish, but the selfish ends of genes are served by cooperation at many levels,"33 then what does he say of human beings? He tells the reader: "You are a gigantic megalopolis of bacteria."34 By this he does not mean that we are home to many bacteria. He means that because "most of our biochemistry is carried out for us by what were once free bacteria now living in our cells,"35 "each one of us is a city of cells, and each cell is a town of bacteria."36 Therefore, we are "gigantic megalopolises of bacteria" because at a fundamental level, we are constructed of bacteria that long ago evolved into cooperating communities. Later he says: "Each individual animal or plant is a community ... of billions of cells, and each one of those billions of cells is a community of thousands of bacteria."37 Break us down to our essential elements and we are revealed as a community of bacteria. In other words, we are depersonalized.

For much of this century, genetics has served to underline the basic similarity of living things. Helena Curtis points out:

The genetic code is universal. The protein-translating systems of bacterial cells can "read," with almost equal facility, the infectious nucleic acid of polio, of tobacco mosaic virus, or ... the messenger RNA from the cells of the rabbit. The enzyme systems of Homo sapiens are little different from those of the red bread mold Neurospora crassa. So the slender thread of DNA links us not only to our parents and their forefathers but to simplest of the single cells and to their even more venerable ancestors. There are differences, of course ..., but the essential sameness is what is strikingly clear.38

For Dawkins this "essential sameness" becomes a metaphor by which he attempts to dissolve the differences between species.39 Of course, one could just as well create a metaphor of differences. For example, early in Unweaving the Rainbow, Dawkins refers to a biologist who, in an effort to explain his fascination with octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish, tells his listeners: "You see, they are Martians."40 The metaphor, evoking as it does images of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds, is a brilliant way to capture something of the "otherness" of cephalopods.41 But sameness is the metaphor Dawkins wishes to stress when he writes of animals and plants as communities of bacteria. Why stress sameness when one could just as credibly stress difference? Why anthropomorphize sub-cellular structures? The reason is that Dawkins is preparing his reader for the final chapters in which he will address the origins of consciousness.

An atheist and materialist, Dawkins must explain to the reader how consciousness arose from insensate matter. In discussing the origins of consciousness, Dawkins uses three root metaphors: (1) the personalized gene, (2) the depersonalized human, and (3) the brain as computer. Encouraging us to think of genes as little experiencing units and to think of humans as vast collections of those little experiencing units, he then throws in some brain- as-computer imagery and--presto--the trick is done. But how convincing is it if we examine this jugglery in slow motion?

Dawkins follows the American neurobiologist William Calvin and the American philosopher Daniel Dennett in assuming that thoughts do not emanate from some central location in the brain but are generated instead within shifting patterns of activity on the brain's surface. These shifting surface patterns compete Darwinian-like with other shifting surface patterns that simultaneously generate alternative thoughts.42 In the rivalry between these shifting patterns of activity and competing thoughts, the illusion is born that a single conscious agent sits somewhere in the center of the brain.43 For most of us, our sense of ourselves as aware individuals is about as real as it gets, but Dawkins argues that the individual and the individual's subjectivity are, in a profound sense, illusions. He claims that the individual organism is not something fundamental to life, but is instead a secondary phenomenon cobbled together by the actions of genes that function in groups as "selfish cooperators." Dawkins uses this insight to argue that the subjective ego each of us feels ourselves to be is itself a "kind of semi-illusion" derived from the clash of agents that are fundamentally independent.44

Notice that such a claim is fundamentally incoherent. Illusions deceive, but what, in the absence of a self, is being deceived? Conversely, if there is nothing to be fooled, there is no illusion. These men would justify their use of the word "illusion" by arguing that since the aware and centered self is generated by the actions of systems that are not aware [how do they know such systems are not aware?] and, in some cases, not even obviously integrated with each another, a self does not really exist as a centered entity. Such a conclusion no more follows from these premises than the conclusion that life is an illusion follows from the premise that life is generated by the interactions of systems that are at some basic level nonliving. Therefore, even if we grant the premises, the conclusion is faulty. Perhaps this is why Dawkins prefers the phrase "semi-illusion," but that is no more satisfactory than the phrase "semi-alive" would be in the other context. Worse, the phrase suggests that whatever is being deceived is not really deceived but only semi-deceived. What can that possibly mean? Does Dawkins wish to suggest that we cooperate in our own deception? That we suspend disbelief as when watching a play or film? That the self creates its sense of itself by suspending its own disbelief in its existence? Perhaps Dawkins is using the terms, "illusion" or "semi- illusion," as metaphors for what he really means, but I for one cannot decipher his meaning.45

Of course, this semi-illusory, secondary quality interacts with and learns about its world. Dawkins believes that learning is based on a two-tiered intellective46 structure, which he compares to the hardware and software of a computer. Genes fashion the basic mental hardware that models the environment while memes (i.e., replicators which act as units of cultural transmission and are passed between minds through imitation) create the software.47 As these two levels interact, "the brain 'reweaves the world,' constructing a kind of 'virtual reality' continuously updated in the head."48 Indeed, he argues "that all our perceptions are a kind of 'constrained virtual reality' constructed in the brain,"49 and that our world is a "simulated world ... beautifully in synchrony with the real world."50 Thus, the semi-illusory self learns about a semi-illusory world, a world Dawkins can describe as being false in the sense of being constructed by the brain around convenient labels by which the brain interprets sensory input.51

Notice that what we have here is not an explanation for awareness but a proposed two-tiered, intellective framework that generates shifting patterns of neural activity from which thoughts emerge. These thoughts for their part create two illusions: (1) a simulated world and (2) an illusory self, who interacts with that simulated world. But awareness, the real conundrum, is never addressed. Instead it is assumed, smuggled in through the misleading metaphor of personalized genes, and made credible though the misleading metaphor of a depersonalized self. The hypothesis provides the structure (which incidentally subverts the very correspondence theory of truth with which Dawkins begins)52 while Dawkins' metaphors provide the mind.

Two bad metaphors do not a bad poet make. Even the great Homer nods. But two bad metaphors, so central to the poetic vision a poet wishes to convey, make a bad poem; a poet who cannot see he has made a bad poem is a bad poet. It is here where Dawkins fails. He is as drunk on metaphor as those he criticizes so effectively, and like them he uses science to theologize.

This is hardly the first time faulty ideas have corrupted scientific thought. An earlier age proposed as a fundamental law of physics that matter cannot be created or destroyed. We now recognize the conceit as false. Indeed, it was not even science at all. It was a philosophical concept tricked out as a scientific one. And it was metaphor since matter was a metaphor for being and being was the question at issue.53 During that same era, intellectuals adopted the metaphor of life as machine, a trope that continues to mislead us today.54 Thus we struggle to interpret the world as much through the symbols we use to help us think about it as through the observations we make and upon which we pretend to base our most important conclusions.

It is here, at the level of metaphor, where so many in the humanities break ranks with scientists. It is not science per se that is the problem, it is the centuries-old arrogance which insists that materialistic science is premiere and that its metaphors ought to define reality for everyone. In the postmodern world, metaphors in the sense of meaningful paradigms or systems (note the plural) have become the only game in town, a reality that Dawkins among others seems unable to grasp. The problem is not his assertion of metaphors, but his confusion of metaphors with truth and, on those grounds, his attempt to exclude all other metaphors but his own. Thus he handles metaphors so clumsily. Clumsy metaphors make bad poetry, and bad poetry grates.



1Max Born, My Life and My Views (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1968), 56.

2Brian L. Silver, The Ascent of Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), see especially "The Tree of Death," pt. IX, chap. 36.

3Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998), 39.

4Ibid., 7.

5Ibid., Preface, x.

6Ibid., 233.

7Roger Lundin, "Metaphor in the Modern Critical Arena," Christianity & Literature 33, no. 1 (Fall 1983): 32.

8Barry M. Casper and Richard J. Noer, Revolutions in Physics (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1972), 6. The role of the aesthetic in scientific theory is significant but perhaps under appreciated. For example, J. P. Moreland in Christianity and the Nature of Science (New York: Baker Book House, 1989), despite his conviction that aesthetic considerations play an important role in the development science, he discusses them only briefly (see "The Limits of Science," chap. 3, 128-30).

9Casper and Noer, Revolutions in Physics, 55, 186, and 248.

10Ibid., 229.

11Erica McAteer, "Metaphor in Cognition," Shadow 4, no. 1 (June 1987): 5.

12Ibid., 6.

13Moreland, Christianity and the Nature of Science, 118-9.

14Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. F. Max Muller (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1966), I. "The Elements of Transcendentalism," Second Part. "Transcendental Logic," III. "Of the Division of General Logic into Analytic and Dialectic," 48. He calls this "the nominal definition of truth."

15Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, 186.

16Ibid., 186-7.

17Ibid., 192-3.

18Ibid., 193-202.

19Ibid., 202-9.

20Ibid., "Hoodwinked with Faery Fancy," chap. 6.

21Ibid., "Unweaving the Uncanny," chap. 7.

22Dawkins,The Selfish Gene (1976; reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 34.

23Ibid., 36. On p. 33 he writes: "I preferred to think of the gene as the fundamental unit of natural selection, and therefore the fundamental unit of self-interest. What I have now done is to define the gene in such a way that I cannot really help being right!" He very explicitly sets up a circular argument: he assumes what he sets out to demonstrate.

24Ibid., 13.

25Ibid., 29.

26Ibid., 47.

27Ibid., 84.

28Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, chap. 9, 233.


30Ibid., 238.

31Ibid., 217.

32Ibid., 218.

33Ibid., 230.

34Ibid., 9.

35Ibid., 225. He is describing the theory championed by Lynn Margulis that various components of a cell, its mitochondria, chloroplasts (in plant cells), and "moving structures [in cells] like cilia, flagalla, and the 'spindles' which drag the chromosomes apart in cell division" (p. 228), are relics, or as Dawkins says "grinning relics" (p. 227), of ancient bacteria. It is easy to forget while reading these pages that Dawkins is attacking Margulis as an example of "bad poetic science" (p. 224) for he believes that she is basically right but expresses her ideas wrongly. She adopts the combat versus cooperation dichotomy and then stresses cooperation. For Dawkins co-operation rises automatically from genetic conflict and is in fact "a favored manifestation" of it (p. 225).

36Ibid., 9.

37Ibid., 229.

38Helena Curtis, The Viruses (Garden City, NY: The Natural History Press, 1965), 207.

39This is important to Dawkins since the fewer differences there are, the easier it is to explain how all creatures could have derived from a common ancestor. Daniel Dennett follows the same regime in Darwin's Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 91-5.

40Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, 7.

41In this case the biologist's metaphor is more powerful than the nineteenth century French romantic Jules Michelet's better known description of squids as "the insatiable nightmares of the sea." It is more powerful because it is more explicitly suggestive, that is, it is more concrete, as required by science's intellectual agenda. An insatiable nightmare might be anything, but a Martian is immediately alien (and may well sport tentacles!).

42Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, 8.

43Ibid., 283-4.

44Ibid., 308-9.

45Perhaps Dawkins, Dennett, and Calvin are moving toward a Buddhist view of the self. Susan Blackmore who draws heavily from Dawkins touches briefly on Buddhism in The Meme Machine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) to help her illustrate what she is trying to say (pp. 194, 230). But that seems equally unsatisfactory since in the Buddhist perception it is not the self but everything including the material world that is illusion, and Dawkins, Dennett, and Calvin are all convinced materialists.

46The word intellective is the one Dawkins uses. It is the adjectival form of the word intellect and is intended to underscore the thinking and knowing function of mind over its sensory and willful functions.

Unlike in positivist models, sensory input according to this model does not become knowledge until it is organized and interpreted. One might understand intellective and cognitive as synonyms, but intellective has a broader meaning than cognitive. While cognitive stresses the reflective, contemplative, or meditative functions of mind, intellective emphasizes the reflective and knowing functions equally.

47Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, 266, 284, and 308.

48Ibid., Preface. xii.

49Ibid., 57.

50Ibid., 281.

51Ibid., 57.

52A word about how the correspondence theory of truth is subverted is perhaps in order. The correspondence theory of truth defines truth as the agreement of the cognition with its object. It assumes that both the object thought about and the one doing the thinking have an objective reality. But in the model of knowledge proposed by Dawkins neither of these assumptions is fulfilled. The self doing the thinking is not objectively real, it is at best only semi-real, semi- illusory. Nor is that about which the self thinks objectively real. It is instead a simulated world that Dawkins even describes as a false one constructed by the brain as it interprets sensory stimuli.

53Antoine Laurent Lavoiser (1743-1794), the French chemist who was guillotined during the Reign of Terror, stated as part of his "law of conservation of mass" that matter could not be created or destroyed. In 1782 Guyton de Morveau published a tentative chemical nomenclature. In 1789 Lavoiser, along with C. L. Berthollet and A. F. Fourcroy, with the publication of Traite Elementaire de Chimie (Elementary Treatise on Chemistry), extended that list to encompass thirty-one elements. Defining elements as substances that resisted experimental analysis, Lavoiser included heat and light among them. In retrospect it seems plain, given the categorization of heat as a substance or light as an element, that chemistry initially focused on the nature of being, rather than on the nature of matter as we understand it today.

54In my library is a book published by McGraw-Hill with the unhappy title, The Machinery of Life. Written in 1966 by Dean E. Wooldridge, then a research associate at the California Institute of Technology, it is a companion to his The Machinery of the Brain which McGraw-Hill published three years earlier and for which Dr. Wooldridge received the AAAS Westinghouse award for science writing. I keep it as a testimony to the tenacity of bad ideas. In the October 1999 issue of First Things, William A. Dembski has an excellent article entitled "Are We Spiritual Machines?" in which he discusses how the metaphor of human beings as machines has vitiated not only our self-understanding but our understanding of the tools we have made.