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Did We Quote Dawkins Properly? — A Blog Interaction

by Richard Peachey

In our article titled The Coffee News Ads my wife, Gerda, and I quoted several evolutionists, including leading atheist and evolutionary zoologist Richard Dawkins. This article was originally posted on Gerda's website, which allows for reader comments. Below is a sampling of comments received, and my responses, around the issue of whether we quoted Dawkins properly.

Comment by Evan

This has to be the saddest case of misquotation on a Christian blog I've ever had the misfortune of stumbling upon… Are you a Jehovah's Witness?! You seem to have have mastered their societies leaders penchant for manipulation of information against the theory of creationism.

Response by Richard Peachey

Hi, Evan. As far as I can discern, there isn't any "misquotation" in this article. I'm guessing that your actual intended charge might be "quoting out of context." So if you would like to provide some supporting evidence for such a charge, I'll be glad to either (1) change the article, with credit to you for pointing out an improper use of the quote(s), or (2) defend the use of the quote(s) by showing that there is no improper "manipulation." Thanks for taking the time to write, and we look forward to hearing from you. (We are not "Jehovah's Witnesses," we are born-again believers in the Lord Jesus Christ and in the truth of His teaching, including His teaching regarding creation.)

Comment by Stuart

I think what Evan might be referring to is your quote-mining. For example, much of Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker is devoted to explaining what he means by the illusion of design, and it contains a brilliantly written account of exactly how natural selection produces such an illusion.

Have you read The Blind Watchmaker? Chapter 2 on the sonar systems of bats is one of the most engaging pieces of popular biology writing ever produced. It is almost too fantastic a story. But then the truth is stranger than fiction. There is nothing strange about creationism, which alone should lead you to suspect that it's not true.

Response by Richard Peachey

Hi, Stuart. Thanks for your comment. Misquotation and quote mining are rather different concepts, so Evan could perhaps clarify what he really means. Not that I think either charge is warranted.

I have indeed read The Blind Watchmaker, cover to cover, and I agree with you that Chapter 2 on bats is a terrific piece of writing. On page 36, after mentioning "echo-sounding by bats," Dawkins states that, in general, "Animals give the appearance of having been designed by a theoretically sophisticated and practically ingenious physicist or engineer…."

Then on the next page he writes, "The hypothesis that can explain bat navigation is a good candidate for explaining anything in the world of life…." — but in the rest of the book, curiously, Dawkins never does attempt to show how natural selection can produce bat navigation, nor does he even return to the topic of bats in any serious way at all !

For further discussion on the proper quotation of Dawkins, including a defense of my quotes of his statements about apparent design, please see my article here:

Regarding your suggestion about evolution being more "strange" than creationism, and therefore more likely to be true — I am intrigued by your proposed epistemological criterion, but I would submit that strangeness may be in the eye of the beholder (unless you can come up with objective criteria for determining strangeness?). When I was an atheist and evolutionist, it would have been the Bible and creation that seemed more strange to me.

Dawkins calls Darwinism "a remarkably simple theory" (p. xi) and I agree with him. It amounts to basically the concept that large changes have been generated by very small changes + indefinite extrapolation. Nothing unusual there. Creation, on the other hand, involves miracle-like events outside our everyday experience — more strange, and on your criterion, more likely to be true.

Comment by Daniel

Was searching some for Richard Dawkins quotes and came across this page. Your reference to him is taken completely out of context and your argument in using him is completely invalid. First of all Richard Dawkins does not agree with Intelligent Design theories because evolution purposes a more probable and almost certain alternative. You do not seem to understand Dawkins emphasize on the word "appearance". Dawkins like most scientists believe humans, animals and all nature as we see it was not designed in an instant like Genesis suggests they believe this because research shows any living creature shows signs of slight and gradual stages of evolvment and improvement to adapt to an ever changing world. To a uneducated person on the matter this seems impossible and an intelligent designer seems to exist. but if we think about it as a small change over a hundred years and then take into account what leading minds and scientists believe and the dating of genesis contradicts, that the world is about 4.5 billion years old, evolution through natural selection seems very possible, and 3 million year old fossils of humanoids found at cradle of humankind prove this. Therefore Dawkins was stating at this point in time animals give the "APPEARANCE" of being designed be an ingenious creator but if we look at the evidence it is not the case, they seem this way because they have evolved to this amazing state through millions of years of improvement. My second problem is with your comment, William Paley that Dawkins refers to died 4 years before Charles Darwin (the first person to discover evolution) was born. So he never got the opportunity for darwin to clear up his misunderstndings of nature as we see it and Paley did not have a problem with evolution because it never existed then, his theory is now outdated in other words . Dawkins does therefore not agree with Paleys problem that evelution faces because Darwin proves its not a problem.

Response by Richard Peachey

Hi, Daniel. Thanks for visiting this blog and offering your comment. A few thoughts in reply to some of the things you said:

(1) I would argue that the quote from Dawkins is not at all "out of context." It comes from the second chapter of his book The Blind Watchmaker — a chapter that is largely occupied with Dawkins's attempt to establish that very point, that living things look amazingly well-designed. Let me give you some more quotations along the same lines (from the first two chapters):

• (page 1) "Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose."

• (page 15) "Meanwhile I want to follow [William] Paley [the intelligent design theorist of two centuries ago] in emphasizing the magnitude of the problem that our [evolutionist] explanation faces, the sheer hugeness of biological complexity and the beauty and elegance of biological design."

• (page 21) "Yet the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with the appearance of design as if by a master watchmaker, impress us with the illusion of design and planning. . . . when it comes to complexity and beauty of design, Paley hardly even began to state the case."

• (page 37) "I do not want the reader to underestimate the prodigious works of nature and the problems we [evolutionists] face in explaining them."

(2) Everyone knows that Richard Dawkins does not accept Intelligent Design. Everyone knows that he is a world-leading atheist and evolutionist. Nonetheless he does recognize that organisms look amazingly well-designed. The quotes I gave you above make two things clear: (a) that Dawkins is awed by the complexity, beauty, ingenuity, and sophistication found in the structure of animal bodies and cells; and (b) that he thinks the impression of intelligent design, although extremely strong, is mere appearance ("illusion," he calls it).

Certainly Dawkins emphasizes the word "appearance," just as you say. But he also very strongly emphasizes that living things do seem amazingly well-designed; indeed that's the primary impression he says he wants to convey to his readers in the second chapter of his book. Then, in the rest of the book, he attempts to show that evolution can account for what appears to be brilliant design.

(3) Charles Darwin was not the first person to "discover evolution." (In fact, Charles seems to have got a lot of his ideas from his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.) Charles was not even the first person to discover natural selection. (A creationist was already writing about that in the 1830s.) You may want to do a little more historical study on the evolution concept. A good place to start might be a book highly recommended by Stephen Jay Gould — Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist.

(4) You wrote: "To a uneducated person on the matter this seems impossible and an intelligent designer seems to exist." Have you heard of the late Antony Flew, a highly educated man (and, like Dawkins, an Oxford professor)? He gave up his long-held atheistic views and accepted the case for intelligent design. For fifty years he had been the world's leading proponent of atheism, but evidence caused him to change his mind:

"What I think the DNA material has done is that it has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements to work together. . . . It is all a matter of the enormous complexity by which the results were achieved, which looked to me like the work of intelligence. . . . Although I was once sharply critical of the argument to design, I have come to see that, when correctly formulated, this argument constitutes a persuasive case for the existence of God" (There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. New York: Harper Collins, 2007, pp. 75, 95).

(5) The main mechanisms for evolution as understood by neo-Darwinians like Dawkins are mutation and natural selection. But you should ask yourself, are these realistic explanatory mechanisms for a process that’s required to manufacture people out of prokaryotes?

What are mutations? Just genetic mistakes, random changes in the cell's DNA. Virtually all known mutations are either neutral (yielding no change in amino acid sequence) or destructive.

Plant geneticist John Sanford of Cornell University wrote:

". . . I am still not convinced there is a single, crystal-clear example of a known mutation which unambiguously created information. There are certainly many mutations which have been described as 'beneficial', but most of these beneficial mutations have not created information, but rather have destroyed it. . . . for example, in chromosomal mutations for antibiotic resistances in bacteria, where cell functions are routinely lost. The resistant bacterium has not evolved — in fact it has digressed genetically and is defective" (Genetic Entropy & The Mystery of the Genome. Lima, NY: Elim Publishing, 2005, p. 17).

As for natural selection (which would be better termed "differential reproduction"), this only means that some individual organisms die off earlier than others, allowing their surviving conspecifics to (reproduce and) eventually predominate in the population. As the late Carl Sagan rightly quipped, "The secrets of evolution are time and death." Natural selection conserves what’s there; it doesn’t generate novelty.

So if both mutation and natural selection are negative, destructive, degrading processes, does it make sense to you that they would serve as the biosphere’s primary constructors of complexity and (apparent) amazing design?

Daniel, I wish you all the best as you continue to study and think about these important issues.