24 September 2009

Dawkins and Plato

In his condensed version of The Greatest Show on Earth, John Crace puts these words in Dawkins' mouth:
that fool Plato, who scuppered any intelligent discussion of the origins of life for two millennia with his idea that each species has a perfect form.
It's funny, and almost fair. Dawkins tries to understand why the notion of change in life-forms never took hold in mainstream thought, and suggests that Plato's theory of ideal forms meant that people held on to a notion of, for example, 'rabbitness' which didn't allow them to envisage something that was halfway between a shrew and a rabbit. Now as I'm typing this, it seems like absolute nonsense. What struck me at first was that we don't need Plato to make us think that some rabbits are more rabbity than others. For me, similarly, I think a border collie is the doggiest of dogs, but can still see that a poodle's a dog too.  I really can't see that Plato's theory of forms has had such an effect on everyday thinking.

It's a common allegation that Dawkins is arrogant, and the slagging-off of Plato fits that. Although he was almost always wrong, Plato's method was revolutionary, not his conclusions. In The Republic for example, Plato's prescription of an ideal society is quite obviously bonkers, which he probably knew. Plato wasn't writing a practical guide but exploring ways of thinking. It's a Blakean thought, isn't it, that the mistakes of geniuses are more valuable than the correctness of merely clever people.

Meanwhile, Dawkins, undoubtedly very clever, uses some dodgy methods in support of conclusions that are quite obviously right. It's not his fault that someone still has to collect all this evidence in one place.

And, on the arrogance question, try this. Dawkins comments that sunflower seed oil was exempt from religious dietary prohibition "for a reason that I - untutored in the profundities of theology - shall not presume to fathom". Except that he then goes on to do just that, in a footnote.

So, there is something in the allegation, and various bits of phrasing betray his impatience with people who don't get it. But he's doing work that needs to be done, and I shouldn't overlook the wit that occasionally surfaces through the exasperated tone.

(This post could have gone in either blog. The Dawkins stuff should have been in Stickleback, but I think Plato's going to be a theme here, so here it is.)

1 comment:

Brian said...

I've finished reading the Dawkins, without actually finishing the book. I found myself thinking I know all this stuff - why does he keep going on about it? The same reason I didn't read The God Delusion, really. It is a problem that the people who read these books are not the ones who need to. The strongest argument, which I'd not quite seen this way before, was about the alleged missing links in the human fossil record. Dawkins just points out that the gaps are inevitable, and if another transitional fossil B were found (so that the record now read fossil A, fossil B, fossil C), creationists would just say, where's the transitional stage between A and B, and between B and C? I'd actually like to read an intelligent defence of creationism. Perhaps there isn't one.