Cancel culture has arrived for Professor Richard Dawkins, possibly the nation’s greatest science writer (though now well past his best).
The organisation Don’t Screen Us Out — which campaigns against programmes designed to facilitate the elimination of unborn children with Down’s Syndrome — has launched a petition demanding that the professor’s publisher, Penguin Random House, ‘end their business relationship with Richard Dawkins and stop publishing his books’.
Currently, the 80-year-old is actively promoting his latest work, Books Do Furnish A Life (actually nothing more than a collection of old essays).
In an interview with the broadcaster Brendan O’Connor of RTE Radio in Ireland, Dawkins attempted to defend how he had responded in 2014 when one of his 2.9 million Twitter followers sent this to him: ‘I honestly don’t know what I would do if I were pregnant with a kid with Down Syndrome. Real ethical dilemma.’
Dawkins pinged back: ‘Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.’
Last week, Lynn Murray, whose daughter Rachel has Down’s and who runs the Don’t Screen Us Out campaign, told a newspaper: ‘His publishers should stand with people with Down’s Syndrome, uphold their own equality policies and cut ties with the professor, whose uninformed opinions about Down’s Syndrome are also out of sync with today’s public standards of equality and diversity.’
The petition was signed by one of Scotland’s leading columnists, Kevin McKenna, who has a niece with Down’s.
The language of ‘equality and diversity’ is well-judged to rattle Penguin. Even the publishers of J. K. Rowling, the most successful fiction writer of the modern era, were shaken by the fury her allegedly disrespectful remarks about transgender rights aroused among those who claim to represent ‘the equalities agenda’ (which has replaced class war as the Left’s governing principle).
And as big publishing houses have publicly signed up to this agenda, they twitch nervously when the charge of infraction of the doctrine is levelled at them.
Professor Richard Dawkins attempted to defend his response to a Twitter follower who told him she ‘didn’t know what she would do’ if she was pregnant with a child with Down’s Syndrome and his advice was to ‘abort it and try again’
In fact, Penguin have little to worry about in this case, as the modern campaigning Left regard the unborn child as having no intrinsic moral standing. For them, discrimination against the unborn, or a certain group within that category, is not a thing.
But the publishers might have been squirming a little when their star science writer came up against Brendan O’Connor in early May. For the Irish presenter has a daughter with Down’s Syndrome, and when he tested the professor on his now notorious remarks, Dawkins — who insists he bases everything he says on pure reason and empirical knowledge — was exposed as ignorant and ill-informed.
When O’Connor asked him why he regarded it as ‘immoral’ to knowingly bring a person with Down’s into the world, Dawkins replied: ‘Given the amount of suffering in the world probably does not go down — probably goes up — compared to having another child who does not have Down’s Syndrome, that’s what I meant.’
Irish presenter Brendan O’Connor has a daughter with Down’s Syndrome
The presenter queried how Dawkins knew ‘it increases the amount of suffering in the world’. Dawkins replied: ‘I don’t know for certain . . . it seems to me to be plausible that if a child has any kind of disability, you would probably increase the amount of happiness in the world more by having another child instead.’
Asked by O’Connor what his evidence was for that, the professor lamely responded: ‘I have no direct evidence, no.’
And when the presenter — with icy calmness telling Dawkins, ‘I’m not having an emotional discussion with you here, I’m simply trying a logical discussion’ — asked the great empirical thinker if he actually knew anyone with Down’s, he admitted he didn’t.
If Dawkins had bothered to do any research, he would have come across a peer-reviewed paper in the October 2011 issue of the American Journal of Medical Genetics, which surveyed 300 people with Down’s aged 12 and over. It concluded: ‘Nearly 99 per cent of people with DS indicated that they were happy with their lives, 97 per cent liked who they are and 96 per cent liked how they looked.’
That’s a weird kind of ‘suffering’.
But, Dawkins might retort: what about the families of children with Down’s? Here again, the American Journal of Medical Genetics has done the work. Five years ago, it published three surveys covering more than 2,000 families and concluded: ‘All three had similar positive findings, with parents/guardians and siblings overwhelmingly expressing love and pride for their family member [with Down’s].’
This is certainly true of my family: our younger daughter Domenica has Down’s Syndrome and, at the risk of sounding soppy, she is a whirlwind of joy.
Tomorrow she celebrates her 26th birthday; her friends will come for a picnic at our house to join the family for that special occasion. Such moments — and, indeed, lives — defy the glib generalisations of Richard Dawkins.
Although it has now been forgotten, the person who asked Dawkins for advice about Down’s followed up with another question via Twitter: ‘What about people on the autistic spectrum? Where would you draw the line?’
Dawkins answered: ‘People on that spectrum have a great deal to contribute, maybe even an enhanced ability in some respects. DS not enhanced.’
This suggests that his real objection to the idea of voluntarily having a child with Down’s is not so much a horror of ‘suffering’ but an unspoken disapproval of people with no ‘societal utility’ — as if those with below average intelligence are incapable of ‘contributing’.
Lynn Murray, whose daughter Rachel has Down’s said Dawkins’ publishers should stand with people with Down’s Syndrome and cut ties with the professor
It is perhaps no coincidence that Richard Dawkins is a man whose most well-known works are a development of the insights of Charles Darwin. The great Victorian scientist had strong views about the risks of overbreeding among ‘inferior’ types.
These were turned into full-blown eugenicism by his cousin, Sir Francis Galton. That doctrine had terrible consequences in the 20th century, not just in Germany, where it led to the compulsory euthanasia of tens of thousands of children then termed ‘handicapped’, but even in supposedly civilised Sweden, where forced sterilisation was practised until 1975.
I am not accusing Dawkins of any sympathy for such policies. But I still feel some anger at his opinion that to bring a person like my daughter into the world is ‘immoral’. To be precise: I am angry about his ignorance rather than about any insensitivity, in asserting that people like my daughter are a net addition to the world’s misery.
But even if his remarks were to upset my daughter (who is, as you might expect, completely oblivious about this matter), I would still think it wrong for Penguin to stop publishing his books — or indeed for any other publisher to, in effect, cancel his literary output.
Whatever I may think of Dawkins’s ill-considered, evidence-free, pseudo-moralising on Twitter about the rights and wrongs of the most intimate and difficult parental decisions, I also regard his earlier works of substance — The Selfish Gene (1976) and The Blind Watchmaker (1986) — as exhilaratingly brilliant works of popular science.
Our younger daughter Domenica (left) has Down’s Syndrome and, at the risk of sounding soppy, is a whirlwind of joy
I am glad I read them, and would not wish others to be denied the chance to do so because of things Dawkins has said decades later, and on a matter about which he has no expertise or experience.
Neither do I think he should be prevented from expressing those discreditable opinions (which, by the way, are commonplace, if not usually expressed so tactlessly). The way to deal with them is exactly as Brendan O’Connor did on his radio show: to subject them to rational discussion and debate.
You won’t win over those who might agree with Dawkins by cancelling his entire oeuvre.
But I suspect that many, having heard him stumbling and floundering under O’Connor’s questioning, will realise just how superficial and ill-considered his argument was; and it might well have changed their minds, too. We must keep arguing and stop cancelling.