Richard DawkinsI like Richard Dawkins. He’s a prolific atheist, and I’m a theist, but desipte this fundamental difference I like his rational approach and commitment to good science and entertaining polemics. On my fondness for Dawkins, fellow blogger Stephen Graham and I disagree. But today I saw a piece in the Guardian by Andrew Brown which made me sit up in surprise:

“I still think The Selfish Gene is a wonderful piece of pop science. Not everybody does. The philosopher Mary Midgley gave it a scathing review in Philosophy and when I told Dawkins at the beginning of our interview that I had just come from reading the piece, he said, straight into my tape recorder, that Midgley had confessed to Ullica Segerstråle, a distinguished sociologist of science, that she had not in fact read the book before reviewing it.”

I had heard this before, perhaps from Dawkins himself. But the article goes on:

“[For a number of reasons] this could not possibly be true. None the less he said it with such conviction that I took the trouble to track down Dr Segerstråle and – after she had failed to respond to emails – to ring her up in Illinois. She said that of course it was nonsense.”

Dawkins later apologised for getting this rather pertinent fact wrong:

“I had an unexpected email from Dawkins himself, in Chicago, where he had just had supper with Ullica Segerstråle. They had discussed the matter and come to the happy conclusion that it was all a misunderstanding. He also, I believe, wrote to Mary Midgley apologising for telling me this rather unpleasant lie about her.”

But -and this is the incredible thing- when Brown met Dawkins at a function some time later:

“I introduced myself, and clearly this stirred a memory, because before we even sat down he said to me: ‘Do you know? Mary Midgley confessed that she had never even read The Selfish Gene before reviewing it.’ I didn’t know what to say.”

And that isn’t the end of it. Three weeks ago on Dawkins writes on his own website:

“Mrs Midgley confessed to Ullica that she had not in fact read The Selfish Gene when she wrote that article. She has since backtracked from that confession, and I was inclined to believe her.”

What is going on here? As Brown comments at the end of his piece:

“Richard Dawkins has made his name arguing against superstition and wishful thinking; he is a man who demands good evidence for every factual claim about the world – and yet he is also, apparently, a man unable to rid himself of this impossible belief about Dr Midgley; it must be very comforting to him.”

Dawkins regularly responds to stuff written about him, particularly in the national press, so we’ll await his response with bated breath. The Dawkinsistas are already at it on the Guardian comments section: they’re a loyal flock, and you’ve got to love that.