Dawkins as ethologist


If you happened to catch Andrew Denton’s interview with Richard Dawkins, shown last night on ABC1, here’s a nice antidote: a long, chapter-length piece by Dawkins himself describing his career and early life. Despite naming W.D. Hamilton his “intellectual hero”, and briefly mentioning the importance of “new theoretical ideas” from John Maynard Smith and Robert Trivers, as well as George C. Williams, Dawkins doesn’t attend much to the intellectual context in evolutionary biology, from which his “gene-centred” popularisations developed. Instead most of the detail is about his research in ethology in the sixties and seventies.

That’s okay: Dawkins has given most of these scholars their due elsewhere, and if you’re like me his account of the original ethological work will correct an imbalance in your knowledge.


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3 Responses to “Dawkins as ethologist”

  1. Chiara Says:

    The Denton interview was just embarrassing.

    The Four Horsemen is a far more illuminating response to the God/religion stuff. Also, Dawkins’ letter to his daughter is lovely (even the tone-deafness of the “suppose I told you that your dog was dead” hypothetical).

    • Nick Says:

      Thanks for the comment and the links.

      I’m in two minds on the Brights/New Atheism thing. On the one hand, I’m all for harsh intolerance of religion’s claims to truth or intellectual relevance. The idea that rational criteria only go so far, and beyond that lies a separate “spiritual” Magisterium that atheists just need to respect, should be confronted with all the contempt and hubris that Dawkins gets accused of showing. No soft pedalling.

      On the other hand, we need to consider the context (War on Terror etc). I’m suspicious of Hitchen’s motives, and Dennett can stumble into
      klutzy islamophobia. I won’t go into it here, but IMO Dawkins’ refusal to countenance group selection also prevents him from understanding the communitarian, social/political aspects of religion (D.S. Wilson makes the case here; Dawkins responds snarkily). This can have political drawbacks.

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