Wow. The NY Times piece about my book has inflamed some sensitive nerves out there. Jerry Coyne, a distinguished evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, has taken issue with part of the article, a so-called “drive-by diss” of Richard Dawkins (the Dawkins Foundation site has reposted Coyne’s attack). Further, Coyne argues that this diss was a craven attempt to gain readers. He writes:
What galls me is the increasing desire of people to gain credibility by a drive-by snipe at Dawkins’s materialism and atheism. There’s no need for that here, and no need to mention the man. Haskell is going for readership, pure and simple, and wants to get it by criticizing a well known atheist.
This saddens me and, to be honest, seems uncalled for. Coyne says that he has not read the book, so I would expect maybe just a touch more humility in his questioning of my ideas and perhaps the civility not to impute my motives. He also sticks his neck out and offers a critique of my writing (“breathless lubrications”) without having set eyes on the book. I’m disappointed that an honest and non-aggressive expression of a difference of opinion about a difficult philosophical question — the nature of the universe — should be greeted with such a vigorous and contemptuous slap-down.
For the record: Dawkins’ work is one the reasons I got into biology in the first place. But, yes, I personally stop short of the kind of full-blooded philosophical certainty that Dawkins has used in his writing. All this is evident in my writing and in the many interviews I’ve given lately. But none of this data was used, nor did Coyne stop to ask what I meant.
Drive-by diss, indeed.
[Correction: the first draft had an errant “a” added in the last paragraph which I have now removed.
Additions: For those who do not want to wade through the entire comments section, I have cut-and-pasted Jerry Coyne’s follow-up and my further comments below.
Coyne: I’m curious, though. Did you make that statement about Dawkins or not? Jerry Coyne
Thanks for connecting here. I sure did say that I *suspect* that the universe (multiverse?) may consist of more than atoms re-arranging themselves. (If inherent value and “rights” exist, as you say in your post, then you’ve perhaps agreed — neither of those are made of atoms and both are pretty hard to pin down.) I also said that I do not buy the full Dawkins position on atheism. To suggest that this was an attempt to get readers is absurd — I had a multi-hour conversation with Jim Gorman about the book and biology, so of course we talked about the big questions in evolution and the world of ideas. Dawkins has outlined MANY of those big ideas and so I don’t think it is unreasonable for me to say that I disagree with him on some of them. Surely we’re allowed to have disagreements without getting slammed for being desperate book-sellers, bad writers, etc, etc. Especially when those disagreements are about things with such a history of being quite difficult.
I’d be happy to send a copy of the book. It is, in part, a book-long celebration of what it means to look at the world through evolutionary lens. You might like it. :)
Again, thanks for connecting here. I admire your work and have done for many years.
Haskell: Oh, I just saw the post on your website. Simple answer: no I did not DISS anyone. To diss is, as I understand it, to disrespect someone, treat them rudely.
Haskell (after several days of comments by others):
Thank you to everyone who has contributed comments here.
A few brief thoughts from my end of things:
1. Comment about atoms. Ethical claims (about species extinction, human rights, etc) are not, to my knowledge, fully derivable from the laws of physics, chemistry, or biology. Yet I “deeply suspect” some ethical claims reflect more than the passing whims of nervous systems and might, therefore, have some kind of objective nature. What that nature is, I do not know, but it seems unlikely to be made out of atoms. I’m the first to admit that the suspicions that I harbor might just be feelings in an evolved brain and nothing more. But perhaps not.
2. For those who want a single number on the Dawkins probability dial, I’ll have to disappoint you. The answer to the question depends on what you mean by “God”. If the god that you’re imagining presupposes a fundamental ontological division between humans and other creatures, then the needle surges up, red-lining the dial. But if by “god” you mean the idea that ethical statements might reflect some kind of objective reality in the universe, the needle does not know what to do, but is inclined to remain low, listening.
3. Dawkins’ long-standing and vigorously argued positions on religion are well known and in many ways they define the way in which the field of biology is seen by non-biologists, especially in the area of biology’s relationship with religion. As my book’s Preface makes abundantly clear, I used an idea taken directly from religious traditions – the potential insights offered by contemplative practice, a practice that has an important role in my life – and applied it to observation of the ecology of a forest. Mine is a markedly different attitude toward the biology-religion relationship than has been advocated by Dawkins. So I mentioned him briefly in a multi-hour interview, indicating that I did not agree with some of his positions and statements. For those who don’t want to read the book, but want to assess my approach, the reviews of the book (http://theforestunseen.com/reviews/) do a good job of outlining my basic stance towards the use of contemplative practice in the context of scientific observation and reflection.]