“There is no dispute between me and Richard Dawkins and there never has been, because he’s a journalist, and journalists are people that report what the scientists have found and the arguments I’ve had have actually been with scientists doing research.”Now, lots of people would be thrilled to be described as a journalist by a distinguished scientist such as Wilson, who has been awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for general non-fiction. If Wilson were to declare publicly that William Skyvington is a journalist, I would be awfully proud, and I would promptly start to inundate many of the world’s great newspapers with freelance articles… about my dog Fitzroy, for example. But I suspect that the former Oxford professor Richard Dawkins is not necessarily happy to be labeled as a mere journalist by an old fellow born in Alabama.
In fact, a couple of years ago, Dawkins sacrificed all chances of remaining a good buddy of the Harvard man when his review of Wilson’s latest book culminated in the following advice:
“… this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force. And sincere regret.”Is the Wilson/Dawkins dispute merely a storm in an academic teacup between two strong egos? Not at all. Their conflict, very real and profound, concerns one of the most fundamental aspects of evolutionary theory. In a nutshell: When genetic mutations affect the “fitness” (survival potential) of members of a set of living creatures, how do we identify the beneficiaries (either positive, negative or neutral) of the newly-created situation?
1. The nicest and most convenient answer is designated globally as adaptationism. The gist of this explanation is that mutations tend to modify all living creatures in such a way that future generations of their descendants will be better adapted to handling the challenges of their daily existence. In our “best of all possible worlds”, mutations enable giraffes to grow longer necks so that they’ll be able to reach tasty leaves on tall trees. These days, few folk (apart from religious crackpots of various flavors) would be content with this adaptationist answer… which doesn’t even take into account the ugly realities (see Dawkins for ample explanations) of giraffe necks.
Now, all I’ve just said is more or less true, and it’s easy to see that a conflict might have arisen between Wilson and Dawkins. The former prefers to imagine that genetic mutations make his ants and bees happier, whereas the latter asserts that egocentric genes don’t really give a sentimental shit about worldly entities (organisms) such as birds and bees; all they’re concerned about is their fellow-strings of DNA, devoid of souls, sentiments and subtle intentions.
The scientific arena is so terribly arid that it’s a godsend that two famous pugilists should arrive on the empty scene, and start slugging stupidly at one another. But Wilson versus Dawkins is a bad match. An unfair fight. It's not a question of age, but of acuity.
Now, to celebrate the victory of a fight that never really took place: If ever you weren’t familiar with Richard Dawkins, I suggest that you listen to our intellectual hero for a moment (28 minutes).