Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think : Reflections by Scientists, Writers, and Philosophers

By Alan Grafen; Mark Ridley | Go to book overview

THE SELFISH GENE AS A
PHILOSOPHICAL ESSAY

Daniel C. Dennett

One critic complained that my argument was 'philo-
sophical', as though that was sufficient condemnation.
Philosophical or not, the fact is that neither he nor any-
body else has found any flaw in what I said. And 'in prin-
ciple' arguments such as mine, far from being irrelevant to
the real world, can be more powerful than arguments based
on particular factual research. My reasoning, if it is cor-
rect, tells us something important about life everywhere in
the universe. Laboratory and field research can tell us only
about life as we have sampled it here1.

PROBABLY most scientists would shudder at the prospect of having a work of theirs described as a philosophical treatise. 'You really know how to hurt a guy! Why don't you just say you disagree with my theory instead of insulting me?' But Richard Dawkins knows better. He is just as leery of idle armchair speculation and hypersnickety logic-chopping as any hardbitten chemist or microbiologist, but he also appreciates, as the passage above makes admirably clear, that the conceptual resources of science need to be rigorously examined and vividly articulated before genuine understanding, sharable by scientists and laypeople alike, can be achieved. Dawkins' contribution on this conceptual front is philosophy at its best, informed by a wealth of empirical work and alert to the way subtle differences in expression can either trap a thinker in an artifactual cul-de-sac or open up new vistas of implications heretofore only dimly imagined. My high opinion of his philosophical method is hard for me to separate, of course, from my deep agreement with the conclusions and proposals he

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