The Dawkins ennui


Richard Dawkins got a major fluffing from The Times this weekend, and I don’t care enough to try to get around the paywall. Sorry. We all know what kind of conservative BS he’s going to say, and the worst of it (I hope — if there’s worse in the article, I don’t want to know about it) is right there up front in the blurb, and in the title, even.

Richard Dawkins: ‘Race is a spectrum. Sex is pretty damn binary’

This doesn’t even make sense. Pretty damn binary — so he’s adding vague qualifiers to something he wants to assert is only one thing or another. Everything is black and white, as long as those shades of gray get ignored, I guess. Let’s also ignore the fact that there is a wide spectrum within each sex, with femaleness and maleness having huge individual variation, with overlap. These are forced categories. You’ve decided that, by definition, there are only two possibilities allowed, therefore everyone must be wedged into one or the other, and you look with horror on the boundary conditions that show your classification scheme is inadequate.

What does he think should be done with individuals who are in the pretty part of his damn binary? Shall we just ignore them, pretend they don’t exist, maybe torture them into non-existence so they don’t clutter up your boundaries?

Good grief, he’s an evolutionary biologist. Does he also insist that species are pretty damn binary, you’re either a member of one or not, and there are no individuals who fall into any kind of hybrid state? Embrace the blurriness of the boundary conditions. That’s where all the interesting stuff happens.

I am privileged to see the opening paragraphs of the article. I don’t need more.

There’s not much that frightens Richard Dawkins. He shrugs off his regular hate mail from angry evangelicals, occasionally taking to YouTube to read it aloud. He has never backed down from his withering criticisms of Islamic fundamentalism, despite the potential for blowback. He’s happy to pick intellectual fights with eminent fellow scientists and has even been known to find fault (hard to imagine, I realise) with the odd journalist or two.

But Dawkins tells me there are two things he does fear: one is being cancelled by the left. The other is hang-gliding. I think he’s probably in more danger from the former.

There is so much hand-wringing on the right about getting “cancelled”, whatever that means. It seems to be a rather ineffectual state in which some people stop treating you as a demi-god and are more willing to criticize what you say and do, and it’s only a threat to people who consider themselves deserving of uncritical adulation.

By that definition, sorry, Richard. You were cancelled long ago, as were we all. If not by one group, by another (like, say, the American Humanists). Get used to it.

By the way, this photo was embarrassing.

I will charitably assume that it was the newspaper’s idea to put him into a christ-like pose, but really, Richard, you can say no. Tamp down that ego a little bit and just realize that an occasional fit of humility will serve you better nowadays.

Comments

  1. invivoMark says

    Exactly how is race a spectrum? A spectrum, to my understanding, is something with a value at one end, a value at the other end, and a linear (or mostly linear) progression between the two extremes.

    So which races are the extremes? And how does the rest of humanity line up along that?

    Far as I’m concerned that’s some classic scientific racism just begging to have Africans placed on the opposite end as white Europeans.

    I’m not convinced that Dawkins intended that nasty little implication. It’s probably a result of sloppy thinking – just like everything else he has said in the last 20+ years.

    Race is most definitely not a spectrum.

  2. oldmanxman says

    Odd, I saw it more Icarus than Jesus – maybe something from Leonardo that looked stylish but wouldn’t work

  3. birgerjohansson says

    This is definitely referring to a sketch by Lionardo.
    BTW I recently learned the Californian condor has the ability to reproduce asexually, so reality is much more complex than what people like binary Richard thinks. As for ambiguity in gender, I recall an example but not the name of the species – I will look it up and get back.

  4. sarah00 says

    According to Pink News Dawkins said,

    If you define a woman as a human with an XX karyotype, then she’s not a woman. If you define a woman as someone who identifies as a woman, feels they are a woman and has maybe had an operation, then by that definition she is a woman. From a scientific point of view, she’s not a woman. From a personal point of view, she is.

    I don’t know my karyotype. I doubt many people do. We don’t look at people’s genetics and use them as a classification system, we look at how people present to the world. The problems that women face are not due to the fact we lack a Y chromosome, they are because women are seen as less than men. If you present as a woman then you experience those problems to a greater or lesser extent based on your personal circumstances. Trans women face those same problems because they are women, and face additional problems because they are trans.

    This need to use science to dismiss people is something I am increasingly frustrated by. Science is being wielded as a weapon to harm people when it should be a tool to help. If your understanding of science requires you to ignore the evidence in front of your eyes the solution isn’t to close your eyes but reconsider your understanding.

  5. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re spectrums @1:
    I think a color-wheel counts as a spectrum. I guess.
    re #3″
    I agree, definitely looks like DaVinci’s design of a device for human powered flight.
    re OP:
    damn it. even throwing out all the trans issues, I’ve heard even chromosomal definition of sex has exceptions. Even Biology disagrees with “biologist” Dawkins, the TERF.

  6. imback says

    There’s a word for kind of binary or binary-ish and that’s bimodal. And we can be bimodal without being ordered by a single parameter. Also a spectrum need not necessarily ordered by a single parameter either; spectrum in Latin just means appearance or apparition.

  7. raven says

    By the way, this photo was embarrassing.

    Yeah, it doesn’t work very well.
    What point it is making is confused and uclear.

    Those wings could be angel wings, bat wings, or as suggested above, something from Leanardo da Vinci.
    Dawkins could have just said no and opted for being himself.

  8. says

    sarah00:
    This need to use science to dismiss people is something I am increasingly frustrated by. Science is being wielded as a weapon to harm people when it should be a tool to help.

    For a time in the late 19th century, that’s pretty much all science was – at least “popular science”. Darwin’s great work was immediately coopted by racists and classists to create pseudoscience resulting in justification of racism, involuntary sterilization, etc. I don’t think it’s fair to blame science – the blame lies with the racists, creationists, and class submissives who immediately latched onto new theories to justify their existing beliefs. They are still at it and they probably will never stop.

  9. birgerjohansson says

    “Justify their existing beliefs”

    -Before WWI some bellend claimed the best race was the Germans, and the best Germans were the aristocratic lineage of Hohenzollern!

  10. christoph says

    The photo reminds me of the sketch Hannibal Lecter drew of Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs.

  11. kome says

    It’s mildly ironic that Dawkins is tacitly endorsing the creationist’s essentliasm critique of evolution in his staunch proclamation of what both race and sex are, despite him being an expert in neither construct.

  12. davidc1 says

    I suspect he is suffering from some sort of Dementia ,not going to join in the mocking .
    Either that ,or he is bored to death in his retirement ,and he is saying things just to wind
    people up .
    I hope it is the latter.

  13. William George says

    We should probably do what they did in 28 Days Later and quarantine TERF Island until the sickness burns itself out.

  14. microraptor says

    What would canceling Dawkens even loo like? He’s already old, he’s already well off. I suppose some of his awards could theoretically be revoked? But what would that actually mean for him? Getting tons of interviews from right-wing media outlets who want to ask him about how he’s not allowed to talk anymore.

  15. Susan Montgomery says

    @16. If he’s “canceled” then he can think he’s relevant again. It’s like the celebrity that deliberately gets arrested to get their name in the press.

    Best just to ignore him.

  16. lumipuna says

    By the way, this photo was embarrassing.

    “I saw Dawkins dressed as an elm seed at the biology department’s Halloween party”

    “Now that’s a hang-gliding fruit”

  17. petesh says

    On the photo: Dawkins is clearly batty. Or possibly self-defining as a Roman-era martyr, but that seems a tad unlikely.

  18. says

    If you define a woman as a human with an XX karyotype, then she’s not a woman. If you define a woman as someone who identifies as a woman, feels they are a woman and has maybe had an operation, then by that definition she is a woman. From a scientific point of view, she’s not a woman. From a personal point of view, she is.

    Gender and gender identity, Mr. Dawkins; have you heard of them? Because this sure sounds like he hasn’t.

    This is Hovind-level ignorance / deliberate misframing being offered by Dawkins, and it presents a perfect picture of the problems inherent in “atheism is just about not believing in gods” trivialism. Without a generally applicable philosophy of reasoning underlying the belief that gods don’t exist and clear claims of prior assumptions, atheism has no more merit as a belief than does creationism.

    Dawkins has no fundamental epistemological disagreement with creationists; rather, he simply embraces a different set of presumptions and applies creationist “reasoning” to them whenever it’s convenient to do so. He’s a lazy thinker who never makes an argument based in reason when a circular argument based on unstated presumptions or appeal to emotion / ignorance will get him to the same result. Dawkins is a second-rate high school debate club member, not an intellect of any weight. He can be trolled, mocked, denigrated, and laughed at, but he cannot be reasoned with.

  19. voidhawk says

    There is no possible definition of ‘sex’ which could possibly include everyone neatly into two distinct camps, from presentation to genitalia, from chromosomes, to endocrinology. As a biologist, he [i]knows[/i] this.

  20. davidc1 says

    Over at the friendly atheist ,the bloke who runs it says the photo might be something to do with Dawkins new book ,”Flights of Fancy ” .
    And one of the comments left suggested he started going loopy right after his stroke .

  21. says

    This insistence that only people with XX are women in the “scientific” sense really, really pisses me off, especially from a biologist.

    @slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) #5

    I’ve heard even chromosomal definition of sex has exceptions.

    You heard correctly. There are at least seven viable sex-chromosome combinations:
    XX, XXX, X, XY, XXY, XYY, XXYY
    Many people having some of these atypical combinations are only found out due to fertility issues. Many are never found out and live their lives completely normally, identifying as one gender or another.
    Then there are chimeras, when two opposite-sex embryos fuse into one person who then has about half of their cells has XX and half has XY karyotype.
    And that is just karyotype, that is the simple part. The phenotypes are much more varied with a lot of overlap on all characteristics.
    Dawkins is a biologist, he most definitively knows this. He is just being an asshole.

  22. garnetstar says

    sarah @4 and Charly @23, yes. Meaning, Dawkins doesn’t know his own karyotype. Yet he presumes to rule people into his gender binary based on that.

    Trans people constitute about 1% of the population, it is said (I hope some more firm number will be emerging soon). So, if he’s dismissing 1% as “the pretty damn” part, that’s an enormous percentage to be excluding. That is not an acceptable amount to dismiss as not dispositive of any theory, in any science.

    Personally, I think that we’re going to find, as we did with gay people, that trans people consitute about the same percentage of the population across all cultures. Pointing to a definite biological basis or influence on trans and NB genders, which is an important part of the spectrum and disproves a biological binary.

  23. microraptor says

    @17: My point was that even if Dawkins somehow got “canceled”, it’s not like it would actually cause any negative consequences for him.

  24. says

    An article published about Dawkins in a GLOBAL NEWSPAPER says Dawkins is afraid of being silenced? Any sign of anyone trying to suppress or silence the Times?

    That alone is a good reason not to bother with the rest of it. {insert “I’ve Been Silenced!” cartoon here}

  25. says

    “If you define a woman as a human with an XX karyotype”

    Why would we do something stupid like that? By that definition, we don’t know whether Darwin or Mendel were women … we can only say that they were probably men.

    Dawkins says that’s the “scientific” definition of “woman”. He’s wrong–“woman” is not a scientific term. And if it were–so what? The context is its use in everyday speech, not in research papers.

    Dawkins has embraced intellectual dishonesty … it’s sad.

  26. says

    “I think a color-wheel counts as a spectrum. I guess. ”

    This doesn’t help. In his dotage, Dawkins pretends that he’s never heard of race being a social construct, or of the one drop rule. Race isn’t a spectrum because it isn’t an empirical fact. A dispute about whether Barack Obama is Black or half black cannot be resolved by science.

  27. PaulBC says

    Leonardo? Satan? Batman? Did he draw those wings all by himself? (Asymmetric and not in an artistic way.)

    Let’s also ignore the fact that there is a wide spectrum within each sex, with femaleness and maleness having huge individual variation, with overlap.

    Indeed, the nerd-to-jock spectrum is pretty wide even within a category defined as narrowly as cis hetero male. And even that is the subject of bullying. Why not just accept people for who they say they are?

  28. PaulBC says

    Jim Balter@29

    A dispute about whether Barack Obama is Black or half black cannot be resolved by science.

    “Half” is not very meaningful, but in Barack Obama’s case, that he’s Black is resolved by the fact that he self-identifies and is embraced by that community for the most part. So the matter is resolved socially rather than scientifically or definitionally. Michelle Obama has a traditional American Black heritage (and unsurprisingly white ancestors) so he’s also part of that community by marriage.

  29. John Morales says

    PaulBC, beware cheap slogans.

    Why not just accept people for who they say they are?

    Because people lie.

    (What, you accept that Trump is “A Very Stable Genius”?)

  30. says

    “that he’s Black is resolved by the fact that he self-identifies and is embraced by that community for the most part”

    Of course. Why are you telling me that? Is it because you made no attempt to understand my point?

  31. PaulBC says

    John Morales@34 I accept people’s self-identification as the default. If their behavior contradicts it, I may reassess.

    Also, there’s a subtle difference, though I admit I did not state it. Trump is making a claim of personal merit rather than self-identifying as a member of a group. So I have more reason to be skeptical because of his incentive to lie. If a random person told me “I’m a cream cheese lover. I just love me some cream cheese. On bagels, on fries, by the spoonful. You name it.” I would take their word for it as my working hypothesis. (I might even if that person was Trump, though I admit I’d be unlikely to trust almost anything he says).

    If I later saw them pretending to take cream cheese and then spitting it into their napkin or feeding it to a dog under the table, I might change my mind. What I wouldn’t do is pick a fight with them right out of the gate about their cream cheese creds. If they told me that, why wouldn’t they mean it?

  32. PaulBC says

    Jim Balter@35

    Of course. Why are you telling me that? Is it because you made no attempt to understand my point?

    Am I allowed to concur with your point and restate it?

  33. says

    “Am I allowed to concur with your point and restate it?”

    If only that’s what you had done. Especially your comment ““Half” is not very meaningful” shows that you made no attempt to get my point … Obama had a Black father and a white mother so, in Dawkins’ model of race as a biological spectrum, Obama is half black.

  34. says

    “… rather than self-identifying as a member of a group. So I have more reason to be skeptical because of his incentive to lie. ”

    It’s WAY more complicated than that, as the Rachel Dolezal case illustrates. It’s nonsense to say that she “lied” about her race, but it’s not nonsense to say that she misrepresented herself, even though she genuinely saw herself as Black.

  35. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    @40: The problem is that Dolezal’s history makes it fairly clear that it was always a grift. And, no, Dolezal doesn’t make race not a spectrum. I mean, talking about it with any kind of reality at all outside of the actual ethnic experience it really entails is always going to be misleading, but the fact that someone can say that the sun is green doesn’t make the color spectrum disappear. Dolezal made a disingenuous claim. Continuum or not.

  36. says

    “The problem is that Dolezal’s history makes it fairly clear that it was always a grift. ”

    No, it doesn’t,. This claim can only come from someone who is dishonest or uninformed.

    “And, no, Dolezal doesn’t make race not a spectrum.”

    I didn’t say anything of the sort … you have a severe reading comprehension problem.

  37. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    @42: Dude, she made a plea deal for welfare fraud. She lied about her income. Putting aside that it is not possible for someone of her intelligence and her background to have sincerely thought of herself as black unless she was suffering from some severe mental illness, we know she separately runs grifts. She is a con artist.

    So, for example, you say Obama is half black by Dawkins’ perspective, as if that’s a reductio. And he is! The idea of “one drop rules” are, as you obviously know, straightforwardly about power… but Obama’s experience includes both white and black cultural experience. Ditto Tiger Woods: He really does have many ethno-cultural influences. And, of course, insofar as there’s any regionally-linked genetic predispositions at all to note, both Obama and Woods would have genetic influences from different (however porously connected) communities. Yes, institutional racism would diminish every person of mixed-race heritage to only their marginalized family component… but even in our fucked up social reality, that’s not the only topic!

  38. says

    “And he is!”

    No, he isn’t.

    “Obama’s experience includes both white and black cultural experience.”

    So what? So does mine.

    “Yes, institutional racism would diminish every person of mixed-race heritage to only their marginalized family component…”

    Ah, so Obama’s identity as a Black man is a diminished version of who he really is (as determined by “regionally-linked genetic predispositions” and “genetic influences”), and for some reason he took on this diminished identity because it’s marginalized.

    Sorry, but I don’t share your very fucked up understanding of racial identity.

  39. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    Yes, he is. And I am going to guess you were not raised as a black (in fact first-generation African) man by a white woman. You living in a society where black people exist isn’t the same thing. And you know who agrees with me? Fucking Barack Obama. He’s talked repeatedly about both sides of his heritage and what they meant.

    You say, “Ah, so Obama’s identity as a Black man is a diminished version of who he really is (as determined by “regionally-linked genetic predispositions” and “genetic influences”), and for some reason he took on this diminished identity because it’s marginalized”.

    Uhhhhh, what? I centered blackness explicitly in culture and upbringing. Hey, remember that reading comprehension zing? May want to try getting the beam out of your eye, champ. And while you’re at it, either learn the difference between ascribed vs achieved status or learn how to be clear in using the difference.

    It seems like you are demonstrating that you’re not very rigorous about separating race-as-social-construct-defined-by-oppression, race-as-us-trying-to-react-to that-fucked-up-history, race-as-what-is-really-ethnicity (which is the actual underlying reality), and broader national culture that includes multi-ethnic influence.

  40. says

    PZ:

    Good grief, he’s an evolutionary biologist. Does he also insist that species are “pretty damn binary”, you’re either a member of one or not, and there are no individuals who fall into any kind of hybrid state? Embrace the blurriness of the boundary conditions. That’s where all the interesting stuff happens.

    I recently read Why Fish Don’t Exist. It’s a bit self-indulgent and has a few other issues, but an interesting read.

  41. Alan G. Humphrey says

    Dawkins pretty much gets all of that title quote wrong. Many commenters above cover the sex not being binary portion, so I’ll make my comments about his first sentence. Being a member of Homo sapiens sapiens is about as binary as you can get, you are either of the human race or you’re not. Few other species are as remotely related to other species as humans are. We were certainly efficient at culling any near relations that we perceived as competitors, and this may be a significant reason why we try so hard to culturally dominate each other.

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