Review of Richard Dawkins’ “A Devil’s Chaplain”

Review of Richard Dawkins’ “A Devil’s Chaplain”

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For Juliet: Review of A Devil’s Chaplain by Richard Dawkins (2003), NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Whether in short essays or book reviews, Dawkins is at his best when he attacks, defends, or counterattacks. A Devil’s Chaplain shows this fencing master to be fit, agile, and combative nearly 30 years after The Selfish Gene. He thrusts and parries in five sets, each set consists of 4-8 essays, written between 1991 and 2003, and a final essay in regard to religion vs. science, written on behalf of his daughter, Juliet. You will find, however, not only brilliance and precision but also a fundamental contradiction within Dawkins’s view of human will.

The Chaplain’s Backbone

Dawkins first strongly endorses the unity of life, undresses postmodernists (not an inspiring sight!) and gives tribute to Frederick William Sanderson (1857-1922) , a master teacher, one who catalyzed not ritual but active discovery by his young charges at Oundle School in the U.K. Hooray for all this great stuff! Dawkins next demonstrates the subtle but irresistible force of natural selection but, paradoxically, avers that humans escape genetic interests. Third, “The Infected Mind” tells us one more time about ideas that imitate viruses and move from carrier to carrier. (Dawkins, however, tells us little about the foundations for such processes. Some of the network people can supply structure beneath his constructions. Especially see Watts, 2004; Barabasi, 2002; Strogatz, 2003; and Brody, 2004.) Fourth, he gives us memorial tributes to Douglas Adams, W. D. Hamilton, and John Diamond. (This last one also skewers homeopathy!) His sixth and near-final section pivots around our African heritage. (I treasure one image on p. 235: “The engagingly filthy town of Laum…Skeletal cats sleep in patches of sun. Black-veiled women like crows walk obsequiously past men seated on doorsteps, talking the heat and the flies away.” These few lines reserve Dawkins a spot in Westminster next not to Darwin but to Eliot!)

Neodarwinism and Evo-Devo: About Section Five

There is a quarrelsome, proud tribe known as “neodarwinians” who believe that evolution moves in small steps, arises when natural selection acts on small random mutations, and that most of human nature was crafted during a recent ice age, the Pleistocene, when individuals in small groups reproduced or died in relation to their success in hierarchies, trade, and cooperation. Evolution, like constipation, must be slow, painful, inconvenient, and unpredictable, genes matter more than organisms, human society was the driver for human intelligence, and neodarwinism is the only light under the basket.

Their story seems plausible except that we also find startling similarities between human conduct and what we see in birds. Implication: much of our social prowess was crafted long before we stood upright and we carried out of the Pleistocene the baggage that we carried into it! Thus, a group in developmental biology believes in master plans that support infinite arrays of small differences (Gerhart & Kirschner, 1998; Kirschner & Gerhart, 1998; Gould, 2002) and is open to evolution’s sometimes moving in rapid steps or larger steps (as when entire genes and chromosomes are duplicated, when there is change in a transcription gene, or when severe stress disrupts normal development and leads to a “throwback” in one segment [Raff, 1996]. Concept: we humans have segments and each of our segments responds to its own selective pressures!) The developmentalists often endorse the concept that living creatures convert physical settings into environments and that an occupant and its nest represent a construction. Human intelligence drives the development of human societies.

Dawkins usually aligns with the neodarwinians and Gould with the evolutionary-developmental group: the mutual acrimony between groups sometimes achieved national attention (As when Gould and camp used a NY Times ad to roast neodarwinian E.O. Wilson on a Marxist spit) but usually remained a very local disturbance, full of sound and fury in its teacup.

Dawkins gives us five essays that review Gould’s thinking. The first two recognize substantial agreements with Gould, the next two are more hostile as Dawkins becomes a sheepdog for neodarwinism and bites off clumps of Gould’s fur. I’m unsure as to motives: Dawkins may have attacked Gould or may have been simply defending himself. The final essay in this section is a postmortem tribute to Gould and their alliance against creationism. Symbiosis?: first greet, next resist, and then honor the dead… Whatever Gods May Be, Juliet is the Sun…

In his final essay, Dawkins considers religion to be an imposed environment warns his daughter against the mental fondling that she might experience from theists. A different view of religion, however, accepts it as a self-chosen environment for half of its participants.

Tools change with invention or discovery, beliefs change with generations. First, life evolves in moderate constancy: not too much or too little. (See Kauffman, 1995, on phase transitions; also, Brody, 2002.) It is no surprise that genes, languages, customs, cultures, and religions tend to be conservative and buffer the impressive genetic variability that we find in humans. At each of these levels, big steps are polished in small amounts, we keep what worked last week, and imams now signal old rituals with new technology.

Second, coming together can be seen as a flexible, deeply ancient adaptation that supplies not only clumps of bacteria but also metazoans with protection, mates, food, reassurance, and the resources and signals for exploration and migration. For schools, swarms, flocks, herds, or congregations in churches or malls, the outcomes are matched to the evolved nature of the participants, whether for fish, bees, birds, cattle, or peoples. Even plants and Democrats cluster for the same advantages.

Martin and others (1986), however, found a significant genetic loading for “religiosity” but not for religion. That is, communicating with unseen beings may be more inherited but our rituals and whether we practice them on a Saturday or Sunday is very much a function of our rearing. Juliet will define her own religious impulse as a function of genes that she shares with her mother or with her father. If she becomes a theist, Dawkins will blame her schooling; if she does not, then he will credit his lectures but in neither case will he recognize that some of her outcomes were favored at the moment of her conception! She, like every living creature, will seek or manufacture settings that are consistent with her nature and as every parent discovers, Dawkins will find that his lectures may contribute, at most, 2-10% of the variance in her long term outcomes.


Science and religion both arose from human nature and, therefore, can be not only antithetical but also quite similar. Science, like religion, seeks Big Truth rather than clusters of local truths and both defend their methods whatever their accompanying tools and explanations: we scientists, however, discover initial conditions and procedures and, thereby, weave a fabric of beliefs that is subject to continuous revision through our five senses and a process of systematic replication. In contests between fingertips and ideologies, scientists choose fingertips for the same reasons that self-arranged, unique environments eventually defeat imposed ones.

Within science, changes in belief and tradition are to be sought if they better align circumstances with instinctive human needs: again, for protection, mates, food, reassurance, and the resources and signals for exploration and migration. Science, more than religion, is a selective, exploratory organization like that we find in cells, immune systems, brains, or the termites that build cathedrals 30 feet high, complete with chambers and air conditioning. Biochemist or bee, the “architect above” is really an “architect within,” even if, for genetic reasons, you must believe that a god inserted it.

Ironically, Gould and Lewontin … Lewontin is a geneticist of the first rank… strenuously believe that humans escape their genes; so does Dawkins who often affirms the priority of genes over organisms! So did Thom Huxley! That is, evolved human minds make choices that are not moored to biological advantage. Both camps assert there to be one great family of life wherein every living species has the same temporal seniority but they also invent a schism between birds and bipedal characters in straw hats! Bah! I think they find their own faces in too many mirrors. The assertion of a disinterested free will is neither more nor less supported by coat hook or platform than assertions of a living deity. This confusion will be reconciled not by the elders in this generation but by the von Humbolts, Darwins, Kirks, and Spocks in the next.

Dawkins gave us The Selfish Gene in 1976 and maintained an incredible energy and focus for 332 pages. His next books have been progressively more labored, perhaps in relation to changes in his levels of dopamine and testosterone or because of the same processes that we find in evolution: big stuff leads to smaller stuff as environments and occupants, such as Dawkins and his audiences, each stabilize the other. Complex, micro-evolved, very stable ecosystems result. (So do tests of reader persistence such as An Ancestor’s Tale!) Per Bak (1996, cited in Kauffman, 2000) noticed these patterns in nature as did Albert Barabasi (2002) when he told us about power laws in emergent organizations. A Devil’s Chaplain, however, reverses this course but as a collection of brief essays that match impatient readers to a writer who shares that quirk. Buy, read, and get infected by, if you’re vulnerable, A Devil’s Chaplain!


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Barabasi, A-L (2002) Linked: The New Science of Networks. NY: Perseus.

Brody, J., (2002) From Physics and Evolutionary Neuroscience to Psychotherapy: Phase Transitions and Adaptations, Diagnosis and Treatment. In G. Cory & R. Gardner (Eds.) The Evolutionary Neuroethology of Paul MacLean: Convergences & Frontiers, Praeger-Greenwood, pp. 231-259.

Brody, J. (2004) Bipolar disorder: self-interested networks, cycling, and their management. In M. Brown (Ed.) Progress in Bipolar Disorder Research. Hauppage, NY: Nova Science Biomedical Series.

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Dawkins, R. (2004) The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution. NY: Houghton Mifflin.

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Gould, S. (2002) The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Belknap.

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Lewontin, R. (2000) Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, Environment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Raff, Rudolf (1996) The Shape of Life. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Strogatz, S. (2003) Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order. NY: Hyperion.

Watts, D. (2004) Small Worlds: The Dynamics of Networks between Order and Randomness. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.