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More Articles on Evolution

Errors of Omission

Richard Dawkins

I was brought up to believe that authors don't respond to reviews of their books except under extreme provocation or to correct outright errors. In this case, however, the editor has kindly invited me to reply to Robert Berwick's review of Climbing Mount Improbable. I suppose, moreover, that when a reviewer sees fit to repeat his errors in two different journals (the Times Literary Supplement and Boston Review), it might come under the heading of mild provocation. But I'll still confine myself to two brief remarks.

1. The quotation which Berwick attributes to me at the outset, and upon which he largely bases his attack, is robbed of a crucial phrase (and in any case the quotation was not from me). After a joking remark about continental Idealists and their Bauplans, I had written, as a comparative judgment and in similarly joking vein:

I prefer the Anglo-Saxon simplicity of my colleague Dr Henry Bennet-Clark, with whom I have discussed these matters: "All questions about life have the same answer (though it may not always be a helpful one): natural selection."

Without any indication that he has done so, Berwick cuts out the key phrase upon which Bennet-Clark rightly insists: "though it may not always be a helpful one." Apart from being unscholarly, this is unfortunate because the excised disclaimer covers a multitude of sins, including nearly all those of which Berwick goes on to accuse me.

2. In support of his view that I exaggerate the importance of natural selection, Berwick triumphantly quotes the distinguished geneticist F. J. Ayala as stating that "today's working evolutionary biologists start with the `null hypothesis' that natural selection has not occurred."

The context indicates clearly that Berwick, unlike Ayala (indeed, unlike any freshman student of biology) has not the faintest idea what the useful phrase "null hypothesis" means. He evidently thinks you can simply omit the word "null" and the sense will remain the same (in much the same way, I suppose, as he omitted the key phrase from the Bennet-Clark quotation). Medical researchers start with the null hypothesis that smoking does not cause lung cancer. Berwick needs to understand that this true and uncontroversial statement is different from "Medical researchers don't believe smoking causes lung cancer."

Originally published in the February/ March 1997 issue of Boston Review

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