Skip that challenge

Oh dear. Richard Dawkins has been getting pushback about some tweets, so he’s written a piece for RDF to explain things. Maybe that should be a sign to him that tweets aren’t the right medium for complicated thoughts.

Twitter’s 140 character limit always presents a tough challenge, but I tried to rise to it.

Ah, no, it wasn’t a sign to him then.

No; don’t try to rise to the challenge. That’s not what it’s good for. It’s not a game of “try to say something useful about what’s wrong with Islam in 140 characters without being simplistic or banal and without setting off a noisy brawl.” People use it that way, yes, but it’s silly.

He summarizes several main strands of criticism and replies to them one at a time; the bold is his summary of a strand:

Race is not a biological concept at all but a socially constructed one. In the sociological sense you can convert to a race because race is a social construction.

There may be sociologists who choose to redefine words to their own purpose, in which case we have a simple semantic disagreement. I have a right to choose to interpret “race” (and hence “racism”) according to the dictionary definition: “A limited group of people descended from a common ancestor”.  Sociologists are entitled to redefine words in technical senses that they find useful, but they are not entitled to impose their new definitions on those of us who prefer common or dictionary usage.

Aw come on – that’s no good. That’s just vulgar and anti-intellectual. “Race” is the kind of concept that benefits from careful thought and definition, and it’s the kind of thing that sociologists study. It’s not a matter of “imposing” definitions, but of saying the dictionary definition is not useful for the purposes of a thoughtful discussion that turns on the meaning of race.

I don’t even have a firm opinion about whether he was wrong or right in the Twitter discussion, because I haven’t followed it closely (though I’ve read some of the commentary on it). But I think the article is unfortunately crude.



  1. says

    He’s also defining race as a synonym of “clade”, which is just sort of lazy. It does, interestingly, mean that on the one hand, race is a discrete thing, but on the other, it accounts for multiracial people. But it’s still lazy.

  2. maudell says

    A limited group of people descended from a common ancestor

    The problem is that this statement has no bearing on reality, and common ancestry is not a reliable feature of what we define as ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity.’

    That’s why sociologists study it as a social construct, studying it from Dawkins ‘primordialist’ perspective has been a huge failure since it has no bearing in our racial categorization.

    I was reading papers earlier this month about different ways economists categorize ethnicity for quantitative analysis, and there are many problems with all of them (the researchers usually acknowledge that, but we haven’t found a reliable method yet, identity is too dynamic). One of the most common dataset used in analysis of ethnic issues actually categorizes Tutsis and Hutus as the same ethnicity and white Americans as a separate ethnicity as Anglo-Canadians.

    I think I see what Dawkins is trying to say, but I think he is conflating culture and race. On top of that, he seems like he has greatly homogenized cultures he does not understand. As a feminist/empiricist/atheist, Islam (not a culture per se) is a difficult one for me too. But speaking of the ‘Islam world’ is bullshit. In the same sense that speaking of the ‘Christian world’ (from Uganda to Denmark to Brazil).

    On this front, I think Dawkins need to take a look at the evidence available on racial/ethnic categorization and he might understand why his argument is not based on reality. He’s being more of a reactionary than a scientist in this case.

  3. stevebowen says

    “Unfortunately crude”?
    No I don’t think so, he elucidates his intentions well enough. However Dawkins really should avoid Twitter, it’s not his medium and neither is off the cuff television. He has a poor record of self expression when not in the company of a good editor.

  4. jedibear says

    His narrative is pretty self-serving. He tries to make it seem like the only anti-Muslim claim he made was the fairly mild (if probably at least a little silly) claim that Islamic contributions to science have stalled since the 12th Century. In fact, this was only one of many.

    Meanwhile, “Muslim is not a race.” is not a defense for Dawkins in the same way “Jew is not a race” is not a defense in the WoW Barrens channel. Dawkins should be ashamed for having sunk to that level of discourse, and he does not seem to be.

    I suspect Dawkins’ biggest problem here is an inability to view himself in context. He thinks he’s critiquing an ideology, when in reality he’s just taking inept shots at the adherents of a religion, and the rest of the world just sees a rich old white guy taking shots at poor brown people.

    There are a great many problems with Islam, and further problems with theocracy and fundamentalism, but he’s really not getting at that. He’s just taunting people with less privilege than he has for having achieved less than people who enjoy similar privilege in the eyes of people who enjoy similar privilege.

  5. carlie says

    Aren’t we all interrelated only a few generations back? So there is no point at all in talking about a single clade when it comes to humans from an evolutionary standpoint? Didn’t he write a book or several about that?!

  6. Martha says

    What’s the name for that fallacy in which one thinks that being an undisputed expert in one area makes one an expert in all? Can we re-name it after Dawkins?

  7. says

    This is hardly the first time such a thing has happened to him. You’d think that if he were capable of learning in general, he’d learn to stop using Twitter as a medium for this sort of thing.

  8. great1american1satan says

    Racial divisions, if they can be made a all, exist on a continuum, because humans interbreed every place they meet. Try sorting the Asians from the Europeans in Russia, or the “Melanesians” from the Asians in the Southeast Asian islands. I went to college with many Indonesians. Some looked Chinese, some almost like Pacific Islanders. Even Australians – long thought to be some early offshoot of humanity locked in racial isolation – now seem to have had a large influx of people from the Indian subcontinent in their past. We are one continuous population across the world.

    I also see he’s still sneering at sociology. Contempt is always the best route to understanding, isn’t it?

  9. skemono says

    I have a right to choose to interpret “race” (and hence “racism”) according to the dictionary definition: “A limited group of people descended from a common ancestor”.

    And yet he’d probably be one of the first people to insist that evolution being a “theory” doesn’t mean it’s “a speculative or conjectural view or idea.”

  10. says

    I disagree, we can push the race-construct paradigm to far, just as race scientism. But race is a useful scientific concept, even though it has fuzzy boundaries.

    Larry Moran opines:

    In a way Dawkins is correct to stick to his definition, because his usage is correct in the scientific regard and the jury is still out on the issue if the sociology definition will dominate the usage. From the English speaking languages that I’ve visited, it is not the case.

    He should get off twitter, however.

  11. besomyka says

    You should put those words back in his face next time someone uses the popular definition of ‘theory’ when discussing evolution.

    Mr. Dawkins: if you can’t use the terms of the trade when discussing something, then you have no right to expect that they’d take you seriously.

    And to chide people to pointing it out to you… really? How intellectually hypocritical and LAZY.

  12. Walton says

    Honestly, Dawkins’ post is the worst attempt at a rebuttal I’ve seen in a while, and leaves me scratching my head in bemusement. Dawkins thinks that “race” is defined as “a limited group of people descended from a common ancestor”? And is annoyed at sociologists for arguing that race is a social construct? The man… has no clue about social science whatsoever. And yet seems to think he is an expert. *headscratch* Since when has “race”, as a social category, ever been defined cladistically? I thought it was uncontroversially accepted that racial categories are social constructs, not biologically meaningful distinctions. On his definition almost everyone would be “multiracial”, which bears no relation to how racial categories, and racial discrimination and oppression, actually work in human societies.

    In any case, his pet definition of “race” is beside the point, because he’s continued to miss utterly the point of the arguments against his position. No, no one is saying that Muslims are “a race”. But Islam tends, wholly but not exclusively, to be associated with particular racial and cultural groups, who in our society are marginalized minorities. And certain kinds of anti-Muslim rhetoric are absolutely capable of playing into racist and colonialist tropes. Asylum-seekers aren’t “a race” either, but that doesn’t mean that the Daily Mail’s inflammatory rhetoric about asylum-seekers isn’t racist.

    He still seems to think that his opponents are making a simplistic argument along the lines of “the majority of Muslims are not white, therefore criticizing Islam is inherently racist”. No one is actually saying that. What we are saying is that some particular kinds of anti-Muslim rhetoric play into racist stereotypes and/or give ammunition to the far right. It’s not the same thing.

    I find it really hard to comprehend how the same man who wrote “The Blind Watchmaker” could have written this clueless and poorly-reasoned excuse for a post.

  13. says

    What skemono said.

    Dawkins is a smart person, but that doesn’t mean that he is an expert in all fields or on all things. Dawkins may as well be treating sociology as a pseudoscience. All he really needed to say was, “If I use the dictionary definition, …” or write his thoughts out on his site and then tweet a link out.

  14. someguyoranother says

    I can’t comment too much on the “race” thing since I probably agree with him about “biological race” after looking at population genetics. His stupidity on the “science, Nobel prizes” etc. part is breathtaking though.

    It’s like the guy wants to blame everything on religion (in this case Islam) which for him is some abstract entity, almost not influenced by any other factors ever, and doesn’t want to consider any other factor in his (historical and general) analysis. Yeah, contemporary “Westerners” win more Nobel prizes than “Muslims”…and? And what? That’s how far you’re gonna take your analysis, Mr. Dawkins? Religion is teh ebil.

    Oh, I also learnt from him that boasting (ethnocentrism, nationalism and perhaps racism at the end of the day?) is just fine as long as you’re privileged in the here and now.

    Stop complaining if people see your tweets and think you’re being an ignorant ass. They aren’t misinterpreting you, they just consider your points worthless.

  15. quixote says

    Dawkins is a good geneticist. About everything else — sexism, racism, twitting on twitter — he should just shut up.
    Race is a clade? Outside of a bio lab? Yeah, right. I’ve noticed that. When talking to a racist redneck, I always hear things like, “Well, I’s only agin West African blacks. Australian abos are fine by me. And Dravidians, of course, ain’t a problem at all.”
    Honestly. What a jerk.

  16. says

    “A limited group of people descended from a common ancestor” is not the dictionary definition of race, because there isn’t one definition, even if I exclude meanings specific to particular disciplines of science.

    here are some relevant definitions of that word (science jargon excluded, regardless of field), from various dictionaries:


    a : a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock
    b : a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics
    a : an actually or potentially interbreeding group within a species; also : a taxonomic category (as a subspecies) representing such a group
    b : breed
    c : a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits

    1.a group of persons related by common descent or heredity.
    2. a population so related. […]
    4. a group of tribes or peoples forming an ethnic stock: the Slavic race.
    5. any people united by common history, language, cultural traits, etc.: the Dutch race.

    Free Online Dictionary:

    1. A local geographic or global human population distinguished as a more or less distinct group by genetically transmitted physical characteristics.
    2. A group of people united or classified together on the basis of common history, nationality, or geographic distribution: the German race.
    3. A genealogical line; a lineage.
    4. Humans considered as a group.

    Oxford Dictionaries:

    each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics:
    people of all races, colors, and creeds
    — a group of people sharing the same culture, history, language, etc.; an ethnic group:
    we Scots were a bloodthirsty race then
    — the fact or condition of belonging to a racial division or group; the qualities or characteristics associated with this:
    people of mixed race
    — a group or set of people or things with a common feature or features:
    some male firefighters still regarded women as a race apart

    Macmillan Dictionary:

    2.[COUNTABLE/UNCOUNTABLE] a group of people who are similar because they have the same skin color or other physical features
    We do not discriminate on the basis of race or gender.
    a. a group of people who are similar because they speak the same language or have the same history or customs

    Collins Dictionary:

    a group of people of common ancestry, distinguished from others by physical characteristics, such as hair type, colour of eyes and skin, stature, etc. Principal races are Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid
    See the human race
    a group of animals or plants having common characteristics that distinguish them from other members of the same species, usually forming a geographically isolated group; subspecies
    a group of people sharing the same interests, characteristics, etc ⇒ the race of authors

    so yeah. he’s fractally wrong here. even the part where he claims to know the dictionary definition makes no sense, because there’s multiple ones. And the reason there are multiple definitions is because the signified is a socially constructed category with only very vague relation to biology, and that only because of some anthropologist(!) BS from the 19th century.

  17. says

    for shits and giggles, I looked up “human” in the dictionary, species being a construct far more closely tied to actual biology, and the difference between the human species and others being rather distinct.

    The definition is pretty constantly “a person” and/or “a human being”, sometimes “member of Homo sapiens

  18. atheist says

    Basically, I don’t get why Dawkins thinks it’s useful to write bigoted things about Muslims. He’s obviously a highly intelligent individual, so I can’t believe he just doesn’t think about what he’s doing. He surely realizes that he’s a key node in the pro-skeptical, atheist movement. So why does he continually say things that are not in his movement’s interest?

    I’m ignoring the deeper question of whether it is moral to express contempt for an already hated minority. I just wonder what the heck he thinks he’s accomplishing. In what way does it benefit atheism to question whether Muslims have done any worthwhile science in the past 1,000 years, as Dawkins recently did on Twitter?

    “MUSLIMS GAVE YOU ALCHEMY AND ALGEBRA!!!!!”. Indeed, where would we be without alchemy? Dark Age achievements undoubted. But since then?

    Suppose Dawkins were to prove that science has been marginal in majority-Muslim areas for the past 1,000 years. What benefit would accrue to the pro-skeptical, atheist movement from this proof? Would we know to ignore all statements from Muslims going forward? Of course not.

    It is strange to me that Dawkins chooses to make these apparently bigoted statements publicly. His usual defense, “I’m just making observations, aren’t I free to do that?” seems insufficient to me. He’s a key node in a social movement. As a result of this relationship, there is an inescapably political and social character to his statements. Does he not understand this reality? Or does he understand it, and choose to maneuver skeptics into an anti-Muslim, and therefore pro-warfare, direction?

  19. atheist says

    Dawkins’ defenses about Muslims not being a race, and about races being socially-constructed concepts or human “clades”, are of course totally irrelevant to the substance of the criticism against him. These criticisms are unconnected to biology as such. They are social, political and moral in nature.

  20. Sili says

    What’s the name for that fallacy in which one thinks that being an undisputed expert in one area makes one an expert in all? Can we re-name it after Dawkins?

    Consultant’s Arrogance.

  21. thesandiseattle says

    @ martha & @ sili
    I think its actually the Argument from Authority. Either one however maybe could be renamed the Dawkins Delusion. (of course there is a book by that name already.)

  22. Dunc says

    Ah, the good old “your criticism is invalid because I don’t think you’re using precisely the correct term for my specific form of bigotry” defence… Always so convincing.

    “Islam isn’t a race” is the new “I’m not racist but…”

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