Monday, 20 February 2012

Sunday Telegraph attempts to smear Richard Dawkins over 18th-century slaveholding ancestors

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Few public figures divide opinion quite like Richard Dawkins, and in the years since he stepped to the centre of the religion debate with his 2006 bestseller The God Delusion, those who disagree with him in the press have rarely passed on an opportunity to mount an attack. Of course, such attacks go with the territory – Dawkins is an uncompromising voice in an often heated debate, and when the focus is on the key issues and ideas, he'll always give as good as he gets.

Some criticism, however, just seems desperate. It was fairly ludicrous for the anti-Dawkins camp to imply that he had somehow disgraced atheists everywhere (and perhaps even brought the whole Godless edifice crashing down) by failing to name the full lengthy title of Darwin's On the Origin of Species during a radio debate last week, but if those attacks seemed a tad silly, they were nothing on the Sunday Telegraph's effort yesterday.

Under the headline "Slaves at the root of the fortune that created Richard Dawkins' family estate", the paper's Adam Lusher wrote that Dawkins must face "awkward revelation" that one of his ancestors was a major slaveholder in Jamaica in the 18th century and that the family's Oxfordshire estate, in which he still has some involvement, was paid for using the profits of slavery.

Among the passages detailing the family's slaveholding past and the profits gained from the enterprise, the article was scattered with references to Dawkins' pledge to fight "intolerance and suffering" through the work of his Foundation for Science and Reason, with the clear implication that this work is somehow compromised by the revelation that some of his ancestors were involved in slavery more than two centuries ago.

As smears go, it's a fairly pathetic one, and it looks even more ridiculous when you read Dawkins' account of a phone conversation with Lusher, who called him on Saturday evening to confront him with the genealogical bombshell:
"I’d scarcely had time to re-open my lecture notes when he rang back: 'Darwinian natural selection has a lot to do with genes, do you agree?' Of course I agreed. 'Well, some people might suggest that you could have inherited a gene for supporting slavery from Henry Dawkins'.

'You obviously need a genetics lesson,' I replied. Henry Dawkins was my great great great great great grandfather, so approximately one in 128 of my genes are inherited from him (that’s the correct figure; in the heat of the moment on the phone, I got it wrong by a couple of powers of two)."
Really, this ought to be beyond parody, but full credit has to go the tireless investigators at the News Thump website for uncovering another shameful chapter in the Dawkins family history.
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