Richard Dawkins, the celebrated biologist and oft-described member of the “four horsemen” of atheism has opened his mouth before thinking again. He recently put the following on Twitter:
All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.
While I understand the comparison he’s trying to make, he did it very poorly. When a prominent and very outspoken atheist goes onto a service with such a wide audience and says something like that, it invites backlash, and he got it in spades. In fact, Dawkins went so far as to respond to some of the criticisms he received in his very typical dismissive way.
Apparently, and I can only speculate as I rarely 1 use Twitter, the responses were mostly a variation on a theme of race and racism. Now, calling what Dawkins said racist is like calling the Pope’s remarks on homosexuality sexist. It’s not quite the same thing and you sound silly when you do it. So I won’t deny Dawkins a measure of retaliation for such ignorance.
However, in the middle of his written rant to the masses of his detractors, he went and did this:
Race is not a biological concept at all but a socially constructed one. In the sociological sense you can convert to a race because race is a social construction.
There may be sociologists who choose to redefine words to their own purpose, in which case we have a simple semantic disagreement. I have a right to choose to interpret “race” (and hence “racism”) according to the dictionary definition: “A limited group of people descended from a common ancestor”. Sociologists are entitled to redefine words in technical senses that they find useful, but they are not entitled to impose their new definitions on those of us who prefer common or dictionary usage. You can define naked mole rats as termites if you wish (they have similar social systems) but don’t blame the rest of us if we prefer to call them mammals because they are close genetic cousins to non-social mole rats and other rodents.
There is such a massive fallacy in that bolded sentence which he completely missed that I’m going to address it before I get on to roasting Dawkins over a slow fire.
One cannot “convert” to a race. That’s all. Michael Jackson, for all his riches, fame, notoriety, and skin conditions, was still a black man. He could not just wake up one day and say, “I’ve converted to white-ism! Don’t call me black anymore, I’m white.” Just like I can’t wake up one morning and text all my friends “Hey guys, I’ve decided to convert to black. I know it’s not going to be easy for you to accept, I’ve been white all my life, but I really feel that’s where I belong.” I would get laughed at and called an idiot. Just like I laughed at and called Dawkins an idiot for his ramblings on sociology.
Had Dawkins left it at what I just wrote, then I would have been happy, but no, he continued with his own snark at the expense of a discipline which he has not the first clue about.
Dawkins, like others I’ve encountered who try to use the dictionary like the Bible, stop with the first passage and forget that there are typically multiple accepted definitions for any given word. For example, Dawkins wrote “I have a right to choose to interpret “race” (and hence “racism”) according to the dictionary definition: ‘“A limited group of people descended from a common ancestor”’.” While that is the first sentence of the second definition of the term “race,” it is not the only definition and it is certainly not the main one.
In fact, as is usually the case with such ambiguous things, I have to ask Dawkins, which dictionary are you using sir? For example, Merriam-Webster’s entry (omitting the first two about competitions and running) goes like this:
Definition of RACE
- : a breeding stock of animals
- : a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock
- : a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics
- : an actually or potentially interbreeding group within a species; also : a taxonomic category (as a subspecies) representing such a group
- : breed
- : a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits
- obsolete : inherited temperament or disposition
- : distinctive flavor, taste, or strength
Now, according to Dictonary.com (which aggregates multiple sources across the world), one of the multiple entries goes like this:
2 [reys] Show IPA
- a group of persons related by common descent or heredity.
- a population so related.
- any of the traditional divisions of humankind, the commonest being the caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negro, characterized by supposedly distinctive and universal physical characteristics: no longer in technical use.
- an arbitrary classification of modern humans, sometimes, especially formerly, based on any or a combination of various physical characteristics, as skin color, facial form, or eye shape, and now frequently based on such genetic markers as blood groups.
- a human population partially isolated reproductively from other populations, whose members share a greater degree of physical and genetic similarity with one another than with other humans.
- a group of tribes or peoples forming an ethnic stock: the Slavic race.
- any people united by common history, language, cultural traits, etc.: the Dutch race.
- the human race or family; humankind: Nuclear weapons pose a threat to the race.
- Zoology . a variety; subspecies.
Nowhere, except for a standard google search for the definition of race, do I find the text “A limited group of people descended from a common ancestor.” I have to wonder whether Dawkins made up his “dictionary definition” of race. Obviously the definition of something he sees as common changes depending on the source.
Race is not as simple a concept as you try to make it out to be. In the biological sense, race is definitely a simple concept, but the race you are trying to talk about is not race in the biological sense, but in the sociological. To say there is only one definition of race and thus, racism, is to ignore the social reality race presents across the globe for those disenfranchised by the phenomenon.
Take, for example, the profiling of muslims by the U.S. and other governments in the aftermath of 9/11 and other bombings. These profiles are based on physical and cultural characteristics such as facial hair, skin color, clothes, company kept, and similar aspects of a person’s life. Merriam-Webster’s 2:b definition of race fits all of these aspects. Thus, according to the dictionary definition, this would be called racial profiling.
I’m not saying we can or should separate the biological aspects of race from the concept, but we also cannot separate the cultural aspects of race from the concept either.
The final thing I’ll say on this matter is that by Dawkins logic of a “common or dictionary definition” then the common or majority must overrule an expert’s opinion. This means that Dawkins has, in one sentence, undermined everything he has fought for in the realm of science vs. creationism. Good job sir.
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