In Defense of Richard Dawkins - the scientist who changed my life.

For many biology students, Richard Dawkins was very influential when deciding which science to study. In one of my first lectures at university, the professor referenced Dawkin’s pioneering work the selfish gene, and asked how many people had read it. Of course >90% of the audience put their hands up. The professor smirked and said, “There isn’t a biology student in the country who would admit to not reading this book”. In midst of his insensitivity, what can be forgotten about Dawkins is that he was a very good scientist, with ground-breaking ideas about evolutionary biology.

Richard Dawkins at the Edinburgh international book festival in Edinburgh in August this year. Photograph: Murdo Macleod

Of course, lots of brilliant scientists make valuable contributions to the field with no real recognition at all. However, Dawkins is different, atleast to me. When I was an aimless sixth former, I came across his work, and the poetry of his writing convinced me to pursue a career in the sciences. As an undergrad, I have now contributed towards two research papers in genetics and published a speculative review essay on the subject of mitochondrial genetics. He has influenced my life in a profound way.

Unfortunately it is getting harder to cling to this idea of him as a brilliant thinker. As a feminist, it is very disappointing when he begins advising women over twitter to abort their disabled babies , or makes a sexist blog in the guise of his beloved ‘logic and reasoning’ . It honestly is the biggest face-palm moment when he tells followers that ‘Bin laden has won’ because airport security had taken his jar of honey, and subsequently uses his media platforms to rage about it. It’s not just embarrassing, it is damaging, because this is the guy who single-handedly caused ‘a silent and almost immediate revolution in biology’, and he should know better. But he doesn’t, and it is disgusting.

Is it right to let his own bigotry stand in the way of his science? Parallels can be drawn with other famous men, such as Woody Allen and footballer Ched Evans. The sexual-abuse allegations associated with these men have impacted heavily on their professional work . One stance is that it is abhorrent to award Allen any awards or appreciate his work, or allow unapologetic Ched to resume his old career. Others think that Allen can be differentiated from his work, and Evans should be given a clean slate once he has served his sentence. What stance should be taken with Dawkins for his xenophobic, sexist and ignorant outbursts? Should we silence his scientific output because he is (among other things) a child-abuse apologist?

Combined with the Watson Nobel prize fiascal and Tim Hunt’s comments, the past few years have not been good for science’s reputation. There is a certain push in STEM research at the moment, where scientists know it is important to communicate their ideas but face problems with media representation, and its not made any better by Dawkins. Part of the problem is how the nature of ‘science’ itself is interpreted to be.

Science is different from other forms of output, such as poetry, film or entertainment. In theory atleast, it is characterised by being objective. Ideally it is intended to be a body of pure evidence and facts. Dawkins has spent years of his life dedicated to advancing this knowledge, and has actually impacted his field tremendously. Changing a paradigm is difficult, but he did it. And I don’t think that should be ignored.

So personally, if he releases more books about the pretentious heroic triumphs of his career or something else along the lines of ‘why people who believe in god are probably worse than paedophiles’, I won’t be buying it. But if one day, my copy of the selfish gene gets lost on the train or borrowed-but-not-really by a friend, I might go to Waterstones and buy another. Because it might be embarrassing to admit it now, but Dawkins was pretty good at what he did. It is troubling when the realisation comes that the most respected scientists in the world have unacceptable views. Luckily, the defining thing about science should be that it doesn’t matter who you are, if you can prove something then your contribution is valid.