The Dawkins Difficulty

Richard Dawkins
Biologist and author Richard Dawkins. Photo from cover of “Climbing Mount Improbable”. He’s a lot older now.

I have a lot of books by Richard Dawkins, mostly about evolutionary biology. (My favorite is probably Climbing Mount Improbable.) He also wrote a book about atheism called The God Delusion, which I found… pretty mediocre, frankly.

I say that not because TGD is a bad book, but because there are better books about unbelief, going all the way back to Robert Ingersoll. For that matter, Hank Fox’s Redneck, Blue-Collar Atheist is a better book. It covers all the important ground while being more approachable and a hell of a lot more entertaining. Plus, shorter.

But somewhere along the line Dawkins discovered The Internets, and we learned a side of him that we wish we hadn’t. For most of us, it started on the day he posted his infamous “Dear Muslima” comment on Pharyngula. Which, ignoring the first rule of holes, he still defends. And which then because a cause celebre of various genuinely misogynistic  bottom-feeders, which grew exponentially into an internet phenomenon aptly known as the “Slymepit”.

So why would this ever be a problem? Didn’t Richard Dawkins notice the slymepit, disavow them, and apologize for “Dear Muslima”? Well, a little bit. And then he proceeded to screw it up with a bunch of tweets where he thought feminists were too upset about rape culture, because women are not logical like him.

Really. “Go away and learn to think,” he said. Because some rapes are totally worse than others, you shouldn’t complain about the mild ones.

Many people have responded to this discovery by ditching their Dawkins books and basically writing him off as both a biology writer and an atheist avatar. And that’s fine. As I have watched one science dude after another* (both current and posthumous) discovered as sexist jerks, my own approach is this:

If the science dude in question is not living, I have to look at the culture of gender relations of their time. Do they get a “pass”?  No. But to require dead people to be ahead of their time is to require the same of yourself. Are you really ahead of your time? I doubt that I am, though I have the good fortune to have friends who create space for me to be more progressive than I once was.

This is not to say that no one deserves a pat on the back for being progressive; every culture has a range of “reactionary to progressive” on which one might position oneself. But as my mother used to say, “Don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back.” Or, reaching for a cookie.

We expect physics leaders to be ahead of their time… in physics. Just as we expect civil rights leaders to be ahead of their time in civil rights, and so on. People aren’t potatoes; they got parts to ’em.


  • You may not know about any of this; you may only know Dawkins as the slightly snotty English scholar who coined the word “Meme” and who played a big part in the high profile of the stupidly-named “New Atheism”. (It’s just atheism, folks. The only thing “new” about it is that some of us are tired of being quiet about the abuses of religion.)
  • This post was inspired by Dana Hunter’s Attention Coyne, Dawkins, and Harris: you are part of the problem.
  • …and by PZ Myers’ The Atheist Disillusionment, wherein he confesses that he had been naive about the end of religion improving humans much. And in “Dismayingly Dawkins“, wherein he deconstructs the don’s latest dissemblance, as of November 2014.
  • And by A+, the social-justice flavor of atheism. Here’s Why I support A+ on my old, archived blog.
  • The Nation: Atheists show their sexist side
  • *Richard Dawkins, James Randi, Michael Shermer, Thunderf00t, Isaac Asimov, Richard Feynman, are the ones I’m aware of so far. Not a pretty picture.
  • Dawkins didn’t create the Slymepit, but he certainly has fertilized it.
  • Avicenna: Dear Dawkins
  • Skepchick: The Silencing of Richard Dawkins

It’s a total shirtstorm

UPDATE: This isn’t about “Taylor is a bad person”. He apologized, with clear sincerity. It’s more of an invitation to be thoughtful.

Recently the European Space Agency landed a probe on a comet. That’s a mind-blowing achievement of huge scientific value. A project scientist, Matt Taylor, gave a press conference wearing a shirt covered in images of scantily-clad women, opening up a controversy known as #Shirtstorm.

Matt Taylor's bowling shirt
Photo from the ESA news stream, via @RoseVeleth’s Twitter feed

Can you imagine what happened next? Of course you can. Feminists complained that this was a good example of objectification and marginalization of women in the sciences. Then legions of other people complained that the feminists were distracting everyone from an Amazing! Achievement! with their whiny complaints about a shirt. And Matt apologized, tearfully, on-camera, but that didn’t do much to change the course of the Shirtstorm juggernaut.

The complaint that bothers me the most is about those darned oversensitive feminists distracting from the great achievement by their complaints “about just a shirt.” So, two things:

First, it wasn’t the feminists who brought a million-candlepower distraction to a press conference about a scientific achievement. You want your achievement celebrated? The way to avoid distractions is not to bring them. The achievement was not his alone; it was a diverse, international team. And as their spokesman he did not have the right to use the occasion for his personal expression.

Sure, a lot of dudes barely noticed the shirt. As astronomer Phil Plait said, fish don’t notice water, either. But imagine for a moment if you were a woman in the sciences. Your appearance is a constant topic of uninvited discussion, and your academic and scientific achievements get a lot less attention. When you publish, you’re less likely to be cited in other publications. Your career will face roadblocks because of this kind of treatment, which started getting old on day one.  And it is invisible to people who perpetuate it and benefit from it.

So the message to women in the scientists is… that you see a prominent scientist who uses women’s bodies for personal decoration at a press conference, and you’re just supposed to pipe down about it? Yeah, No.

Second, the shirt is an example of something that happens all the time. So don’t shoot the messenger. If it isn’t the shirt, it’s something else, and it’s every day.

A lot of defenders have noted that the shirt was made for him by a female friend. And that’s all cool and everything, but people watching the press conference don’t know that. That context, if it matters, is missing; all the information they have is what they see on-camera. I suppose he could have turned to the camera and said; “You may have noticed my shirt: it was made for me by a woman so it is totes cool.” And it would be his choice to do that at a press conference, just like it was his choice that day to select that shirt and not some other. But if viewers don’t receive that (actually irrelevant) context, then it’s basically an in-joke. And in-jokes are often counterproductive in front of an audience, whether it’s everyone in a staff meeting, or in front of cameras at a news conference.

Every time feminists complain about something like this, they are met with the most vile abuse and threats online*.  Discussion threads are often buried in death and rape threats against feminist individuals, by dudes telling them to just chill out and be cool, right? Don’t take pervasive abuse so seriously! I think history is still waiting for the first example of that approach ever working.  Wouldn’t it save time to just listen instead?

Empathy is hard, yes it is. You have to stop being you for a moment, and try to be someone else.