Last Night's TV: The Genius of Charles Darwin, Channel 4; I'm Kylie's Body Double, BBC 3
Tuesday 05 August 2008
It is a very strange thing, the way in which the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has come to resemble that which he most despises. There is something almost biblical in the desire of this high-profile hard-rationalist to smite the unbelievers, and remove them from the face of the earth, using the implacable power of science and reason. God knows, as he wouldn't say himself, how we'd manage without the chap.
Dawkins's latest assault on the feeble-minded came last night in the first episode of The Genius of Charles Darwin, a series about the naturalist and his influence. In expressing the overwhelming nature of his admiration for Darwin and his genius in constructing his theory of evolution, Dawkins left the viewer with the impression that he had no reason to believe in God because Darwin was his prophet instead. Dawkins did well in his role as writer and presenter to remain as placid as he did, given his well-known impatience with humans who still believe in such superstitious nonsense as God. Certainly, though, he set his stall out unequivocally.
Early on in the programme, he visited a group of schoolchildren, whose stubborn belief in the religious values with which they'd been brought up, was just the sort of thing that Dawkins finds intensely irritating. The aim was to educate them out of their wilful ignorance, an ignorance he subtly laid at the door of their families, their schools, and a general culture that is just too damned tolerant of loony investment in fairy stories. In his efforts to burst their superstitious bubble, he even took his class to the Jurassic Coast in south-west England, so that the children could find fossils for themselves, and become personally involved in the adventure of scientific discovery. Dawkins's own belief in the transformative power of science is touching.
These children, some of whom looked mutinously distrustful of Dawkins, and his declarations that evolutionary theory has made a mockery of the Bible, appeared only in three short segments of the first episode. But even during their own brief intellectual journey, they illustrated exactly the problem Dawkins faces. Mostly, after his explanations of Darwin's theories, and his elucidations on how, ever since, each new scientific discovery has only bolstered and strengthened those theories, they accepted what he had told them. They were reluctant, however, to stop believing in God just because they believed in Darwin.
Like some of the most intelligent adults – even though research shows that the more intelligent you are the less likely you are to believe in God – the children found little problem with believing in more than one thing at once, even when glaring contradictions arose. For Dawkins, such a duality is unacceptable. He is absolutely amazed that four out of 10 Britons still believe, in some form or another, that God created the world. Yet he never stops himself to wonder why, if natural selection really does ensure the survival of the fittest, and if belief in God really is such a burden on humanity, he shouldn't just sit back secure in the knowledge that evolution will fix the problem in time.
Dawkins, for such an enthusiastic Darwinist, seems to have no faith at all in social Darwinism, or in the possibility that humans might in all cultures have organised themselves around a unifying belief system simply because there is an adaptive advantage in maintaining networks that inject social capital into societies. What became clear during this first programme was that Dawkins is not only a rationalist but is also a literalist. Even deeply religious Christians are happy to consider the Bible to be metaphorical rather than narrative. But he cannot do so. He sticks rigidly to the idea that since the Bible describes the world beginning 6,000 years ago, when really life began four million years ago, God can't exist.
Of necessity, because it was pitched at a family audience of non-scientists, the first episode of the series was highly simplistic, a whistle-stop tour of first principles. The series should become more interesting as it progresses. The worry is that Dawkins is too close-minded to be the ideal person to illuminate this material. He may find religion absurd, but Darwin did not. He was deeply worried at the impact on Christians that his researches and their conclusions would have, and far from sharing Dawkins's impatience, he might now even wonder if perhaps the impact of his discoveries has been too fast and too furious. He was a far wiser man than Dawkins.
Mind you, the content of I'm Kylie's Body Double did make me wonder if natural selection might be on the brink of collapse, anyway. Rachael, the titular body model, was just off to the surgeon to have a previous breast job fixed, and was going up a size while she was there. She also wanted a bit of lipo on her perfecly lovely bottom. It's all going to play havoc with mating, this stuff, if it hasn't already. Then, a photographer called Simian came along, his unusually spelt name so arrestingly evolutionary that you could only shudder at quite how much Darwin might be spinning in his grave.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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