Richard Dawkins: The genius of Charles Darwin, (Channel 4)
Reviewed by Phil Clarke
Richard Dawkins’ three -part series The Genius of Charles Darwin on Channel 4 was an interesting and thought provoking set of programmes, but from a socialist perspective left many questions unanswered.
The series began with a look at Charles Darwin himself, his research and a basic explanation of evolution. I found this episode very refreshing. The passion that Dawkins shows for Darwin and his ferocity in arguing that evolution is a proven fact made for enjoyable viewing and there was no attempt to tone down his argument in case it caused offence.
Socialists should hold Darwin in equally high esteem; Marx certainly did, asking to dedicate Capital to the biologist who had studied the history of nature as Marx had human society. Episode one however, only offered a very simplified version of Darwin’s theory, focusing in a one-sided way on the idea of the survival of the fittest. I hoped this would be remedied in the second programme.
Part two began with Dawkins expressing his horror that Darwinism had been used by both eugenicists and capitalists alike to justify their appalling treatment of fellow humans. This included a surprisingly honest interview with a businessman who admitted that success under capitalism was far more due to luck than any superior ability of the rich!
The main question that the programme was trying to answer was, why, if we are all competing to survive, do humans consistently show kindness and selflessness to each other in day-to-day life? Dawkins attributes this to two main reasons; we have evolved to look after our close family (particularly children) to ensure the survival of our genes; and that by showing kindness to others in a close group we receive kindness back which helps us to survive and reproduce.
What puzzles Dawkins is why humans will help and make sacrifices for others who are not directly related to them or will never be able to return the favour. He puts this down to a ‘misfiring’ of our selfish genes, and argues that it is an accident that humans have developed brains large enough to ignore our evolved nature and go against evolution.
I found this explanation problematic on two counts. First it seems to ignore the complexities of evolution; in particular that in many cases it is the survival of the most cooperative, not merely the fittest. It is not a ‘misfiring’ of our genes that means that most humans help and support each other. It is because we have evolved as cooperative animals and thrive as a species because of it.
Secondly Dawkins doesn’t seem to recognise that it is not only genetics that shapes our brains and behaviour, but our material surroundings. Our brains and behaviour change and develop in response to our surroundings much like our feet develop hard skin on the bottom if we walk around barefoot all day. So our ability to empathise and cooperate in joint interests is developed based on our experiences while alive, as well as the history of our species.
Finally in part three Dawkins gets onto what seems to be his favourite hobby: ‘god-bashing’. His no-nonsense approach to dealing with both creationists and Christian Darwinists is to be applauded, but he always seems to end up frustrated. Why, when the facts stare them plainly in the face will so many not accept that Darwin was right on evolution and the holy books are wrong?
Dawkins appears to believe that as long as the ideas of evolution are taught as fact and accepted, religion will simply disappear. But there is a material base for religion, both in its use by the ruling class and its way of providing the “heart of a heartless world”, as Karl Marx put it. Only with a change in society and the establishment of a socialist system will we finally see the fading away of ideas such as creationism.
To expect Dawkins to put across this message would be asking too much from a man who is clearly not a Marxist. A powerful argument would be to show the historical development of religion to help explain how and why the current belief system came to be and, that like all other aspects of society, religion has changed as human history has progressed.
Sadly however I doubt I shall be watching Richard Dawkins on The class base of modern religions any time soon.