teaching Dawkins

I always give my students reading quizzes, and this morning, as I was making out a quiz, I found myself writing this:

7) How does gene-level selectionism help to account for kin altruism?

Not a typical quiz question for me. But in my Great Texts of the Twentieth Century class, we’re reading Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene. I had read it before, of course, but this is the first time I’ve taught it, and as I have tried to think about it from the student’s point of view, I have been reminded of what an absolutely superb explainer Dawkins is. He and Stephen Jay Gould, for all their disagreements, are unparalleled in this respect.

But Dawkins fancies himself a polemicist too, and in that role he’s really awful. It seems that he is amazingly skilled at putting himself in the position of someone who doesn’t know what he knows; but he’s absolutely incapable of putting himself in the position of someone who doesn’t believe what he believes. Which is quite curious, when you think about it.

All of Dawkins’s books have elements of explanation and polemic, but his best ones (The Extended Phenotype, The Greatest Show on Earth) are the ones in which explanation predominates, and his worst (The God Delusion) are the most polemical ones.