Natural selection: give me Darwin over Dawkins any day

Charles Darwin never patronised his audience but presented his evidence modestly; Richard Dawkins, on the other hand, lacks the patience to let natural history speak for itself

Charles Darwin was not a clever man. Well, clearly he was a very clever man. But he was not self-consciously clever: he never talked down to his readers. His masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, is a modest book. It begins with evidence – and down-to-earth, homely evidence at that. Even though Darwin's encounter with the island species of the Galapagos and other exotic discoveries on his voyage with HMS Beagle was so important to his intellectual evolution he starts his great work with observations about domestic British breeds. Similarly, in The Descent of Man he offers copious anecdotes about his study of primates in London Zoo (he wasn't above teasing the animals).

Darwin is the finest fruit of English empiricism. His modest presentation of evidence contrasts, I am sorry to say, with the rhetorical stridency of Richard Dawkins. Visit the famous atheist's website and you will see two causes being pushed. Dawkins is campaigning with other secular stars against the pope's visit to Britain. Meanwhile he is touring the paperback of his book The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. The trouble with this book is that it lacks Darwin's empirical style. Where the Victorian writer presented masses of evidence, and let his astonishing, earth-shattering theory emerge from common-sense observations of nature, Dawkins lacks the patience, at this point in his career, to let natural history speak for itself. He has become the mirror image of the theological dogmatists he despises.

He just can't separate science from the debate he has got into with religious people. "Debate" is too kind a word. In a debate you are trying to convince your opponents, but the new atheists have closed off the grey area in which, for a long time in the west, science and religion co-existed. In The Greatest Show On Earth, Dawkins tries momentarily to backtrack, pointing out that all educated bishops believe in evolution. But he is soon back to the realm of dogma, asking himself why it took so long to come across the reality of evolution. This is clearly a historical question, although it may not be a good historical question (why did it take so long to discover the iPad? Well, first you had to invent the wheel ...) No sooner does he ask this question than Dawkins replies, in effect – and I am only slightly caricaturing – that it was because people were a bit thick. He offers no intellectual history of how Darwin's big idea was born from centuries of natural science, how the religious Victorians created an intellectual atmosphere in which such a leap in the dark could be contemplated.

Nor does he offer what is surely needed – a blow-by-blow introduction to evolution that starts calmly from the visible evidence all around us. In a telling aside, he is dismissive about the fossil Ida, which he cannot resist telling his readers was massively overhyped. Missing link? You'd have to be an idiot to think that, he grumps ... I am not defending the publicity for this fossil, but it typifies the self-regard of the public atheist that when an accessible, immediate, exciting piece of visual evidence for The Descent of Man enters the mainstream, his reaction is to sneer. He doesn't actually want to persuade, he just wants to be the cleverest kid in the class. Which Darwin never was.

Contributor

Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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