Monday, 20 February 2012

Richard Dawkins and the slave trade

Prologue: Mentioning Dawkins on the internet is a surefire way of provoking internet traffic and below the line comments. If anyone does care to comment on this piece, please take care to look up the definition of Ignosticism before you accuse me of taking sides on the "God debate". I have even provided a link to the definition, so there is no excuse.

Richard Dawkins, descended from slave owners.
In February 2012 the Daily Telegraph printed an article pointing out that Richard Dawkins, the icon (some would even say the godhead) of the modern atheist movement is descended from a family of slave owners and inherited some of their wealth.

Given the predominance of the slave trade throughout the early British empire and the sheer number of 18th Century ancestors each and every person might have, it is unsurprising that one of Britains leading celebrities has such shady ancestry. The probability is that most of us have few rogue ancestors from 7 generations ago (slave traders, pirates, smugglers, spies, unscrupulous capitalist factory owners, genocidal maniacs, child employers, press gangers.....). The fact that Dawkins has retained the family name of his disreputable ancestor is pure chance, a 64-1 shot (if Dawkins own figures are to be trusted). This inherited name coincidence probably made the "story" much easier to find.

That the Torygraph chose Dawkins as a target is no surprise at all, the man is literally adored by the readers of their historical broadsheet rival The Guardian. Check out the abysmal standard of the below the lines comments on any CiF article about Dawkins, Atheism, Religion or (most annoyingly) pure factual science articles. The Dawkins inspired "atheist ranters" come out in force on Guardian pages. They hate organised religion with a zeal, they deride the faithful as mentally retarded, they gibber on about spaghetti mosters and sky pixies as if such talk actually added anything meaningful to the debate, they debase Dawkins own arguments through grotesque simplifications and they adore the man almost reverentially. It is easy to picture these sycophantic drones smugly typing their intolerant bile, glowing with inner pride at their own rebelious contrariness. I'm faily sure that there is no group on Earth that Telegraph hacks would enjoy pissing off as much.

I'm about as left-wing as Englishmen are made, so it pains me to share the glee of the hacks at one of Britain's foremost Tory neoliberal mouthpieces, yet the accusation "you may have inherited a slave supporting gene" is actually very funny when it's aimed at an eminent evolutionary biologist. 

To me, the fact that Dawkins ancestors profited from slavery is neither here nor there and has little bearing on Dawkins as a person. Had he been ignorant of the facts about his ancestors (as many people are) he could hardly be held liable and even though he did know that the weatlh of his forefathers was amassed through the disgusting exploitation of other human beings, and that his forefathers voted against the abolition of slavery in Parliament to protect their own financial interests, he can hardly be blamed for not publicising these facts. I mean would you tell all your friends, acquaintances and potentially millions of other people about it if you knew that some of your ancestors were utterly evil bastards and you had inherited a share of their wealth?

I'm fascinated by history and genetics, my own forefathers range from an eminent biologist who was more familiar with Kew Gardens than Professor Dawkins ever will be, to seafarers who involved themselves in the smuggling trade. I'm actually rather proud of both branches of my family, they made their contributions to history and the case that I should be held liable for the unpaid import taxes of my distant seafaring ancestors would be as unlikely as an award for my inherited genetic contribution to the biological sciences.

During my time in Argentina I met many people who's families had been part of the military junta and others who's distant forefathers participated in the "conquest of the desert" genocide aginst the native American tribes. It was impossible to blame these people for the crimes of their predecessors, yet to see people proudly displaying portraits of their genocidal great-grandfathers was still quite shocking. I also know British people who were born into wealth and privilidge thanks to their forefathers grotesque exploitation of hundreds of men women and children in unimaginably horrific factories during the industrial revolution. Are they to be blamed for the inhumane ethics of early industrialised capitalism? Holding Dawkins liable for the crimes of his forefathers is akin to blaming German toddlers for the fact that their great-grandfather may have earned his salary as a concentration camp guard during the Nazi occupation of Europe.

The thing that really does bother me about Dawkins' response to the article is the way he casually dismisses the value of his families 400 acre estate (allegedly built with slave money) as "peanuts". He certainly seems to have lost his grip on reality since he started raking in the cash as one of the world's leading celebrity god-killers if the value of his family's profitable rural estate  is "peanuts" in comparison to his income as an icon of the anti-god brigade. To many of his countrymen, atheist or not, ownership of a "small working farm" would be a financially impossible aspiration, not snackfood.

If the property now has such limited intrinsic value to the man as to be compared to common legumes, perhaps his family could dispose of the assets and donate the proceeds to an anti-slavery charity, after all, the estimated global slave population today far exceeds the size of the slavery industry that his forefathers built their wealth and privilidge upon.

Epilogue: As I mentioned in the prologue, I am an ignostic. This means that I view the "does God exist debate" as essentially meaningless (and utterly tiresome when debated by people without the slightest regard for the basics in analytic thinking or ethics). Without a concise definition of what the word "God" means, the debate is futile. To a fervant atheist the question is as meaningless as "does a thing that doesn't exist, exist?" To the faithful adherents of religious dogma it is also a meaningless question, they have no choice but to believe in their specific definition. My justification for assuming the ignostic position is that if "God" is defined as infinite and all powerful, then by definition God is utterly unknowable to the finite mind. Therefore any definition from a finite human perspective must consequetially be flawed, meaning discussion of the subject is rendered meaningless.


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