McGrath is ideally suited to take Dawkins on: before becoming a theologian, he had earned a doctorate in biochemistry at Oxford University. Indeed, McGrath was first approached to write a book responding to Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene in the late 1970s, but declined to do so at the time as he was confident someone better-qualified would do so before long. By 2003, in the absence of any such book being written during the intervening quarter-century, he finally decided to do so himself.
McGrath opens his book by describing his admiration for Dawkins’ work, particularly The Selfish Gene:
I admired Dawkins’ wonderful way with words, and his ability to explain crucial – yet often difficult – scientific ideas so clearly. It was popular scientific writing at its best. (p.1)
Anyone who has read any of Dawkins’ popular science books will cheerfully concur with this judgment. The only book by Dawkins I’ve read in full is Climbing Mount Improbable, and the closing chapter on the symbiotic relationship between figs and fig-wasps is a tour de force. As McGrath says of The Selfish Gene:
By any standards, The Selfish Gene was a great read – stimulating, controversial and informative. Dawkins had that rare ability to make complex things understandable, without talking down to his audience … It was heady stuff. (p.7)
But from the start, “traces of a markedly anti-religious polemic could be discerned” (p.1). Worse, Dawkins’ arguments against were of a markedly lower quality than his arguments for Darwinism, being based on “plodding rhetoric and tired old cliches” (p.10) rather than the evidence-based approach of his scientific writing. Far from producing “a new, intellectually reinvigorated atheism”, McGrath notes with disappointment that:
Dawkins’ atheism seemed to be tacked onto his evolutionary biology with intellectual velcro. (p.10)
Hence this book. McGrath makes it clear that “this book is not a critique of Dawkins’ evolutionary biology”, but on “the broader conclusions that he draws from these, particularly concerning religion and intellectual history” (p.11). I will look at some of McGrath’s points in more detail in subsequent posts, starting with his examination of Dawkins’ demolition of (a particular version of) the “argument from design” in The Blind Watchmaker.