TIME Magazine asked me to write an entry on Richard Dawkins for “The TIME 100” this year. After their editing, it came out rather more insipid than I wrote it. They asked for 400-500 words, but pared it down to 187 — and that’s after adding their own phrases (e.g., “deeply unsettling to proponents of intelligent design,” “the rigor he brings to his thinking,” “the Bible advises us,” etc.)!
The entry, as I originally wrote it, follows below:
Of his nine books, none caused as much controversy — or sold as well — as last year’s The God Delusion. Yet the leading light of the recent atheist publishing surge, Oxford University’s Richard Dawkins, has always been a man driven by the big questions. Born in Kenya in 1941 of British parents, he received a mild Anglican upbringing. But at the age of sixteen Dawkins discovered Charles Darwin’s theory, and thought he’d found a pearl of great price.
His academic career as an evolutionary biologist got off to a fast start in the 1970’s with his first book, The Selfish Gene, which argued a then-unfashionable notion: like many politicians in Congress, individual genes of a genome are looking out just for their own good. So if somehow an unconscious gene mutated to be copied more effectively, it would outcompete its fellow DNA fragments. The fundamental idea of this “gene-centered” view of evolution had been proposed by other researchers. But, using his remarkable gift of scientific exposition, Dawkins painted the abstruse concept so clearly, and drew out the logic of its problematic premises so brightly, that it quickly became evolutionary orthodoxy.
Dawkins pushed the old idea in new directions. He argued that genes shape not only the body of an animal, but also its external environment: the imagined genes that move a beaver to build a dam are working for their own survival no less than the genes that shape the beaver’s tail. Even human thoughts were fitted to the Procrustean mold. He coined the word “meme” to denote fragments of ideas, such as cultural fads or music lyrics, that might replicate within brains like genes in a cell. And into the disreputable category of meme he firmly placed religion, calling it a virus of the mind.
With the big questions of life and mind supposedly solved in principle, Dawkins has in the past several decades abandoned research, and turned instead to persuading society of the correctness of his views. It was for Dawkins that computer software billionaire Charles Simonyi endowed the Oxford Chair of the Public Understanding of Science, freeing Dawkins to write newspaper articles, produce films, and travel the world to spread the meme that, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pointless indifference.” A stark message, certainly. But true, thinks Dawkins, and he will not shrink from saying so.
The God Delusion, which deals more with philosophy than science, has been panned as amateurish by academic reviewers. Yet even a Roman Catholic intelligent design proponent like myself, who thinks Dawkins’ conclusions follow much less from his data than from his premises, has to admire the man’s energy and determination. Concerning those big questions, Someone once advised us to be either hot or cold, but not lukewarm. Whatever the merit of his ideas, Richard Dawkins is not lukewarm.