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Richard Dawkins and the scientist as stylist

“I wonder whether it has simply never occurred to the Nobel Committee that science – the poetry of reality – is a suitable vehicle for great literature, writes Richard Dawkins in his new collection, Books Do Furnish a Room.

Scientists are under no obligation to be literary stylists too, but occasionally the two overlap, as in the case of the zoologist Peter Medawar, who could have won the Nobel in either field, but was chosen in 1960 for the “discovery of acquired immunological tolerance." This book is dedicated to him.

In an earlier collection (Science in the Soul), Dawkins talked about scientists who could have been in the literary list, asking: “Who would deny that Carl Sagan’s writing is of Nobel literary quality, up there with the great novelists, historians, and poets? How about Loren Eiseley? Lewis Thomas? Peter Medawar? Stephen Jay Gould? Jacob Bronowski? D’Arcy Thompson?”

He left out an important name: Richard Dawkins himself. To be lucid without being simplistic, to write with poetic discipline, to say important things while bringing a rare creativity simultaneously to both science and literature is an unfair set of attributes in one man, but Dawkins is the casual, unselfconscious possessor of such a set.

“We should not be in the business of drawing lines,” Dawkins wrote in one of his early essays, “there’s no law of nature that says boundaries have to be clear cut.” Science and literature need not exist in separate baskets as Dawkins has been proving for decades now.

The Nobel committee’s Literature criteria are limiting even if it did recently surprise (and shock) by giving the award to musician Bob Dylan. But many contemporary biographers (Richard Holmes), physicists (Carlo Rovelli), historians, essayists, philosophers write naturally in a literary style without undermining their message in any way, and should be eligible too.

When Winston Churchill won, it was “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell was given the award “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought”.

So there is an argument the Nobel committee has been aware of. The idea of the scientist as stylist is in ‘Literature of Science’, Dawkin’s introduction to the section on Writing Science, and it places the essays here in context.

Dawkins is 80, and cannot be unhappy that a word he used in his classic The Selfish Gene, the word ‘meme’, has been appropriated by the Internet. He wrote of replicating genes and memes, and how things go viral – startlingly relevant today.

At a time when science is fighting a difficult battle in both first and third world countries, with therapies from bleach-drinking to dung-bathing being peddled, men like Dawkins are necessary.

The words come from the depths of knowledge from this great communicator, the enemy of the anti-science lobby. Words with an intensity that can frighten the sheep-like followers of what is politically or religiously convenient.

(Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu).


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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 10:37:22 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/richard-dawkins-and-the-scientist-as-stylist/article35654032.ece

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