Current Magazine

Does It Matter That Richard Dawkins’ Great-great-great-great-great Grandfather Was a Slave Owner?

Posted on the 20 February 2012 by Periscope @periscopepost
Does it matter that Richard Dawkins’ great-great-great-great-great grandfather was a slave owner?

Richard Dawkins. Photo credit: Lewishamdreamer

Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and prominent and outspoken atheist, is no stranger to stinging criticism from those who do not share his views. But the author of The Selfish Gene has expressed his anger and surprise at the latest “surreal” attack, which claims the scientist faces awkward questions because some of his ancestors were slave owners in Jamaica.

Adam Lusher of The Sunday Telegraph reported that “his direct ancestor” Henry Dawkins had amassed more than 1,000 slaves in Jamaica by the time of his death in 1744, and quoted campaigners calling on Dawkins to pay reparations. “He has railed against the evils of religion, and lectured the world on the virtues of atheism,” reminded The Sunday Telegraph. “Now Richard Dawkins, the secularist campaigner against ‘intolerance and suffering,’ must face an awkward revelation: he is descended from slave owners and his family estate was bought with a fortune partly created by forced labor.” The Dawkins family estate, consisting of 400 acres near Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, reported the newspaper, “was bought at least in part with wealth amassed through sugar plantation and slave ownership.” Lusher added, somewhat unnecessarily, that, today, the estate “has a farm shop and pedigree cattle.”

Esther Stanford-Xosei, of Lewisham, south London, the co-vice chairman of the Pan-African Reparations Coalition in Europe, told The Sunday Telegraph, “There is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity. The words of the apology need to be backed by action. The most appropriate course would be for the family to fund an educational initiative telling the history of slavery and how it impacts on communities today, in terms of racism and fractured relationships.”

Dawkins: We are all descended from slave owners. Dawkins took to his blog to bite back at “our piercing journalist” Lusher, who he accused of “scientific illiteracy” and a “frankly defamatory insinuation that I might condone slavery.” Dawkins recounted two testy telephone conversations he shared with Lusher: “’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.” “Following a line of reasoning spelled out in The Ancestor’s Tale, we can calculate that  … Almost certainly we are all descended from slave owners (and indeed from slaves), if you go back far enough, and you probably don’t have to go back very far,” stated Dawkins. “As it happens, my ancestry also boasts an unbroken line of six generations of Anglican clergymen … I wonder if Adam thinks I’ve inherited a gene for piety too,” joked Dawkins. Turning to the family estate, Dawkins informed that “far from being an estate, it is a small working farm, struggling to make ends meet in a bad time for farming. I added that such wealth and land as the Dawkins family once owned was squandered in the nineteenth century by Colonel William Gregory Dawkins (not my direct ancestor, I’m happy to say) on futile lawsuits. Whatever I possess is hardly at all inherited from past centuries but earned by me in my own lifetime. I am happy to give to charity, and I do so in quite large quantities, but my choice of charity would not be influenced by whatever sins my seventeenth and eighteenth century ancestors committed.”

“I can’t help wondering at the quality of journalism which sees a scoop in attacking a man for what his five-greats grandfather did. Is there really nothing more current going on?” wondered Dawkins.

Dawkins on the ropes? Writing at The Daily Telegraph before the ancestry spat, Janet Daley criticised the “embattled professor’s desperate attempts to sell his brand of modern (which is to say, 18th-century) enlightenment.” “The chief premise of the Dawkins case then was that we should never believe in anything (viz the existence of God) for which we do not have factual evidence,” summarised Daley, who argued that the “unbeliever’s Vicar on Earth” and his “apostles (sorry, comrades-in-arms) seem not to recognize is the failure of imagination – the crass philistinism – of a position that fails to appreciate the significance of those kinds of belief that do not rest on empirical evidence but which are still central to human experience. To be so dismissive of, or incurious about, such beliefs – this capacity to envisage, or to long for, a transcendent explanation of our condition, which has been a feature of virtually every civilization that has survived long enough to be recorded – is a very odd kind of obtuseness in people who clearly see themselves as possessing superior intelligence. Do they really not understand what it is that it is so unsatisfactory about ‘scientific’ accounts which reduce life to the ticking over of sensory apparatus?”

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog