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Ignorance Is No Crime

by Richard Dawkins


Photo by Lalla Ward


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 21, Number 3.


"It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)." I first wrote that in a book review in the New York Times in 1989, and it has been much quoted against me ever since, as evidence of my arrogance and intolerance. Of course it sounds arrogant, but undisguised clarity is easily mistaken for arrogance. Examine the statement carefully and it turns out to be moderate, almost self-evidently true.

By far the largest of the four categories is "ignorant," and ignorance is no crime (nor is it bliss—I forget who it was said, "If ignorance is bliss, how come there's so much misery about?"). Anybody who thinks Joe DiMaggio was a cricketer has to be ignorant, stupid, or insane (probably ignorant), and you wouldn't think me arrogant for saying so. It is not intolerant to remark that flat-earthers are ignorant, stupid, or (probably) insane. It's just true. The difference is that not many people think Joe DiMaggio was a cricketer, or that the Earth is flat, so it isn't worth calling attention to their ignorance. But, if polls are to be believed, 100 million U.S. citizens believe that humans and dinosaurs were created within the same week as each other, less than ten thousand years ago. This is more serious. People like this have the vote, and we have George W. Bush (with a little help from his friends in the Supreme Court) to prove it. They dominate school boards in some states. Their views flatly contradict the great corpus of the sciences, not just biology but physics, geology, astronomy, and many others. It is, of course, entirely legitimate to question conventional wisdom in fields that you have bothered to mug up first. That is what Einstein did, and Galileo, and Darwin. But our hundred million are another matter. They are contradicting—influentially and powerfully—vast fields of learning in which their own knowledge and reading is indistinguishable from zero. My "arrogant and intolerant" statement turns out to be nothing but simple truth.

Not only is ignorance no crime, it is also, fortunately, remediable. In the same Times review, I went on to recount my experiences of going on radio phone-in talk shows around the United States. Opinion polls had led me to expect hostile cross-examination from creationist zealots. I encountered little of that kind. I got creationist opinions in plenty, but these were founded on honest ignorance, as was freely confessed. When I politely and patiently explained what Darwinism actually is, they listened not only with equal politeness, but with interest and even enthusiasm. "Gee, that's real neat, I never heard that before! Wow!" These people were not stupid (or insane, or wicked). They didn't believe in evolution, but this was because nobody had ever told them what evolution is. And because plenty of people had told them (wrongly, according to educated theologians) that evolution is against their cherished religion.

I think it was my colleague John Endler, author of Natural Selection in the Wild—a fine compendium of field evidence on that important subject—who told me the following story. I may have got the details wrong, but it was approximately as follows. He was on an internal flight within the United States, and his neighbor casually asked him what he did for a living. Endler replied he was a professor of biology, doing research on wild guppy populations in Trinidad. The man became increasingly interested, so, without ever mentioning Darwin, natural selection, or evolution, Endler explained more about his research. The man was greatly taken with the brilliant simplicity of the theory underlying the experiments, and he asked Endler the name of this theory and where it came from. Only then did Dr. Endler reveal his hand. "It's called Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection!" The man's whole demeanor instantly changed. He became defensive, asserted abruptly that he didn't believe in that theory, and terminated the conversation.

Ignorant certainly, stupid perhaps, but not wicked. I originally listed "wicked" as one of my possibilities, only for completeness. I have never been sure whether there truly are intelligent, knowledgeable, and sane people who feign disbelief in evolution for ulterior motives. Perhaps a political candidate needs some such dissimulation in order to get elected in certain states. If so, it is sad but possibly not much more reprehensible than the proverbial kissing of babies. Not deeply wicked. There are certainly many creationists who tell lies for propaganda purposes, wantonly and knowingly misquoting biologists, from Darwin on down. Such dishonesty is documented on several Web sites, and by the Australian geologist Ian Plimer in his book Telling Lies for God. Coincidentally, the worst occasion when I have been misrepresented in this way involved an Australian creationist organization, which fraudulently mis-cut the tape of an interview of me. The story, which is quite amusing though it irritated me at the time, is told in the Australian Skeptic by Barry Williams, editor of that admirable magazine (http://www.freethought-web.org/ctrl/news/file007.html). But such minor examples of wickedness can be excused on the grounds that ignorance and stupidity trump wickedness. Are there, then, any examples of anti-evolution poseurs who are not ignorant, stupid, or insane, and who might be genuine candidates for the wicked category? David Berlinski, who is certainly not ignorant, stupid, or insane, denies that he is a creationist, but claims strong scientific arguments against evolution (which disappointingly turn out to be the same old creationist arguments). As guests of a prominent rabbi, he and I once shared a platform in Oxford, together with the great John Maynard Smith and others. Maynard Smith spoke after Berlinski, and, not surprisingly, he soon had the audience roaring with laughter as he lampooned Berlinski's bad arguments. But what amused me was Berlinski's tactic for dealing with this mocking laughter. He sprang to his feet, held up a reproachful open palm towards the audience, and said (approximately of course, I can't remember the exact words): "No, no! Don't laugh. Let Maynard Smith have his say! It's only fair!" Happily, the Oxford audience saw through this tactic of pretending to think the audience was laughing at Maynard Smith rather than with him. And the rabbi, himself a devout creationist, afterwards told me he had been shocked at Berlinski's duplicity.

I don't withdraw a word of my initial statement. But I do now think it may have been incomplete. There is perhaps a fifth category, which may belong under "insane" but which can be more sympathetically characterized by a word like tormented, bullied, or brainwashed. Sincere people who are not ignorant, not stupid, and not wicked can be cruelly torn, almost in two, between the massive evidence of science on the one hand, and their understanding of what their holy book tells them on the other. I think this is one of the truly bad things religion can do to a human mind. There is wickedness here, but it is the wickedness of the institution and what it does to a believing victim, not wickedness on the part of the victim himself. The clearest example I know is poignant, even sad, and I shall do it justice in a later article. 


Richard Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. An evolutionary biologist and prolific author and lecturer, his most recent book is Unweaving the Rainbow.


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