Dawkins: Darwin’s Pit Bull by James G. Coors (October 2001)

October 2001

By James G. Coors

James Coors delivered Prof. Dawkins’ “Time to Stand Up” speech on behalf of Prof. Dawkins on Sept. 22, 2001, at the twenty-fourth annual national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Madison, Wisconsin.

Before reading Professor Richard Dawkins’ piece for the convention, I thought it appropriate to add some perspective to Professor Dawkins’ many contributions. To do this, I would like to go back to 1858, the year before Darwin published the Origin of Species.

In a letter to a friend, the botanist Joseph Hooker, Darwin playfully complained about the coming turmoil that would undoubtedly accompany his upcoming manuscript, “What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature.”

While the mood of the letter may have been jocular, there is no doubt that Darwin was enormously concerned about the philosophical upheaval the Origin would create. He was, in fact, the Devil’s Chaplain, and his studies showed that the forces driving evolution were those of nature alone. Natural selection is clumsy, wasteful, blundering, and cruel, and many evolutionary changes are due to nothing other than random chance.

Darwin knew that his scientific colleagues would accept these unsettling ideas only if accompanied by vast amounts of supporting data, which he spent the rest of career collecting. By the time of his death, he had convinced all but a small minority of his scientific colleagues.

Others, however, realized that the Darwinian revolution needed to be taken to the streets rather than be sequestered to the halls of academia. The implications about humankind’s place in nature are so profound that all people should understand what this thing called evolution is all about. One of the most prominent to take on this task was Thomas Henry Huxley, a naturalist and a close friend of Darwin’s. Huxley was particularly passionate in his advocacy of Darwinism, and, as a result, he eventually became known as “Darwin’s bulldog.” Huxley’s famous debate with Archbishop Samuel (“Soapy Sam”) Wilberforce in 1860 is a great example of the vigor of Huxley’s convictions and debating skills. In the heat of the battle, Wilberforce asked whether Huxley was descended from an ape on his grandmother’s or his grandfather’s side. Huxley is said to have responded: “I would rather be the offspring of two apes than be a man afraid to face the truth.” By all accounts, Huxley trounced Wilberforce, and continued his career in like fashion.

The Darwinian revolution has continued, but only in fits and starts, particularly in the U.S. Fortunately, Professor Dawkins has taken up Huxley’s mantle as “Darwin’s bulldog.” His position as Charles Simionyi Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and his authorship of The Blind Watchmaker, The Selfish Gene, Climbing Mount Improbable, and other works amply show that he is the modern-day Huxley we so desperately need. He has fearlessly described religion as a virus infecting our collective brain, and he truly enjoys tweaking current sensitivities about all things sacred.

In the Guardian of 2/6/99 he was quoted as saying, “I’m like a pit bull terrier being released into the ring, as a spectator sport, to attack religious people . . . I’ve done it once or twice.” So Professor Dawkins is now affectionately known as “Darwin’s pit bull.” While he can’t be here in person, we are still very fortunate that he has prepared a strong and spirited manuscript for our benefit.

James G. Coors is Professor of Agronomy and a member of the Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He teaches courses on selection theory and the processes involved with the domestication of crop plants. He also conducts a breeding program to develop new varieties of corn. He is a Life Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

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