Jeffrey Tayler, writing at Salon (of all places), praises Richard Dawkins for his contributions to science and atheism. No matter what you think of his Twitter comments, Tayler says, it doesn’t take away from the impact Dawkins has had:
Dawkins established his reputation with singular scientific achievements, not as a modern-day Mencken. We owe to him (and his 1976 opus, “The Selfish Gene”) the idea that genes are central to evolution, for instance, and much else that was revolutionary about the phenotypic effects of genes I cannot begin to parse. Such achievements will keep him safely housed, for all time, in the Pantheon of Great Thinkers.
If we look back in time, it’s easy to imagine an analogy. If, say, Einstein had, after formulating the general theory of relativity, suddenly converted to Mormonism, donned Mormon magic underwear, and set off on a quest to recover Joseph Smith’s magic “seer stone” and canonical golden plates, he would not have tarnished his reputation as a scientist, for his theory of relativity would become no less true. His achievement would stand.
None of that is to say Dawkins doesn’t deserve to be criticized for his bad ideas. He absolutely should be. But Tayler has a point. Dawkins could convert to Christianity tomorrow and it wouldn’t take away from the fact that The Selfish Gene changed the way we think about evolution and The God Delusion is arguably the most popular book ever written about atheism.
So I agree that his influence is without question. And I agree that some of Dawkins’ comments have been blown completely out of proportion.
That said, I’ve spoken at a lot of colleges over the past few years and, in my experience, most of those students know about Dawkins only through his Internet controversies. (And that’s not entirely because of a handful of sensitive people online. He’s shot himself in the foot many times over.)
It’s amazing that a guy who’s spent his career writing about contentious topics like science and religion has created more of a stir with his off-the-cuff thoughts online.
It makes you wonder what his reputation would be like if he stuck to books and lectures and stayed away from Twitter and blog comment threads.