The Genius of Charles Darwin (2008– )

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2008
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August 2008 (USA)  »

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In The Beginning, There Was The Bacterium.
18 November 2012 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins -- forthright, candid, firm, but never angry -- confronts religious believers of various types, from grammar school teachers to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I've always admired the Archbishops of Canterbury. They're cool. In the sixties, the Archbishop had a carefully styled combination haircut blending Eton with the Beatles. This one has a professorial beard and sounds like Roger Moore playing James Bond. Can you imagine the Pope with a pony tail? I'm afraid you won't learn much about the details of Charles Darwin's "theory" of evolution. You learn about Darwin's life and his struggles with his own beliefs, but as Dawkins wanders from Kenya to New York and London, he doesn't tackle the problems that evangelicals keep raising, although the problems themselves have already been solved -- the eye of the octopus and the little tail of the flagellates. That's not Dawkins' goal.

His job is to convince us that religious belief, especially in the Bible, is a lot of nonsense. I agree with everything Dawkins says, almost. As an anthropologist I would have to point out that in science probability never achieves unity. There must always be some slight doubt about what's going on, otherwise science is no longer science. That's why my walls and shelves are decorated with icons representing all sorts of religions -- a mezuza, a crucifix, the dancing Shiva, two unnamed Hindu gods, a statue of Huizilpotchli, and a stone from a Cheyenne sacred circle in Montana. One never knows.

But, as far as the Bible goes, Dawkins has it all over the evangelicals who have created museums in which people and dinosaurs are contemporaries. Dawkins doesn't say so, but the Bible never makes such a claim. The earth is believed to be about 6,000 years old (instead of about four billion) because Bishop Ussher in the 17th century added up all the "begats" in the Bible and determined that the planet was created at 9 AM Oct 3, 4004 BC.

The fact that so many people are fully committed to this delusion suggests the nature of the stone wall that poor Richard Dawkins is batting his head against. How do you challenge an axiom? I wouldn't look to this documentary for a biography of Charles Darwin or for an explicit explanation of how natural selection works. It's pretty brutal, by the way, and you see lions catch antelope in mid air. Yes, it's bleak, Dawkins tell us, before he claims that cut-throat competition and eugenics are a misapplication of Darwin's ideas. Can he be so sure?

He also doesn't address a question that's been lingering in my own mind for some time. Andrew Greeley -- the American sociologist, novelist, and priest -- argued that politics were responsible for less human misery than religious conflicts. We can see the dynamics at work in the Middle East today, if we bother to look and understand. Come to think of it, though, priests aren't exactly in the forefront of the anti-science movement. In the early years of the last century there was Teilhard de Chardin, a French priest, philosopher, and human paleontologist. De Chardin called humans "the thinking part of the earth," with which Dawkins would probably agree. De Chardin also had a hand in many important goings on in human evolution. He was involved in the discovery of (gulp) Piltdown man, for instance.

It may be that religion's hold over us should be loosened, not just because it's contradicted by science but because it's dangerous. "My tribe is honing knives to use against your tribe," as the poet wrote.


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