Clinical view lacks touch of human sympathy

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A DEVIL’S CHAPLAIN

Richard Dawkins

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 16.99

AT THE start of this engagingly forthright collection of essays, Richard Dawkins voices a concern about double standards. We accept the need for evidence-based reasoning in science, so why not in the rest of life? Everyday ‘truths’ should be scrutinised as carefully as those from physics and biology.

You can’t work by the godless light of science in your day job and then go home and pray to a fluffy-bearded deity. Let us at least be consistent.

This is a tall order. Humans have always wanted to have their cake and eat it. Take the debate about giving legal rights to chimpanzees. The conventional wisdom goes that we should concentrate on eliminating poverty among our human brethren before we turn our attention to our hairy cousins.

Wearing our science hats, we agree that little separates us genetically from chimps, but when it comes to dishing out resources we look after our own. Where a psychologist or novelist might see fertile ground for understanding the causes of human contradictoriness, Dawkins merely sees intellectual weakness.

One way of avoiding double standards is to simplify: apply the razor of evidence-based rationality and eliminate all ways of believing that do not match up to scientific standards. Dawkins’ world is refreshingly, enviably straightforward. There is no God, of course, therefore no need for theologians. Dawkins is brilliantly dismissive of all forms of intellectual snobbery.

Where he is less sure is in explaining precisely why all these dodgy beliefs continue to persuade. Six billion people can, it seems, be wrong.

The problem is perhaps this: for all his brilliance as an evolutionist and communicator about science, Dawkins is no psychologist. For example, he puts the blame for the ‘chimp rights’ double standard on our "discontinuous minds". We can’t help slotting things into categories.

That is a little like berating humans for only having two eyes. Categorical perception, as psychologists call it, is a feature of human mentality from birth - and when it comes to making snap decisions about whether Object X is a predator or not, arguably one with considerable evolutionary advantages. In serving a greater polemical aim, Dawkins wants to go against the scientific evidence.

Whatever his topic Dawkins is always eloquent, passionate and persuasive. The man is a national treasure, but you want to ask him to open his heart a little to the messy vagaries of human psychology.

He tells of his amazement at a friend’s appeal to God after the events of 9/11. Of course, it’s precisely because of the horror that we reach for the God story. It might not be true, but it’s a kind of shelter from that cold Darwinian wind.

Charles Fernyhough is a psychologist and novelist

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