Dawkins, Liberalism, and the New Atheism

Richard Dawkins, a champion of the “New Atheism,” is an atheist and a liberal. Dawkins’ framework is zealous expression of Cartesian reductionism and, as a result, his view of our species is that of lumbering robots directed by genes selected by nature (his words, not mine). Dawkins’ individual comes to the world with a certain set of traits, which explains his actions. These traits are variable across the population and nature selects those that solve the engineering problems nature sets before the organism (adaptationism). Either the organism has the traits to survive and thrives and transmits genes (which is the ultimate purpose of life Dawkins holds) or it doesn’t and dies before it can transmit its genes. 

Dawkins contends that this is true even of social behavior. Adaptationism applied to the social and cultural world—epitomized by Doug Jones: “Culture and cultural variation are possible only because of an evolved psychology”—becomes social Darwinism, recoded as sociobiology (or, more recently, as evolutionary psychology), and is the hallmark of neo-Darwinian dogma, an ideology which, as I noted, reflects the prevailing justification of capitalist markets by locating them in nature rather than history.

This isn’t a recent problem. The problem is found in Darwin’s work itself. Darwin got his idea of natural selection from Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest,” and the work of Thomas Malthus, all social scientists. Darwinism in this narrow form, as evolutionary scientist Richard Lewontin has pointed out, is at odds with the way the biological (and the social) world actually operate. Dawkins is an ideologue, and his strident (obnoxious, really) commitment to an adaptationist explanation for everything carries a profoundly religious-like character. 

Thus, because of his hard liberalism, Dawkins’ thought is alienated from history, and hence his science becomes ideology (scientism). Lewontin is able to see farther than Dawkins because he is an atheist and a socialist, which permits him to escape the reductionism of liberalism and see the dialectical relationships between organisms and nature. Not only is atheism aligned with socialism consistent with the struggle for social justice, but it is also useful for objective scientific endeavor. Indeed, these objectives are linked, since a non-reductionist science exposes the use of science as an ideological justification for oppression and exploitation by showing how it is designed and functions to legitimate hierarchy by falsely naturalizing it. This is, after all, the function of Smith’s “invisible hand” thesis, namely to depoliticize political economy by treating it as something more of a natural phenomenon than a social one.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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