Professor Dawkins doesn’t seem to know much about Darwin: either what his masterpiece is actually called, or even what he believed about God (he wasn’t an atheist)

Dawkins: not as much of an expert on Charles Darwin as he thinks

Professor Dawkins has been making something of a fool of himself lately (I tried to find a more charitable way of putting it, but I fear I have failed) over his knowledge of the works and opinions of Charles Darwin, of whom he is so well-known as being supposedly the great high priest, or vicarious presence in our own times. That indispensable website, Protect the Pope, draws our attention to one occasion on which this was embarrassingly revealed, which I had previously missed, and which occurred during a recent debate in Australia between Dawkins and Cardinal Pell.

Of that, more presently. First, though, that wonderful moment of revelation, when we all discovered that Dawkins couldn’t even say what the full title of Darwin’s greatest and most quasi-iconic work, On the Origin of Species, actually was. The circumstances were these. The modestly entitled Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (“a clear-thinking oasis”, it calls itself) had commissioned a poll from Ipsos MORI to discover “the extent to which adults recorded as Christian in the 2011 UK Census … believe, know about, practise and are influenced by Christianity, as well as their reasons for having described themselves as Christian in the Census”. The poll discovered that “when given four books of the Bible to select from and asked which was the first book of the New Testament, only 35 per cent could identify Matthew as the correct answer”. In a discussion with Giles Fraser, former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, Dawkins said that an “astonishing number [of self-identified Christians] couldn’t name the first book in the New Testament” and that this indicated that they were “not really Christian at all”: this declaration led to the following highly amusing piece of dialogue between Dawkins and Fraser, who quite rightly said that the poll asked “silly little questions” to “trip” people up:

Giles Fraser: Richard, if I said to you what is the full title of ‘The Origin Of Species’, I’m sure you could tell me that.

Richard Dawkins: Yes I could

Giles Fraser: Go on then.

Richard Dawkins: On The Origin Of Species.. Uh. With, Oh God, On The Origin Of Species. There is a subtitle with respect to the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.

Giles Fraser: You’re the high pope of Darwinism… If you asked people who believed in evolution that question and you came back and said 2% got it right, it would be terribly easy for me to go ‘they don’t believe it after all’. It’s just not fair to ask people these questions. They self-identify as Christians and I think you should respect that.

Now the point is, surely, that the full title of Darwin’s work, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”, though unwieldy, is highly informative, in that it doesn’t just tell you roughly what the book is about, it summarises its entire argument: know the title and you can tell me what the book says. One would have thought that someone so famous for knowing what the book says would have no difficulty in remembering the title. “Oh, God”, replied Dawkins to Giles Fraser (an interesting turn of phrase under the circumstances); “On The Origin Of Species”, he desperately continued, “There is a subtitle with respect to the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life”. But that just won’t do: it leaves out the most essential part of the title: “by Means of Natural Selection”: how well does he really know the book? Or has it just become for him a source of polemic and ideology, like Das Kapital for Communists, often referred to, never read?

On to Professor Dawkins’s next uncomfortable moment, at the hands of Cardinal Pell. This one is, if anything, even more embarrassing, since what it draws our attention to is the undeniable fact that Darwin thought that there was no contradiction whatever between evolution and the existence of God.

The cardinal correctly declared that Darwin was a theist because he “couldn’t believe that the immense cosmos and all the beautiful things in the world came about either by chance or out of necessity”. Dawkins, incredibly, immediately interjected that this was “just not true”. There was applause (and the total collapse of Professor Dawkins) when Cardinal Pell instantly replied: “It’s on page 92 of his autobiography. Go and have a look.”

Yes, indeed, it’s certainly worth a look (incidentally, I already knew this passage very well: why didn’t Dawkins?). Here it is; it’s worth reading in full:

Although I did not think much about the existence of a personal God until a considerably later period of my life, I will here give the vague conclusions to which I have been driven. The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.

At the present day the most usual argument for the existence of an intelligent God is drawn from the deep inward conviction and feelings which are experienced by most persons…. This argument would be a valid one if all men of all races had the same inward conviction of the existence of one God; but we know that this is very far from being the case. Therefore I cannot see that such inward convictions and feelings are of any weight as evidence of what really exists. The state of mind which grand scenes formerly excited in me, and which was intimately connected with a belief in God, did not essentially differ from that which is often called the sense of sublimity; and however difficult it may be to explain the genesis of this sense, it can hardly be advanced as an argument for the existence of God, any more than the powerful though vague and similar feelings excited by music….

Another source of conviction in the existence of God, connected with the reason and not with the feelings, impresses me as having much more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.

Darwin goes on to say that though “This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time … when I wrote the Origin of Species”, it subsequently became “weaker”; rather than a “theist”, Darwin became an “agnostic” but never, so far as I can discover, an atheist like Dawkins. Whatever the truth of this, it is certain that at the time he wrote the Origin of Species, he did not believe that there was any contradiction between belief in the origin of species by means of natural selection and the existence of a Creator God who was actually himself involved in the process by which the world came to be so sublimely what it was: he concluded, he said, that there was an “extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity”.

That sounds very much to me like an idea of God which is declared by Dawkinsite fundamentalists to be at the very opposite pole to belief in evolution. Well, it’s clearly not: at any rate, Darwin certainly didn’t think so: so back to the drawing board, Dawkins.