Stranger Fruit

Shermer defends Dawkins Badly

In January, Michael Shermer reviewed Dawkins’ The God Delusion (TGD) for Science (see here). This weeks edition features a letter by Martinez Hewlett (Molecular & Cellular Biology, University of Arizona) which argues two points: firstly, that Dawkins’ book is not a work of science, and secondly, that it is a poor piece of philosophy (a point that I have made repeatedly in the past). Shermer in attempting to reply makes a number of claims. Primarily he states:

Martinez Hewlett holds a narrow view of what constitutes a work of science–primary research only, secondary sources cited only in discussion of the primary research. To that extent, only the type of articles that are published in the peer-reviewed sections of journals like Science would constitute real science, with everything else relegated to mere popularization. Were this the case, of course, it would obviate many of the greatest works in the history of science, from Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. If these are not works of science, then what are they?

Guns, Germs, and Steel is hardly one of "the greatest works in the history of science" – it is good, but not that good, and certainly no Origin. Similarly TGD is no Origin, and I would be willing to argue that Hewlett is indeed right – TGD is not a scientific work but is in fact a popular work of philosophy in the tradition of Tom Paine, rather than Charles Darwin. Throughout his reply, Shermer compares Dawkins’ book to "great works of science" and thus (despite his qualifications in history of science) only succeeds in making an ass of himself.


  1. #1 razib
    June 29, 2007

    the selfish gene was pretty influential though (even if you disagreed with it).

  2. #2 Rich Reynolds
    June 29, 2007


    Dawkins’ read is okay, much better than Hitchens’ “God is Not Great” endeavor, but both are philosophically lame, Hitchens particularly so.

    Shermer’s lauding of Dawkins’ work is sycophantic, not to be taken seriously, just as Dawkins himself should not be taken too seriously, when he takes on God. (Dawkins is pulling our legs somewhat.)

    Why Hitchens and Dawkins get away with their bromides is because their readers (even the “intellectual types”) are ill-read in the exegeses about God, going all the way back to the early Greeks.

    Hewlett, noted above, is an example. (Diamond’s book is good, as you write, but hardly great. Aquinas’ Summa Theologica is great.)

    What passes for erudition nowadays is somewhere the other side of Cliff’s Notes.


  3. #3 Lambert Heenan
    June 29, 2007

    @ Rich Reynolds.

    If there were people in the world who still believed in the existence of the aether as the medium of propagation of electromagnetic waves, would I need to become an erudite expert on the properties of the mythic aether in order to disabuse those people of their belief? Of course not. I would instead point out as many reasons as I could that would allow them to conclude that the aether is not necessary nor does it exist. Nor would I need those deluded individuals to be consummate experts on the aether in order for me to be able to convince them it does not really exist.

    So if asserting that god does not exist is a bromide, why is the opposite assertion not equally, or even more platitudinous?

    As for your comment “(Dawkins is pulling our legs somewhat.)” Which leg would that be? Are you seriously claiming that Dawkins is a stealth beliver who’s rattling our cages to see who will respond? I think not.

  4. #4 John Lynch
    June 29, 2007


    I wasn’t commenting on TSG, just TGD. While TSG is also no Origin, it is certainly more scientific than TGD.

  5. #5 Rich Reynolds
    June 29, 2007

    Lambert (et al.):

    The aether exists, by the way. It’s just called Dark Energy nowadays.

    As for Dawkins being wry, I think he has been, and his God book is a gauntlet thrown down for his peers (and a few of us underlings).

    Why would Dawkins (or anyone esle) engage in a colloquy about God which will be, as it always has been, futile.

    The concept of God (which I address elsewhere here and our blog) is beyond discussion, rational discussion,

    Even the glib and seemingly facile Reverend Sharpton understands that.

    Dawkins is having fun with us — as is God.


  6. #6 The Ridger
    June 29, 2007

    If the concept of God is beyond rational discussion, please, please, convince the theists who daily insist otherwise. Then – once all theists accept that their religion is beyond rationality and thus should not be allowed to influence teaching or public philosophy – peace will reign.

  7. #7 Jim Lippard
    July 1, 2007

    The Ridger: Claiming that “the concept of God is beyond rational discussion” and that “the concept of God is beyond the scope of science” are two distinct claims. (I think they’re both wrong, but they are distinct.)

  8. #8 James Randi
    July 2, 2007

    I’m a pragmatist, and I do not enter into angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin arguments. I don’t claim that there is no God, I simply allow others to claim that there is, and ask for proof of that claim. What I get is a raft of philosophical meanderings, all sorts of what these folks regard as real “evidence,” and of course the tried-and-true “this is not subject to proof” ploy. Hey, the million-dollar prize offered by my Foundation, which can be summoned up at, says it all. At the same time, the fact that no one takes us up on that offer does not provide nullification of the original claim, of course. I suggest we all wait until we die…

  9. #9 Oran Kelley
    July 2, 2007

    Funny how this particular conversation can never stay on track.

    If someone makes the point that they think Dawkins’s book isn’t particularly good, ineveitably somebody interprets that as “I think God does exist.”

    Whereas, the point (generally) is more like: “God does not exist, and Dawkins has written a bad book on the topic of God and religion.”

    Some reasons the book is bad is because the philosophical case was already made well enough by Bertrand Russell, and his attempts to add to Russell are inferior.

    Another reason is that Dawkins is not just interested to disprove the existence of God: he’s also interested in declaring religion pernicious. But he has essentially no interest in the topic of the evolution of religion or the social and psychological roles played by religion except insofar as attention to these points can score him points against religion. It’s just shoddy work.

  10. #10 Susan
    July 5, 2007

    Geeze, I wish I had read all the reviews of Dawkins, book before I went out and bought the hardcover and everything. I am not a scientist, I am an average jill who is interested in natural history. I am also an athiest and was curious to see what Dawkins had to say to a like minded person such as myself. I liked his book and I agree with the idea that religion is pernicious. This is not a glib assessment, I am not an athiest because I feel the knee-jerk need to strike out at religion and all the bad things that can result from it. (Like say for example, guys flying planes into the World Trade Centre)My personal world view came from years of reading and contemplation both on science and religion. Religion offers some comfort to people, but as far as I’m concerned it’s a con-game. I realize that many people who are religious are open-minded to the idea of science and evolution. But I’d have to say far too many are encouraged to be willfully ignorant of the world that they live in and all of it’s percieved “evils” There are those who have this misconcieved notion that without religion to reign us in, people would lose their sense of morality and goodness. This is bunk, and part of the con-game. One country that doesn’t support the “big three” monotheistic faiths is Japan. Historically Japan doesn’t have the most perfect track record in terms of respect for her fellow human beings.(The survivors of Nanking would have something to say about that.) But it is no worse then that of more pious nations. No county can boast that it’s conscience is stain free. I believe that all human beings and nations have the potential for good and evil alike, with or without religion.
    There is also the idea that without God there is no purpose to anything, so why not just kill outselves? I don’t believe that our presence on this planet is pre-ordained or that we as human beings even have a purpose. But we do posess a most wonderful gift. We are curious little monkeys. I think the most beautiful of human endevors is the drive to understand the universe in which we live. We are sentient and to me, that is enough.
    I am aware of the arguements that we can’t prove the non-existence of God. I can’t prove the non-existence of the Easter bunny either(By the way, what’s with all the weird pagen symbols on such a Christian holiday…Bill Hicks anyone?) it doesn’t mean I believe in him. I can’t make myself believe in something that I do not.
    So might suggest that religion isn’t bad, it’s the human penchant for doing bad things in the name of religion. (Hey, just like that “guns don’t kill people, arguement…I wonder how many gun toting Christians are out there?) I think religion has a lot to answer for. Dawkins perhaps didn’t make the point as eloquently as Bertrand Russell (Whom I have also read) But still, the point is well made. He certianly makes a better point then Ann Coulter does in opposite camp. As far as I’m concerned, we need all the ammunition we can get.

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