Saturday, 14 July 2007

Richard Dawkins Replies to David Sloan Wilson

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by Richard Dawkins

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In his Skeptic article entitled "Why Richard Dawkins is Wrong About Religion" (initially published online in eSkeptic, July 4th 2007), David Sloan Wilson writes:

When Dawkins' The God Delusion was published I naturally assumed that he was basing his critique of religion on the scientific study of religion from an evolutionary perspective. I regret to report otherwise.

Why would Wilson 'naturally assume' any such thing? Reasonable, perhaps, to assume that I would pay some attention to the evolution of religion, but why base a critique on an evolutionary perspective, any more than on Assyrian woodwind instruments or the burrowing behaviour of aardvarks? The God Delusion does, as it happens, have a chapter on the evolutionary origins of religion. But to say that this chapter is peripheral to my main critique would be an understatement. When I was asked to prepare an abridgment for the British audio recording, I had to decide which bits of the book were essential, and which bits could, however regretfully, be left out. My first cut, and the only chapter I deleted completely, was the chapter on evolutionary origins. Sad as I was to lose it (I was consoled by the fact that we also recorded an unabridged version for the American market) it seemed to me the least essential chapter to the central theme of the book.

The central theme of the book is the question of whether God exists. I agree that it is also interesting to ask whether religion has some kind of Darwinian survival value. But whatever the answer to that might turn out to be, it will make no difference to the central question of whether God exists. Religious belief might have a positive survival value and God might or might not exist. Religious belief might have a negative survival value and God might or might not exist. Moreover, other important aspects of my critique, dealt with in other chapters of The God Delusion, are also unaffected by religion's possible evolutionary advantages.

As for group selection (either as normally understood or in the idiosyncratic sense of Wilson's private re-definition, about which he has been obsessing for thirty years), The God Delusion devotes a sympathetic page and half to the possibility that something like it might apply to the special case of religion. But a page and a half was all I could spare because I had more interesting matters to talk about, for example the "moth in the candle flame" theory of the origins of religion. I referred my readers to Wilson for a fuller treatment of what he calls group selection, and moved on. I thought it a generous gesture at the time, and I see no reason now to regret my choice to write my own book rather than his.

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