An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist

Dear Dawkins

I’ve finished it.  I can now pray more intelligently for Professor Dawkins, having read part one of his memoirs.  As I’m a Christian, the man has made himself my enemy, so I’ve been trying to work out how I can do good for him and pray for him.

What did I find?  A review of an autobiography might follow the same chronological order, but following the example of the Gospels, I’m not going to tie myself to that.  Let’s split it up into

  • Music & poetry,
  • Embarrassment & bullying, and
  • Information  & science.

There is a real possibility that my inferences are incorrect, and I’m no psychologist, but read the book for yourself and see what you think.  At least Dawkins is an expert on himself.

An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist.  Richard Dawkins.  Bantam Press ISBN 9780593070895  RRP £20.

Music & Poetry

From hymns to drinking songs, music features strongly throughout, even woven into the biology of birdsong at Oxford.

Going back to the two books I received from Amazon, of which this is one, I was surprised there were more lines of Christian hymns in this autobiography than in the other kids’ song book ‘Jesus Loves Me’.  Whether or not that’s to establish some credentials as an erstwhile keen theist who saw through it, I don’t know, but it is revealing.  From my own experience, hymns from my childhood still have direct access to my brain – a phenomenon Oliver Sacks observes as bypassing much of the thought pathways we so scramble and tinker with during our lives.

There’s a friend for little children,
Beyond the bright blue sky
A friend who never changeth
Whose love can never die…

Dawkins guesses this was taught him by his parents, as it was associated with happy childhood memories in Likuni, Malawi, pre-school.  While someone else might trace Dawkins’ adult aggression to his early peripatetic years, I really can’t be bothered and wouldn’t read anything into it, despite his own mother being concerned about his insecurity.

What I have wondered is how much our parents’ priorities influence us, what that influence brings, and whether we recognise the extent of that influence and are able to challenge our resulting outlook.  Only the other night we were discussing a comment made that what our kids see as important is not always what we think we are telling them is important – it’s more what they observe us spending most time in.  Mr & Mrs Dawkins must have thought it good for Richard to have some Christian input, and that he should be able to make his own mind up when the time came, and Richard himself mentions the line of clergymen from which he came.

But what came out of ample material furnished by Dawkins was that the quantity and content of that Christian instruction was pitifully poor, and it’s exactly that childish misunderstanding of Christianity that seems to come through in his later anger directed at ‘faith-heads’.  He apparently never went to church in Africa, but he was Christened, he was Confirmed, and was keen to go to Communion.  He was an Anglican.  But does that mean he was a Christian?

The song from Malawi continues:

…Unlike our friends by nature
Who change with changing years
This friend is always worthy
The precious name he bears

By the time he got to 16, Richard had changed – outgrowing a period of what he calls religious fervour that it now embarrasses him to think about.  The hymn music was turned off after a diversion into Elvis and the young Richard refused to kneel in chapel at Oundle.  What was the reaction from those around him?

“Mr Ling also summoned my parents for a heart-to-heart talk, over tea, about my rebellious behaviour in chapel… Mr Ling asked my parents to try to persuade me to change my ways.  My father said (approximately, by my mother’s recollection): “It’s not our business to control him in that sort of way, that kind of thing is your problem, and I’m afraid I must decline your request.’  My parents’ attitude to the whole affair was that it wasn’t important.”

Yes – I thought so.  I got that impression long before page 143.  That’ll explain a blind reaction “They couldn’t all be right, so why believe the one in which, by sheer accident of birth, I happened to be brought up?”  I thought for a bit that this was just a narrative passage without value judgment on that interesting but ultimately easy question, but it seems that was where this Christianity ‘meme’ became so diluted for Richard that he was strong enough to overcome it.  There is another possibility – that it was Richard who was so weak that he fell victim to Darwin’s meme – the ivy that crept over his parents, his schools and the Christianity taught and practiced by the adults around him, until it shut out the light.  His faulty definition of being ‘brought up’ in Christianity has skewed his world view.

Why was Mr Ling apparently more concerned about Richard’s behaviour than his immortal soul?  What on earth do Christian teachers expect when they uncritically teach a theory that Charles Lyell said gets Moses out of science?  In this respect, Richard Dawkins is just a product of his upbringing – his rebellion is logical, sensible even.  We’re living now with the consequences of an Anglicanism that settled into the experiential, so empty as to spawn this quote from Alfred Noyes: ‘If I ever had any doubts about the fundamental realities of religion, they could always be dispelled by one memory – the light upon my father’s face as he came back from early communion.’

God alone knows to whom the millstones should be posted.  Maybe they could have spent just a tiny bit less time numbly repeating ‘we have left undone what we ought to have done’, skipped chapel themselves to spend time chatting through some fundamental realities with a young Richard and his chums.

Oh well, Richard.  So far, if I’d had only your conception and experience of Christ, I might have rejected him as well.  Thankfully I had enough adults around me who challenged prevailing thought to at least query what my biology textbook was telling me.  Now I know why I’ve thrown so many of your books back onto the shelves of Waterstones – a quick flick found the non-sequiturs from the arguments that bored me literally to tears at school.  Here’s an example of one from this book:

“I bamboozled myself into believing that the appearance of design demanded a designer. I blush to admit that I had not at that stage worked out the elementary fallacy of this argument, which is that any god capable of designing the universe would have demanded a fair bit of designing himself”.

I blush to read that last bit.  That’s why it’s God that’s postulated, not Wickramasinghe’s aliens. God is defined (as far as we are able) as a self-existent eternal being.  Why should our understanding of created material, time-bound world preclude the existence of such a being?  Is such an exclusion evidence based? No.  Surely he has read EA Abbot’s Flatland where the two dimensional creatures can’t fully comprehend a three dimensional being? Maybe it came too late for his prejudices, because every book he’s written has come across as two-dimensional, and maybe that truth is now dawning on the wider world.

The bounded thinking persists to the end of the book, when to quote Dawkins, who quotes Bill Hamilton, who quotes the poet AE Housman:

From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither; here am I

That knitting there, Richard – it’s a verb.  Those genes do knitting, and they have an innate idea of the finished jumper.  You’re fond of gap-leaping prose and poetry but the wind didn’t give them the idea, and it’s a cop-out to say that they’re immortal.  That Big Bang – Arno Penzias’ vindication of the Pentateuch, gives you a beginning for our universe.  The genes are here now.  You haven’t explained how they got here. Take as much time as you like – making the changes smaller doesn’t help.

Something to pray about?  Wouldn’t it be great if the music enabled him to wind back the years and revisit the places where the poetry was only half understood?  It could be the making of a scientist.

Embarrassment & Bullying

It’s heart warming to think that our scientific colossus can share his embarrassments with us – we all have our own.

The acute embarrassment that was brought to my attention was the birthday party at Chafyn Grove.  In short, boys would invite their friends to a table of cake, jellies and other good things.

“I understood the principle, and I understood about supplying the duty master with a list of your friends’ names.  What slipped my attention was the small point that you had to arrange for your mother in advance to send the cake and jelly.  On my birthday – perhaps my ninth – I wrote out the list of my friends and gave it to the duty master, who read it aloud.  My chosen friends walked eagerly into the dining room, surveyed the empty table and … even after all these years embarrassment prevents me from describing the scene any further.  What still baffles me is that it never occurred to me to wonder where the cake was supposed to come from… perhaps I thought it materialised by supernatural magic, like sixpenny bits when you put a tooth under your pillow”.

While I’m sure it’s meant to show that when he was a child he understood like a child, he thought as a child, and when he became a man he put away childish things, to me it makes me squirm for a different reason.  He’s still inviting people into an empty room.  Still thinking that genes materialised by supernatural magic for him and his friends to play with.   Still assuming that no-one need put them there in the first place, in the same form of superstition that thought rubbish created flies, laid to rest by Pasteur after the publication of Origin of Species.

The whole thing reads like a ghastly inversion of the parable of the wedding feast – where Dawkins invites his friends to the gnashing of teeth part, being determined that there has not been, is not, and never will be another person who wants to supply a feast, who made him, who loves him, who died for him.

It’s still possible for him to avoid that eternal embarrassment, against which any mockery from his current set will seem as a fruit fly when he looks back withFly regret.

So I’ll pray he can go back to that early field where Paley dropped his watch, and just think for a second or two that for all the teenage arguments about inference, maybe there was a someone who really did drop a watch. That at least opens the door to the alternative – I dare say he’s welcome to a theory of it being assembled by natural law over 700 billion years, but why be so narrow minded?  The key fact that he didn’t see the watch being placed doesn’t entitle him to mock someone who thinks it was, as if he is more scientific.

On bullying, suffice it to say that at Eagle school “there was a boy called Aunty Peggy who was mercilessly teased, seemingly for no better reason than his nickname… On one occasion we all stood around and watched him in a serious and prolonged fight… The sympathy of the crowd was with the bully, who was good-looking and good at games”  apparently Richard felt bad but was not moved to do anything.  Nietzsche’s superman was going about his business.

Then, at his next school, Chafyn Grove, a brilliant scholar was more seriously bullied.  Richard looks back with regret, and thinks about the Nazi mindset.

At Oundle, this particular vice seemed to be swapped for others, and Oxford was a place for grown-ups.  But on we go to Berkeley, where “we, the younger faculty convened meetings where we tried to bully our colleagues into cancelling their lectures in solidarity with the activists…”

Dawkins makes the link for us back to the earlier pattern of behaviour, and is good enough to express remorse and say “I should have stood up against the bullies.  But I didn’t… Should have known better.”

It’s as if that’s drawn to a close and judged as morally wrong, but here’s the preceding bit where I scribble ‘LOL’in the margin: “I have seen the same thing more recently on the internet in the form of cyber-bullying by radical activists powerful enough to act as a kind of thought police, just as I saw the same thing at school when willing accomplices would rally around a playground bully”

He’s still doing it!  Here’s the playground bully, and visit RDFRS for the thought police.

CureIt’s not just my impression; one man was so turned off by the abuse on Dawkins’ own website when a gentle reasoning David Robertson challenged the thought police that he became a Christian.

So what do we pray here?  Lord, would you please help Richard Dawkins really leave the bullying days behind him, and look at his arguments on their own strengths and weaknesses, whether they dominate others or not?  Free him from a need to belittle others to make himself feel secure, we ask.

Looking at the new site, it seems things may be improving.  Go on Richard – stand up against those bullies.  I won’t get an ‘Atheism is a mental disease’ t-shirt in retaliation because you’re precious to God.  In fact I think religion is a bad thing, but faith in a right object isn’t.  I’m not convinced you’re aware of the difference.

Information & Science

In 1986, there was a debate at the Oxford Union on the motion ‘This house believes that the doctrine of creation is more valid than the theory of evolution’.  For the motion were Edgar Andrews and AE Wilder-Smith, and against were Richard Dawkins and John Maynard Smith.

Most of the debate was typical spoddish Oxford types spraffing on, but AE Wilder-Smith made some points which the others couldn’t answer.  The motion was lost, but this autobiography seems to want to lay the bones of the Late Wilder-Smith’s arguments to rest.  To me it just ploughs them all back up to the surface.  Dawkins’ appeal at the time was to the crowd, that if they voted for the motion the university would be mocked, which is interesting.

We have a wonderful introduction to Grandfather Bill Ladner’s work on the Marconi transmissions from Poldhu.  Claude Shannon is mentioned on pages 20, 228, 231.  Surprise value and language is mentioned in Dawkins’ Oxford studies.  But this is typical ‘meme immunisation’ without actually engaging with the underlying argument.  Water must flow uphill to climb Mount Improbable.  Words in a newspaper must be derived from the natural laws governing ink and paper, and if you’re reading this on a screen, the pixels must have purpose and yet have got here by blind natural forces.  Creativity is at once lauded in friends and colleagues, but denied to anyone else.  Apparent purpose must be maintained without there being overall purpose.  To use Dawkins’s own slip in this book, neurons must find their ‘correct’ organs without any concept of ‘correct’.

It’s not clever, and I’m not the only one to have noticed it when I was small.  Christopher Booker mentions in his review of this book that when the Selfish Gene came out, Dawkins got cross because people choked on his intellectual schizophrenia.  Listening to the 1986 debate, Dawkins again says ‘To say evolution happened by chance is a travesty”, yet he must have chance or natural law is no longer free.  If he has a creative natural law, it has never been proven, is not falsifiable, and is never observably free from the disintegrating laws of thermodynamics.  GK Chesterton said that it doesn’t help to give more time for a miracle to happen if it’s still a miracle. John Lennox has given Hume’s objection to miracles a drubbing.

AE Wilder-Smith’s approach, respected but avoided by Professor Maynard Smith, was that the evolutionary theory reduces to a formula:

 Inorganic matter + Energy + Time = Biogenesis

He then set out the premise of creation, in language that even a Flatlander could understand:

 Inorganic matter + Energy + Time + Information = Biogenesis

And all science can do with the people who breed, and play with existing genetic material that they didn’t make, and zap soup into proteins with electricity in expensive labs, and rescue and care for the results, and programme computers – is pretend they aren’t actually there.  Even better, close the door on thinking about them by saying, like Stephen Hawking, ‘Philosophy is dead’. That famous philosophical statement.

The information has to arise by accident, driven by the gene’s metaphorical soliloquy on survival which we overhear in this book.  But why survive?  Why reproduce?  The ‘why not’ is far stronger physically and chemically.  The encyclopaedic gene is a reversal of natural processes and is required to organize inorganic matter into life.  Dawkins’ computer experiments all come across as desperate attempts to levitate above natural laws by pulling on his own bootlaces.   The maths doesn’t help.  Chemistry doesn’t support it.  Physics is against it.

In Wilder-Smith’s inimitable accent “It’s for the birds”.

So in our closing prayer for Professor Clinton Richard Dawkins, let’s ask God to keep us humble, patient and loving, and bring Richard into the presence of The Word – the information sent from God, before whose risen DNA doubting Thomas knelt and said ‘my Lord and my God!’

Oh Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works thy hand hath made
I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed

Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to thee
How great thou art! how great thou art!

Dave Walker on the man who was really let down in Mark’s gospel

Dave Walker

I’m pretty sure that in nearly 40 years this is the first time I’ve got anyone to sign something.  Oh no – hang on, there was Roger Black (or Steve Backley?) at a work motivational thing, but I’m … er … not sure why.

This is different – not only a signature but a sketch by the great Dave Walker in my sketchbook.  Mr Walker’s cartoons are widely appreciated among our dear Anglican brethren, many of whom had been meeting round the corner for a chinwag at the Synod. They can be found here and in the Church Times, are served up regularly on Twitter (@davewalker), and humans being the same everywhere, create amusement across Christendom, and to me.

Basically, some people might think he had my dream job (of course they would be gravely in error – of course they would). I forgot to ask him when he’s thinking of retiring.

A blank page being uninspiring, I asked for an illustration of the man in the Bible whose friends were so keen that he should meet Jesus that they dismantled someone’s roof.

Dave very kindly obliged.

It’s something I’d been thinking about today anyway – partly as I’d seen the Archbishop of York’s speech on the importance of spreading the good news about Jesus Christ – in terms of priorities everything else being like arranging the furniture while the house is on fire.  No idea what happened after that, but well done him.

Back to the sketch – To put it briefly, a paralysed man was brought to Jesus, his mates couldn’t get him through the crowd, so they knocked a hole in the roof and let him down with ropes.  They were not messing around.  The full story is in Mark 2:1-12, and contains the gospel essentials of faith in Christ and forgiveness for sins.

The odd thing was Jesus’ response.  Was it:

a) Do you want me to heal you?
b) There’s a great physician in the next town
c) The people in the Reformed synagogue are really nice and will look after you, or
d) The police have been called and you will be held responsible for this damage?

In a well-remarked shocker, Jesus looked at the faith that had been shown in him and said “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  Sharp intake of breath all round.  Jesus is being more than the parochial healer we can just about cope with.

Mark doesn’t record the man’s response, but even he might have been forgiven for questioning Jesus’ priorities.  “Um – I rather thought my problem was the paralysis thing..  no?”

No.  It’s been said before, but Jesus came to save people from their sins.  That’s the big problem.  Bigger than banking, poverty, illness, war or politics, although it touches on all of those things.  What I like about this story is that the healing is there as well, and it’s there so the people know that Jesus is God, and that it’s through him that we can have forgiveness of sins. The man walks away with everything – for free.  Christ bore those sins to the cross.

At the risk of being too froward in this post, the Christianity Explored course is not a bad idea.  Time I shut up – hope Mr Walker doesn’t mind the use made of his sketch.