As with the Hedy Weiss flap in my prior post, so much depends on the notion of race. After his original tweet on the topic of Muslim Nobel Prizes, Dawkins defended himself against charges of racism by observing, correctly, that "Muslims are not a race." This is not a particularly satisfying response. Jews are likewise not a race, but this fact did not prevent numerous historical attempts to banish or exterminate them on grounds of "racial" purity. But the fallacy goes much deeper than this. Not only does racism not require a "race" to operate upon, but in fact it is required to operate in the absence of one, given that there is no such thing as race. Race is an outdated, pseudoscientific 19th century concept with about as much scientific validity as the four humors (probably less.)
Someone must have raised this point with Dawkins after tweeted about it, because in an FAQ-style collection of "calm reflections," he admits that race is a "controversial" topic, and then, in response to the objection that race is a sociological, not a biological phenomenon, begs to differ:
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”.Of course this just further obscures the fact that no such group exists on earth. Shall we pause here to recall that Dawkins is regarded as one of the world's most prominent biologists? He continues...
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. (my emphasis)I don't how to read that sentence except as a defense of folk
The word "racism" remains useful to us, despite the non-existence of a biological substrate on which to rest it, because all the substitutes available to us seem too watered down: bigoted, ethnocentric, prejudiced--all sins, to be sure; but only "racism" conjures the requisite degree of wild, animal hatred. Without going too deep in the weeds, we can safely redefine racism as tribalism, with all the paranoid fantasy that attends to it: those people, the ones who are colored differently than us, who dress differently, talk differently, who keep to themselves, those people are not to be trusted.
So, while it's true that Muslims are not a "race," neither are "blacks," neither are Amerindians, Rom, Arabs, Hispanics, or Asians. (Neither are Caucasians, or "Aryans.") Where does that leave us? We can still, in all those cases, and so many more, project complex traits onto these socially-defined groups based solely on adherence to the tribe: stupid, lazy, thieving, murderous, warlike, fanatical. And indeed, Dawkins does veer closely to this kind of characterization when talking about Muslims (though he's nowhere near as bad as his comrade Sam Harris, who has literally stated "you just can't reason with these people.")
Look, for example, at the original tweet on Muslim Nobel laureates:
All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.In case the context weren't clear enough, Dawkins elaborates in his calm reflections:
I certainly didn’t, and don’t, imply any innate inferiority of intellect in those people who happen to follow the Muslim religion. But I did intend to raise in people’s minds the question of whether the religion itself is inimical to scientific education.What jumps out right away is that the hypothesis is instantly self-refuting. Until around the 13th century these very same Muslims led the world in scientific exploration. There are many competing theories for why this embrace of reason did not persist, but it's clear that the only way we could blame the religion itself for the decline would be to infer that 11th century Islam was significantly more enlightened than the variant practiced today. Any takers?
So the "question of whether the religion itself is inimical to scientific education is," at best, staggeringly ignorant. At worst, it's race-baiting. I can't peer into Dawkins' heart to say where he falls on that continuum, but there are no commendable options.
Brandon writes that Dawkins' bafflement (at how anyone could characterize his discourse as less than perfectly reasonable) seems perfectly genuine. This is not incidental to the question of how damaging his remarks may be. Like the old patriarch at the dinner table who doesn't know, or can't accept, that it's no longer acceptable to call women "skirts" anymore, and opens old wounds with each utterance despite his insistence he "didn't mean anything by it," at a certain point innocence becomes a mask for a lack of empathy, which all-too-predictably slips into a narcissistic martyrdom. "You're the real racist!" (Yes, he said this.)
And is it really just a "tin ear" that adds insult to injury by following on the heels of his calm reflections a tweet musing on why Jews are so disproportionally represented by the Nobel Foundation, then linking to Steven Pinker's 2005 address to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research on studies that Ashkenazi Jews have a higher IQ than other groups? Whether the studies have merit or not, they can only be relevant at all by undermining Dawkins' earlier insistence that "Jews are not a race" (at least when it comes to Ashkenazim), but no apparent cognitive dissonance ensues. (And surely it is just an unconscious slip when he invokes the image of a global cabal in a follow up tweet that says "I want to know their secret in case we can copy it.")