THE other week I was enduring one of those dinner parties at which the strength with which opinions are held is matched only by the weakness of their foundation. When the conversation turned, as it all too often does, to the possible health benefits of Organic Food, I was asked for a view in my capacity as the recently demitted Chairman of the UK Food Standards Agency. As I embarked on a brief, but pithy, exegesis of the scientific evidence, I was cut short in the middle of my first paragraph by the braying voice of the woman seated opposite me who interjected: 'But we don't believe in science in our family'.
Suppressing my immediate inclination towards some form of physical response, I diverted my thoughts, as I often have before in similar situations, to the idea that there really should be an 'Emergency Dawkins Service'. When you have a leak in your pipes you call in a plumber; when you have leaky reasoning you call in Dawkins, the Handy Intellectual Plumber. One, or at most two, sessions would have sorted out my fellow diner.
As Richard expressed it so eloquently in River Out of Eden:
Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I'll show you a hypocrite.
Airplanes built according to scientific principles work. They stay aloft
and they get you to your chosen destination. Airplanes built to tribal or
mythological specifications, such as the dummy planes of cargo cults in
jungle clearings or the beeswaxed wings of Icarus, don't.
But Richard is more than a plumber who can fix leaky intellects.