Dawkins on Darwin – Does Richard Have a SuperSense?

I am enjoying Richard Dawkins’ latest TV series, “The Genius of Charles Darwin” currently broadcast on UK’s Channel 4. I am sure it will rally the atheists and rile the religious.

images1Not only is Dawkins celebrating the brilliance of Darwin and the power and elegance of Natural Selection to explain the origins of species, he looks like he is using the series as a platform to batter the believers again. Good luck to him. They are not easily dissuaded by argument or evidence.

However, there was one moment in Monday’s episode that I simply had to comment on. Dawkins went to London’s Natural History Museum that still house some of the original specimens documented and labelled by Darwin.

As he sat down to examine the collection, Dawkin’s said, “”This is a very weird feeling… these are Darwins original specimens!” 

He then picked up one pigeon and described how it differed from another.

“This one has been re-labelled but this one has been written in Darwin’s original hand”

At that point Dawkins held up the label to the camera in a lingering shot that I suppose the producers wanted to evoke a moment of awe and reverence.

One thing is clear. Dawkins is a passionate man and clearly has conviction in his advocacy of atheism and rejection of supernaturalism. But I wonder if he, like many others, feels an emotional connection to others through the objects they once handled in the same way the religious covet a relic?

I hope he does. It would make him seem more human to many.

Thanks Alice for bringing this to my attention.


Filed under Essentialism, Television

12 responses to “Dawkins on Darwin – Does Richard Have a SuperSense?

  1. Gus

    IMHO TV does Dawkins no favours – he comes across as a slightly cross upper class bloke in a dull jacket – which is unfortunate. Whoever directed this series should be, er, extinct.

    I don’t agree with you about the Darwin pigeons scene though. It seems to me undeniably remarkable that one can still examine Darwin’s original specimens, and not unreasonable of Dawkins to say so.

    What would have been unreasonable would be if he had attributed greater scientific (or magical) significance to the Darwin-labelled birds that others – which he didn’t.

  2. brucehood

    I agree.. Dawkins is much better on the page. I also think we owe a great debt to him as the champion of atheists. We easily forget that atheism is a dirty word in most cultures.

    Anyway, I would suggest you watch the sequence again before it is replaced by the next episode. Its about 22 min into the episode I think.


    He clearly does place more significance on the original handwritten label and what’s more the director makes a visual point of this. Of course, that may have been the directors decision and I guess it really is a minor comment.

    I am not saying that Dawkins is treating it as a religious relic (although I am sure anti-Dawkinites would make that point). It just reminded me of the peculiar and universal tendency of humans to value objects because of their provenance.

    I guess he has to maintain his ultra-rationalist persona in order to do battle with believers but I still think it is curious (and probably uniquely human) that many of us are emotionally aroused by artifacts, especially those previously touched or worn by those we admire. Is it pure association? I am not so sure… what do other bloggers think?

  3. Gus

    Also in the programme, Dawkins talks with great reverence about his treasured first edition of The Origin of Species. This is hardly the mark of an ultra-rationalist persona. Why, rationally, should a first edition be any more valued than a 45th edition?

    I think there’s an important distinction to be drawn between the perceived ‘value’ of artifacts – “This is amazing, it’s the actual pigeon that Darwin touched” and the attribued ‘significance’ of artifacts – ” This is amazing, and because it’s the actual pigeon that Darwin touched, it’s a more significant pigeon…”

    Dawkins is quite happy to admit to the former but would, I think, dismiss the latter -quite reasonably in my opinion…

  4. brucehood

    Good point Gus!
    That really raises some issues about value placed on rarity and objects that have had some physical connection. Hmmm. and what about perfect copies in this digital age?
    I wonder.

  5. Susan

    You should also see Richard Dawkins website where there is a string of blogs and answers about the value of the typewriter he wrote the Selfish Gene on. Makes interesting reading! Not unlike your comments on Lennon’s song.

  6. Christopher

    I’d find it hard to believe that Dawkins could not be moved by handling the same artefacts as Darwin did – it’s always extraordinary, in my experience, to be holding something in your hand that links you directly to the someone you hold in great awe.

    I remember reading about a very old tortoise that has only recently died – reckoned to be nearly 200 years, I think. It was on the Beagle itself, IIRC, and therefore, until its demise, could have been the only thing on the planet that had once looked Darwin straight in the eye.

    To contemplate that passage of time by something you hold in your hand always gives me pause for thought, and I shouldn’t see why Dawkins is otherwise.

    I always like, when cracking open a rock to see if there’s a fossil inside, like to look at the new surface and know that I’m the first person ever to see that in the history of the mankind. It’s sort of humbling, and continually re-affirms the privilege we have to be able to understand – mostly – what we’re actually looking at.

  7. Katie Muffett

    I’m glad this got posted! While looking at the comments about value and significance, it made me think of the time a friend’s Koran fell on the floor and I picked it up for her. She thanked me, but very seriously stated that if it happened again I must not touch it personally. This seems to me an example of a ‘religious’ significance identifiable in this case because it is irrational to think I could sully her holy book simply by touching it.

    But as far as how much more rational placing value may be, I think this was a very important instance to bring in as an example. How would Dawkins’ have responded to the pigeon being dropped on the floor and handled by someone with dirty hands? Not as extreme as an Islamic believer, but I bet you he’d give me a dead arm or something.

    That particular section of the program is not rational at all, but I agree that this helps to endear him to the public – it certainly did that for me.

  8. Rod Farr

    Atheist or not I have no knowledge of the otherside but I am from the dark side, literally that is, when you are basking in sunshine. The cynical might suggest that the value of the artifact or first edition is all about supply and demand , bragging rights and therefore their material value.

  9. brucehood

    Welcome Rod from the other side (I take it Auz),
    Collecting is a fascinating and complex human pastime. Your supply and demand argument is supported by recent reports that companies trading in collectibles have recently experienced increased share value as investors switch to this market during these turbulent credit crunch days (“The Guardian,” Aug 9th). For example, the Fraser’s 100 index of autographs has shown a 280% return over the last 11 years!

    So yes, there are plenty out there making money from those who wish to pay for memorabilia of limited supply and demand. But what drives this passion and compulsion to own originals? For example Tom Hanks collects pre-war typewriters and spends more on repairing than they are worth.

    Aside from the dealers happy to make money, the obsessive collector is driven by emotion and not financial motive.

    And then there is the whole having and holding aspect of collecting. Touching objects seems to be an important aspect of memorabilia collecting.

    What do others think?


  10. Rod Farr

    Hi Bruce et al.
    I’d like to suggest that Tom Hanks might feel more fulfilled if he repaired the typewriters himself. I agree that the obsessive drive to collect can be about having and holding and that the physical act of touching an object can give pleasure both from a possesseion and tactile prespective but I think there are other motivating forces which are worth considering. One is the personal emmotional connection to an object which may only have significance to the individual such as an object connected to a friend or lover and secondly the very strong motivation in the “thrill of the hunt” and the buzz that comes from successfully obtaining an object, which is often then put in the bottom draw and forgotten about. The motivation to collect is very complex.

  11. brucehood

    absolutely…some people collect to complete sets – and hence limited editions fulfil this need. Some people collect numbers (trainspotters, bird twichers) So I agree, part of the serious collector is the pursuit

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