Debate: Great minds think alike (unfortunately)

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The Independent Culture



DID RICHARD Dawkins, that hard-boiled, free-ranging, egg-headed Darwinian, resident in the City of Dreaming Spires, where he is known to some students as the Professor of Public Misunderstanding, ever pose naked for Auguste Rodin in a church such as this one? I asked myself this as I stared around the Central Hall, home to British Methodism.

It was an august occasion. Dawkins was down on a quick away-day to engage in spirited debate with Steven Pinker about whether or not science was killing the soul. Thousands - a couple at least - were in attendance. Gages had been exchanged. And then, all of a sudden, the whole thing fell flat as a punctured balloon. It was at that point that I began to speculate upon who Rodin's model for Le Penseur, and whether Dawkins, though seemingly youngish, could have been the chap; whether he had the muscles, the gravity, the embonpoint, the staying power for such a commission as that one? Whether, being a man of some eminence himself, he could have borne the tempestuous, bullying habits of Auguste Rodin...

Round and round it went in my mind, to the exclusion of almost all else, this small-scale, maddening obsession, like some crazed midge.

But why this, and not the subject of the debate itself? Because the affably bumbling and bespectacled science journalist who had introduced the two men to the audience, and the two men to each other, and the two men to the audience again, had mentioned, almost as if it were a matter of marginal importance - marginal importance indeed! - that, fundamentally, the idea of a debate between these two men was something of an absurdity because, by and large, they agreed with each other. They both knew that there was no such thing as a soul, and no such person as a God. They both knew that science was killing, or had already killed, that absurd idea - if by that word "soul" was meant some immaterial entity, and not the pleasingly acceptable notion of soulfulness. They even felt perfectly comfortable to be voicing these brazen thoughts within reach of John Wesley's stern, admonitory finger, which, cast in marble, lay in wait for them beyond the door.

And so, that was it then: in spite of the fact that they were both mature, dyed-in-the-wool Darwinians, they had nothing to fight about. It was not a debate, but a kind of long exchange of congratulations for having thought so long and so hard in the service of genetics (Dawkins) and cognitive psychology (Pinker), with a bit of mutual back-scratching here and there.

For this reason, somewhat distracted and momentarily disappointed, I began to wonder whether Dawkins, who when he sits or stands posed at the lectern, strikes such remarkably intellectual poses - finger on cheek; profoundly searching gazes into the middle distance; body curled forward with fist on chin, etc, etc; everything so beautifully posed and practised to create an overall impression that here is Pure Mind on the move - had, soul or no soul, been here before, and that Rodin had perhaps snapped him up after one quick, imperious glance down the Metro car.

Away Dawkins had been led, by two or three burly studio assistants, frog-marched to the Rue Varenne, and then stripped down to the birthday suit.

The gravity was never in doubt - but did he measure up?