Oh, dear, Richard…

Look, I know that Twitter really isn’t the place for nuanced debate.  But, by that token, everyone else should realise that as well – especially intellectual superstars. So how, then, to explain Richard Dawkins’ spectacular foot-in-mouth moment earlier today? It started off reasonably enough, with him tweeting about Catholicism’s stance on abortion and providing a link to this piece by Jerry Coyne in the New Republic; lots of people are going to agree with both Coyne and Dawkins, and lots to disagree, but we should expect that.  The tweet got a couple of replies.  I can’t be bothered transcribing them, but here’s a screenshot; you should be able to click to enbiggen it. Screen shot 2014-08-20 at 19.50.23

So far so good.  Dawkins’ reply is about as good a version of the sentience argument that you could cram into 140 characters; and InYourFaceNewYorker’s point articulates a problem faced by any number of women who are carrying a child with a disability of some kind.  (Well, by any number of parents, I suppose, except that it’s women who hold the moral trump here simply by dint of being the one carrying it.  Fathers could agonise about the best thing to do, too; it’s just that they don’t get to make the final decision.  Oh, you know what I mean.)  Where you stand on abortion doesn’t preclude recognising that it’s a genuine moral dilemma for many people, and a that there are respectable arguments and proponents of those arguments on both sides – by which I mean that people on either side should be able to recognise that their opponents are at the very least worth the effort of an argument. InYourFaceNewYorker goes on to articulate some of the aspects of the debate that make it so emotive and so intellectually rich:

Screen shot 2014-08-20 at 19.58.49

That doesn’t reflect Dawkins’ response to the dilemma, though.  Brace yourselves. Screen shot 2014-08-20 at 19.57.08

Oh, crikey.  He actually said it. I don’t want to raise the spectre of The Paper Of Which We Do Not Speak, or even to delve into questions of procreative beneficence; what’s important about this is a deeply stupid thing to say in its own right.  After all, you can think what you like about the permissibility of abortion, but I don’t think that anyone is really suggesting that a woman who is pregnant ought to abort.  The most defenders of abortion would want to say is that it’s permissible to abort.  Procreative beneficence says that you ought to select against “disabled” embryos if only one can be implanted and one is going to be implanted; but it doesn’t say that you ought to terminate a once-begun pregnancy. Nor should it: to make that kind of statement is indefensible for more or less the same reason as a statement to the effect that a woman isn’t allowed to have an abortion – to wit, there’s light years between a right to abort and a duty to abort.  The former is about a woman’s ability to choose what kind of pregnancy she has, and what kind of child she’s willing to gestate; the latter is… well, it’s the opposite of that.  Choice is minimised.

(There’ll be some who think that the fact that it’s a man narrowing choices like this adds an extra layer of objectionableness to this.  I’m not so bothered about that: I think that the problem is basically to do with one person telling another what she can and can’t do with her body, and the chromosomes of the speaker really aren’t all that important.)

You’d’ve thought that someone as clever as Dawkins could see that.  Apparently not. For a bonus, there’s further joy from him in the same thread.  Someone says this:

Screen shot 2014-08-20 at 20.20.01

Granted, it’s not the most decisive point.  But Dawkins’ reply… Screen shot 2014-08-20 at 20.20.38

Good grief. Go back to my opening gambit here.  There isn’t room for nuance on twitter.  That means that you have to think quite hard about what you’re saying – especially if you’re Richard Dawkins, and especially on a topic like this.   (Thanks to Ophelia for the lead…)

  • Zvyozdochka

    Umm, not really. Dawkins sees reproduction for what it is; a mechanical and chemical function of the living thing trying to further it’s singular aim, which is to reproduce.

    Perhaps you could read some Peter Singer.


    • Thanks for the pointer to Singer. I’d honestly never heard of him before.

      I don’t buy the reductionist account of reproduction here, though. I mean, in one sense it’s a purely mechanical and chemical function; but that is to ignore the fact that it’s a mechanical and chemical function that happens to people.

      Let’s try another example. Suppose I were to stab you with a compass. There’d be a chain of biological sequelae to that, in terms of coagulation, immune response, and so on. And all those things are morally neutral in themselves. But to take them in themselves is to miss the point.

      The same applies here: you’re ignoring the reasons why a person gets pregnant, why she stays pregnant, what the pregnancy means to her (and maybe those around her), her views on the good life, and her control of her own body… you know, all the things that maker her a person rather than simply a biological phenomenon.

      Or have I missed something?

      • Zvyozdochka

        Dawkins, I think, admits to being reductionist about biology and would rather people were more-so. The processes are not a mystery, or religious, or sacred. His subsequent response to the pile-on was;

        “Apparently I’m a horrid monster for recommending WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS to the great majority of Down Syndrome fetuses. They are aborted.”

        Ethicist Singer believes that as we have the capability to understand biology, we’d all be making better use of this planet, for more species than just ourselves, if we put some of that understanding into practice.

        • But that’s the point, isn’t it? Being biologically reductionist misses at least something important.

          Meanwhile, the fact that something actually happens, or is common, tells us nothing about whether it should be recommended. And there’s rather more to Singer than you admit.

        • Zvyozdochka

          I think Dawkins’ posted response is informative. Hopefully you’ve seen it already.


        • Yep: saw it, and gave up counting the philosophical blunders therein.

        • Keith Tayler

          I have read Dawkins “apology” and he still does not get it. I am myself by no means opposed to abortion but it would never cross my mind to tweet what he did, so I think he should consider whether he should continue tweeting.

          As usual he also appears to know very little about eugenics. It was not just confined to ‘screen for genuinely heritable conditions where your screening would make a difference to future generations.’ Is this a case of ‘wanton eagerness to misunderstand’ or does he really not understand the history of eugenics?

  • Divine Banyubala

    Many thanks for the post. It is interesting that Richard’s twitter claims first came to my attention from a commentary by…guess who/where…..a respected Ghanaian media organisation. What we ought to recognise is that our comments especially on very vexed issues among ethicists can easily be misconstrued by non-academics. As such some circumspection is called for when we are providing opinions on such matters on social media. This is because we may not have enough space to explain our arguments in more detail but importantly others (globally) may not only misunderstand the thrust of the argument but misrepresent it to an audience with serious consequences especially in Ghana where expertise in ethics is very low. Such misrepresentation could then serve to make subsequent policy considerations on such matters extremely difficult. Making short claims on social media without the benefit of a nuanced defence could poison the environment and make policy uptake in some communities and countries more challenging. Unfortuante!

  • Keith Tayler

    Not sure why you are so surprised that Dawkins would say such bloody silly thing. During the course of my research into pseudo-science and hype many decades back, I had the misfortune of having to read everything Dawkins had written and the people from whom he borrows his ideas. Since then I have kept an eye on him to see if he says anything of any worth but I am still waiting. Quite frankly I find him an embarrassment as I do try to do my bit to spread atheism and undermine all this “faith” nonsense, which means I have to spend a lot of my time distancing myself from Dawkins and his misconceptions of evolution theory and genetics. He seems to take a pleasure in undermining atheism with his inane ideas. This particular example of his thinking does not surprise me because he had a similar crass Tweeter exchange about abortion on the 13th March 2013. (Perhaps he thinks Tweets give a boundary which gives his nonsense about memes some credibility.) Has he ever met anyone with Down syndrome?

    • InYourFaceNewYorker

      I’m the person in question he Tweeted to. Richard doesn’t “borrow” ideas. In his books he’s given full credit to those who’ve discovered them. He’s a phenomenal writer which is very valuable for expressing these ideas. Not all research scientists can actually do that. Richard is a science writer, and a damn good one.

      That said, his Tweet was a little careless, but I wasn’t personally offended. I also think this whole thing has been blown way out of proportion.

      • Keith Tayler

        I agree he is a very good writer and I also agree that he does credit the people from whom he borrows his ideas. They are still nonetheless borrowed. He does not, however, give a history of his concept of memes, but that of course has nothing to do with science.

        • InYourFaceNewYorker

          What do you mean by “borrowed”? He’s explaining them to a lay audience which is really hard to do.

        • Keith Tayler

          This is a somewhat complex matter to be covered here. The problem is that Dawkins is a very good writer which enables him to borrow the work and theories (now often outdated) of earlier evolution theorists and geneticists and place his own spin on them. Since the publication of ‘The Selfish Gene’ he has managed to convince a lot of people that his ‘beliefs’ are in someway what “modern” genetics and evolution theory are all about (I say “beliefs” because the level of contradiction and inconsistency in his thinking can’t be described in terms of theory construction). Dawkins’ beliefs are presented eloquently and there are many other popular writers that forcefully express the same or similar simple beliefs. I think that Dawkins et al are in the main wrong and that they are preventing the lay public and some academics from understanding the complexity of the issues about which they write.

          Obviously we need only consider the notion of the meme to see how evolution theory and genetics have been distorted out of all recognition to make an ideology look like science. Dawkins first presented the meme as a ‘metaphor’ because he knew, as with his notion of the selfish gene, it was, so to speak, an ontological mess. As metaphor people have been talking about “memes” (catchy tunes, beliefs that spread like the plague, ideas that infect the mind, etc.) for millennia. But you can’t just decide, as Dawkins did, to give them, for example, the Darwinian properties of fidelity, fecundity and longevity and then walk away from the mess. Dawkins the showman will keep the illusion going, but he has cleverly managed to distance himself just far enough from memetics to avoid having to answer some of the difficult questions. So not only does he know how the borrow ideas, he also knows when and how to let others borrow his ideas.

  • Sarah Smith

    Whilst practically, I agree with you- forcing someone to either carry a pregnancy or forcing them to abort, is just a line we should never cross as a society, I don’t think that means that the decision is as amoral as choosing “what kind of child she’s willing to gestate”. I mean morally speaking, the life of the future child and the father’s wishes should all be taken into account. Just because it is more wrong to force a woman to have or to not have a pregnancy doesn’t mean that her decision doesn’t have any morality attached to it, just that there is nothing others can (or should be able to) do about it (I think).

    • I don’t think the choice would be amoral; it’s hard to see how that would be, unless it was done on the toss of a coin – and even that would indicate some kind of account about coin-tossing being the right/ appropriate/ best method.

      I struggle with the idea of taking the life of the future child into account – I’m not sure what you mean by that. Nor do I really see that the views of the father carry that much weight (and, again, taking them into account is a vague demand – what would that actually mean?). In practice, many decisions to abort could well be taken jointly; but it doesn’t follow from that that the father has any rights here. I don’t think he does.

      • Sarah Smith

        Re. amoral, I guess that is the wrong word. I suppose what I mean is although I could say I want an abortion because my foetus has a gene for blue eyes and that is not the kind of child I am willing to gestate, I think that would be wrong. Even if I felt strongly about blue eyed children. So in effect I think there is some objective rightness or wrongness about the decision other than my own feelings about the topic. However, i don’t go so far as to say those should be hammered out at a societal level and then imposed on women.

        By future child I mean, let’s say for example the foetus would eventuate into a future child who had an extremely painful and incurable genetic condition. I think it would be right to take that into account. (I don’t say anything in support of Dawkins by that by the way!)

        the father’s views issue is obviously controversial. However, let’s say I was in the early stages of pregnancy and someone caused me to have a painfree termination against my will. Clearly that would be a bodily assault on me in a way that it would never be for anyone else. But I think I would have been harmed in another way too, through the loss of my future child, I don’t think that all that has happened is a bodily assault on me. I think that that kind of harm would also be caused to a father whose foetus was terminated against his will. But in fact I did not say this confers any rights to him! I don’t think it does either. Nevertheless I do think that the “moral abortion” would take into account his views (since I don’t demand that abortions be moral to go ahead I don’t think I have to decide how much- that would anyway be likely to vary case to case)