Response to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion interview

Dr Felix Konotey-Ahulu

23 September 2006

(First posted on the BBC comment site; reposted here with Dr Konotey-Ahulu’s permission)

Listening to Richard Dawkins’ responses to Jeremy Paxman’s incisive questions (Newsnight Friday 22 November 2006), I was confirmed in my opinion that Dawkins belongs to that group of researchers whom I once described in the British Medical Journal as ‘whistling in the dark to keep their scientific courage up’ [Konotey-Ahulu FID, The suprascientific in clinical medicine: a challenge to Professor Know-All, BMJ 323:1452–1453, 2001.

Professor Dawkins dismissed the historicity of The Lord Jesus Christ as myth. When he dates a cheque ‘22nd September 2006’ does it worry him that the myth must really be very strong to have lasted this long to compel him to write 22.09.2006? Some myth, eh?

I was once (as I said in the British Medical Journal peer-reviewed article) a staunch Darwinian Evolutionist until at London University’s University College Medical School in Gower Street, I sat at the feet of arguably the greatest Darwinian Evolutionist in the world. He was an Hebrew genius called Professor JZ Young FRS, and my Professor of Anatomy in Medical School. At University College London (UCL), we were the only pre-Clinical Institution in the entire Commonwealth (if not the whole world) that had to sit a 3-hour paper in ‘Evolution and Metaphysics’ in addition to the usual Anatomy papers, before going on to Clinical Medicine.

There were no textbooks on the subject, and although JZ Young was the best selling author in the world of three classic books: The Invertebrates, The Vertebrates, and The Human Brain, if a student missed but one of his 15 weekly lectures on Evolution one would be hard put answering the 3-hour paper in the final pre-Clinical exam. As his lectures progressed, my faith in Darwinian Evolution mounted in leaps and bounds. Then came Lecture 8 or 9, when ‘J Z’ was describing the difference between the brain of an adult chimpanzee, and that of a newborn human baby. Suddenly, and dramatically, ‘J Z’ was out of his depth, and he communicated this feeling to me (and at least to the girl sitting next to me, called Shirley Knight, now a retired Surgeon). Evolution was no proven fact at all, then? He continued to mention ‘The Theory of Evolution’ I don’t know how many times. That was 1954 to 1956 when I did my Second MB at UCL.

Since then, nothing has happened that lifted Evolution from Theory [in the colloquial sense] to Reality. In fact, the very opposite has happened. Discovery of DNA (which is information) is the nail in the coffin of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. You can give ‘chance’ as many billions of years as you like, useful information will never emerge. But the greatest difficulty Richard Dawkin has is to prove (first) that his brain is sharper than mine, and (secondly) that those of us who were taught by the best brains in the world and who have now revised our evaluation of Darwinian Evolution to concur with that of Cambridge University Professor Fred Hoyle FRS have suddenly gone round the bend. Writing in his chapter ‘The Gospel According To Darwin’, you remember, Fred Hoyle made this remarkable diagnostic statement:

‘How has the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection managed, for upwards of a century, to fasten itself like a superstition on so-called enlightened opinion? Why is the theory still defended so vigorously?’

Hoyle goes on, and I agree totally:

‘Personally, I have little doubt that scientific historians of the future will find it mysterious that a theory which could be seen to be unworkable came to be so widely believed.’

For sheer diagnostic acumen, I give Hoyle ’FULL MARKS!’ But there will be shouts of ‘See what Hoyle puts in place of Evolution — Rubbish!’ My answer to that, as a British trained Clinician, is this: One can be spot on regarding diagnosis, but be way out on treatment. Because the prescription for a particular condition is wrong, is not the reason to dismiss a perfectly sound diagnosis.

I must pay at least one compliment to British undergraduate and postgraduate education in my days. You were taught how to think, NOT what to think. Dawkin is trying to tell us what to think. The great JZ Young FRS (Oh bless his memory!)and the host of my fantastic British teachers (London, Cambridge, Liverpool, Glasgow) did not teach me what to think. They all taught me HOW to think, and that was how I came to lose my Evolution Faith. Diagnostically, I prefer Fred Hoyle’s cerebral approach to Richard Dawkins’.

Incidentally, Francis Crick himself said that his theory of the origin of the genetic code ‘seems plausible, but as a theory it suffers from a major defect — it is too accommodating. In a loose sort of way it can explain anything’ [Crick FHC, The origin of the genetic code. Journal of Molecular Biology 38:367–379, 1968]. So even the great Crick guesses at the origin of the genetic code that he discovered.

But I must not end without alluding to what I am considered a world authority on: The Sickle Cell Disease Patient. Indeed, I was chosen to give the Keynote Address in Philadelphia on 31st May 1972 when Linus Pauling (Double Nobel Prize Winner), Max Perutz (Nobel Prize Winner), AC Allison FRS, Hermann Lehmann FRS were honoured together with me and others for our work in Sickle Cell Disease research. Why I was chosen to give the Keynote Address at the Martin Luther King Jr Foundation Award Ceremony for outstanding contributions in Sickle Cell Disease, with Nobel Laureates sitting behind me, was perhaps because I traced the sickle gene in my forebears generation by generation, with names of sufferers from the disease in my tribe right back to 1670 AD on both mother and father side, thanks to the tribal names of the disease in Africa with phenotypic distinctions known centuries before Linus Pauling defined the molecular defect across the Atlantic in the USA. [see chart]

So when I say that the fashion of using Sickle Cells in Biology and Medical Textbooks to claim that Darwinian Evolution took place by natural selection is a defect in clear thinking, I know what I am talking about [see the section from the book]. The fact that the Sickle Cell Trait [Norm/Ache as I have called it in Genetic Counselling (AS)] like my mother, does not die from Falciparum Cerebral Malaria in childhood, as the Norm/Norm (AA) and Ache/Ache (SS) do, to balance the polymorphism, should never be cited as proof that Natural Selection has propelled one-celled organisms in proto-antiquity to progress to the multi-organ multi-cellular reader of this message on the BBC website. Not surprising that Professor Hoyle described such thought processes as nothing short of superstition.