Dawkins you slave driver, you…

By Luke Slade (Political Editor)

Professor Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and prominent atheist, is used to criticism from those who do not share his views on religion or the origins of mankind. But his latest attack from The Sunday Telegraph was quite wonderful.

They reported that Henry Dawkins, Prof. Dawkins’ great great great great great grandfather, had amassed more than 1,000 slaves in Jamaica by the time of his death in 1744. And commented on the fact that the estate Over Norton Park was bought with the earnings.

The Telegraph are clear that the article is there to highlight Dawkins’ historical past and was not necessarily to suggest that Dawkins is a latent slave driver. That said, the tone of the article was clearly written with the knowledge of how it would be received. It is a paradigm for awful journalism.

They mention how he wrote an obituary for his late father and in it mentions the estate but omits the details as to how they amassed the wealth to purchase such an estate. If I’m honest, I though obituaries were about a celebration of life not something malign. This would not sound that great: ‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone / It’s a pity you made your money from slaves and can’t atone’.

This was not about smearing his name but exploiting his position. In these situations we are taught to expect people to apologise, but how is that an appropriate response? I don’t expect my German friends to apologise because their ancestors, in closer historical proximity, to apologise because that would be perverse.

I was not worrying when I read this though because if anyone is able to formulate a wonderful retort to the ignorant of this world, it is Prof. Dawkins.

Dawkins told the Guardian that a reporter had called him and named a number of his ancestors who he said were slave owners.

After the reporter quoted the biblical verse about the Lord “visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation” Dawkins said he ended the conversation.

However, it appears they called back and suggested that Dawkins may have inherited a “slave supporting” gene from his distant relative.

Dawkins wrote on his Blog: “‘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 (that’s the correct figure; in the heat of the moment on the phone, I got it wrong by a couple of powers of two).”

Dawkins added: “As it happens, my ancestry also boasts an unbroken line of six generations of Anglican clergymen, from the Rev William Smythies (born 1635) to his great great great grandson the Rev Edward Smythies (born 1818). I wonder if [the reporter] thinks I’ve inherited a gene for piety too.

“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?”

The Guardian reported that The Sunday Telegraph declined to comment.


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  • I agree with Amy. Richard Dawkins expects this kind of thing. If anything it helps to solidify the people belief in him when he is attacked in this way because most rational people think this kind of journalism is absurd. Alain de Botton is an interesting example, but the thing is he is never going to revolutionise anything – we need Dawkins for that. de Bottons’ talk on TED is really good though, it is called ‘Atheism 2.0’ it’s worth a watch

  • This isn’t bad journalism, it is actually just stating some truths. Okay you can’t inherit the ‘slave driver’ gene but, like the original report says, it did mean that he is in a better position than most and so it wouldn’t hurt if he actually did something as opposed to sitting on his arse all day at a University that charges immense fees.I am a Christian and I think atheists etc. need more people like Alain de Botton to represent them, not feisty Dawkins. His responses are never clever, he’s just an angry little man.

    • I don’t know about that, I think he is making a point about journalists focusing on things that are unnecessary. This pice of information is pointless, but it makes the brainless tabloid readers who dislike Dawkins have a legitimate reason for disliking him. He’s not just an angry little man, he is a highly educated man who has strong views that don’t quite fit everyones taste. But that he has inherited from his own built up perception.