Richard Dawkins should read some Sir Pterry

Reading fairy stories to children is harmful because it instils a false belief in the supernatural from a young age, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has warned.

We are Pan Narrans you idiot. Telling stories is what we do.

“I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway,’ the 73-year-old said.

“Even fairy tales, the ones we all love, with wizards or princesses turning into frogs or whatever it was. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it’s statistically too improbable.”

As is very well explained, it’s easy enough to make a Prince think he’s a frog but conservation of mass means it’s very difficult to actually turn one into the other (umm, in the Tiffany Acheing stories I think?).

44 comments on “Richard Dawkins should read some Sir Pterry

  1. In A Hat Full of Sky. When Tiffany, under the influence of the hiver, turns a soi disant wizard into a frog, there is rather a lot of supposed wizard left over, in a big pink balloon.

    On the otherhand, Ridcully, in response to a threat of a law suit, replies, “Oh, please do sue us. We have a lily pond full of people who have tried to sue us.”

    Possibly a bluff, but I wouldn’t call it.

  2. And of course, the cat Greebo to and from magnificent bastard doesn’t have seem to have a conservation of mass problem, but that’s probably just because Granny and Nanny are bloody good at magic.

    /Sad_bastard

  3. “I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway,’ the 73-year-old said.

    Dawkins seems more and more determined to turn himself into a Dickensian-style buffoon every year. The whole point of childhood is the wonder of the incomprehensible. That is what makes science so interesting – distinguishing the two. Because to a five year old, there really is no difference between science and magic. We don’t start forcing them to learn the periodic table at six – as important as it is. We teach them to dream of other worlds. That is what is going to serve most of us well in the long run. We need people who can dream three impossible things before breakfast. I bet Einstein loved fairy tales. Science fiction has been once of the best things for children and for society as a whole since, well, someone decided children were needed back home in the fields during summer.

  4. Perhaps someone needs to introduce Mr Dawkins to a real version of The Tiger Who Came to Tea.

  5. And the functional difference between fairy stories and the bible – or any other religious tract – is what, exactly? In the way that it would be discerned by a three-year-old.

  6. He may be a good geneticist, but he’s an appalling psychologist.

    There’s a reason why we tell fairy tales to children. And it’s to educate them about the scary things in the world. And to do it without scarring them in the process.

    To explain to very young girls that there are men who would hurt them, rape them, would be unconscionable. It would be very damaging to their psyche and destroy their confidence out in the world. So we tell stories instead of scary things which they know are not real, so that they can run the ideas over in their head, and so would know how to react if they came across a similar situation later.

    The original Grimms’ Fairy Tales used to be much, much scarier before they were Bowlderised. But even now, if you’ve been paying close attention, they are still bloody good analogies. For example:

    Who is the Big Bad Wolf really? Who does he represent?
    Why, of all possible colours, is Little Red Riding Hood’s cape red?
    What is a young girl’s journey through time, around that age?
    Why does she, when she finds him in bed, comment on the surprisingly large size of certain physical features of his body?

    Pay attention peeps, it’s all still there.if you see it.

  7. See also Susan’s conversation with her Granfather immediately afyer saving the Hogfather..

  8. One of my university lecturers extolled a theory that Father Christmas was a deliberate lie to turn children into Capitalists. It worked like this. You get magic freebies every year for doing nothing and then one day you are shocked to discover there is no such thing as Santa Claus. Children, angry at being deceived, turn into Capitalists.

    Not sure why anger at the loss of freebies should turn one into a Capitalist instead of a Socialist but let’s not let examine a Socialist theory too closely.

  9. How would Dawkins know?

    He’s only been a dad once, and it’s unlikely he saw very much of his daughter after her mum divorced him.

    The guy’s been married three times so one child is a pretty awful result. What’s wrong with him? In Darwinian terms, he’s a massive failure. Does that explain some of his bitterness? I think it might.

  10. He sounds increasingly like Mr Logic from Viz.

    Strapline to that strip was: ‘What a twat’

  11. Interestingly, the only people who agree with Dawkins on this are religious nutters who believe reading Harry Potter leads to Satanism.

  12. Ian Bennett – “And the functional difference between fairy stories and the bible – or any other religious tract – is what, exactly? In the way that it would be discerned by a three-year-old.”

    Laugh at the Big Bad Wolf and no one beats you within an inch of your life. Ask why the three little pigs couldn’t get a council house and you won’t be sent to bed without dinner.

    TDK – “One of my university lecturers extolled a theory that Father Christmas was a deliberate lie to turn children into Capitalists. ”

    P. J. O’Rourke went the other way and said that Father Christmas was a Democrat and God was a Republican.

  13. Steve – “He’s only been a dad once, and it’s unlikely he saw very much of his daughter after her mum divorced him.”

    Perhaps it would have done him some good if he had been a little more involved?

    MC – “Interestingly, the only people who agree with Dawkins on this are religious nutters who believe reading Harry Potter leads to Satanism.”

    And feminists who think reading Harry Potter makes you a racist. Or the Liverpool City Council that has long felt that reading Baa Baa Black sheep makes you a member of the KKK.

  14. We don’t start forcing them to learn the periodic table at six – as important as it is.

    Especially as learning it requires one to recite:

    Happy Henry Licks Betty’s Big C***, Nagging Maggie Always Shits, Peter Sucks Clare’s Arse

    Or maybe that was just me?

  15. We teach them to dream of other worlds. That is what is going to serve most of us well in the long run. We need people who can dream three impossible things before breakfast.

    Steady on. Some people never stopped dreaming, and became socialists.

  16. Deceit is the foundation stone of human intelligence. Even our colour vision is for figuring out if we’re being lied to, not for picking fruit.

    Show me someone who believes stuff is “literally” true and I’ll how you someone with a mental age of two. Or maybe a 73 year old Oxford professor.

  17. SMFS – It couldn’t hurt. Being a dad is a good influence on a man.

    So Richard D is a highly intelligent and wealthy man, and his three wives are/were probably bright too. Out of the four of them, have they only produced one child? Way below replacement rate.

    That’s absurd. The average Jeremy Kyle guest has more children.

    Even Stephen Hawking has three kids. No wonder he seems happier.

  18. Whenever I read something like this from Dawkins, I remember the scene from South Park of him rogering ‘Mr’ Garrison, and that puts it in perspective.

  19. What Martin said.

    And, because someone else said it better than I can

    “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be beaten.”

    – G.K. Chesterton.

  20. A scientist says we shouldn’t use our imagination?

    Pack it in, Isaac, it’s a load of old baloney.

    You what Albert? What a load of crap!

    Fond of mud huts and eating berries are we, Dick?

    It must be something to do with being called Richard.

  21. You’d think one of the world’s leading experts on evolution and the inventor of the concept of the meme, faced with ideas that all human societies have always propogated, might try to study their purpose. Instead, he assumes they cannot have any. Forget Pratchett; has Dawkins not even read his own work?

  22. “The scientist claims he saw through the myth of Santa Claus even at the young age of 21 months.”

    Says all I need to know about the man, really.

  23. What a weird POV from a man who called one of his bestsellers ‘The Selfish Gene’.

    A title that most all realised was not a direct claim that genes have feelings, but a catchily entertaining way to impart the core truth of his proposition. Arguably like… oh, I dunno – a fairy tale perhaps?

    One the other hand, maybe he does truly claim that genes have feelings?

  24. This is odd:

    “There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it’s statistically too improbable.”

    Well, the 2005 Ashes weren’t far off either. What this means, in an infinite universe, is that princes do turn into frogs on occasion, but so rarely that you’ll almost certainly never come across it.

    I doubt it Richard.

  25. Doug, maybe he’s a bit miffed that genes are maybe not the universal controllers after all. Epigenetics. Sort of Lamarkianism with a chemical foundation.

  26. I wonder where on the spectrum of fiction he draws the line. Presumably The Lord of the Rings is out. Beowulf? A Midsummer Night’s Dream is right out.

  27. And what about TV crime dramas where the police always catch the criminals. Ridiculous. Ban them.

  28. dearime,

    I don’t know if Einstein liked fairy tales or not, but given that he did say, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed,” the idea that he did like a form of tale centred on the mysterious and the wondrous doesn’t seem daft to me.

  29. Sam, further to that Chesterton quote, there’s a CS Lewis essay I read once that mentions the same quote and goes on to say (from memory) that as a child Lewis was never actually deceived in the slightest by fairy tales but was sadly deceived by school stories – I gather that he’d got the idea from school stories that boarding school would be all jolly japes and plucky lads ending up as Captain of the School, but he ended up utterly miserable.

  30. Haven’t read the article but I have a feeling I’d agree with Dawkins.

    It makes me wince when people make up outlandish stories and explanations for well known and explainable phenomena.

    Stuff like the tooth fairy and father christmas. I just don’t get the delight people take in lying to their kids and the more their innocent little ones are convinced in their papa’s explanation the more delight is taken.

  31. Lying to kids is how we teach children that other people lie. We teach them to learn to distinguish fact from fiction. If we only told them the truth then they would enter the world of adulthood as naive idiots.

  32. In fairness to Dawkins, he now says he was partially misreported.

    “Dawkins admitted that he had once questioned whether a “diet of supernatural magic spells might possibly have a detrimental effect on a child’s critical thinking.”

    But he added: “I genuinely don’t know the answer to that, and what I repeated at Cheltenham is that I think it is a very interesting question.

    He goes on to say that he sees some possible benefits to fairy tales.

    So I guess we can all stand down. But the old boy does have a bit of a history of talking hastily and then rowing back.

  33. well yes. The ‘people lie’ lesson is an important one.
    I think they can learn it and we can teach It without half of the bollocks that goes on. If I know something then i’m going to share that knowledge with a child, even if my knowledge is imperfect (whose isn’t). That child then knows something that might be useful to them one day.
    Intellectual honesty doesn’t begin at any particular age in my view.
    People who tell their kids that their hamster went to heaven when they don’t believe that themselves well I don’t know why they do it. “It’s easier” . is probably high up on the survey response. I don’t have a great deal of respect for that approach.

  34. Tim Newman, your scatological mnemonic appears to skip over nitrogen, oxygen, fluorine and neon, going directly from boron to sodium.

  35. Kids and magic – they are able to suspend disbelief when it suits them, they already know that Father Christmas is not real at five but still believe in him.

    Halloween has changed in recent years and if you haven’t been out with a three year old at about 6pm on Halloween you will be unaware of true subjects of the modern version of halloween. There’s a sweet spot of no more than an hour when the street belongs to 3 year olds, and they believe in it, though there’s no canon of what they believe. The next year, they are too old and know that its not true. All the kids dress as ghouls, but those from 4yo up are on the make for sweets, but the 3 year olds believe in it.

    It is interesting to note that the only “belief” about halloween for the 3 year olds is dressing up and getting sweets and lanterns and pumpkins etc, but there’s real magic,and it just for them, and they know it, and if you haven’t done halloween with a 3 year old you have probably missed it entirely. (Getting pestered by 5 – 18 year olds knocking on your door is not it).

    When your are 3 there is magic, just a year older and reason is already becoming too strong.

  36. Tim Newman – “Or maybe that was just me?”

    Always knew there was something a little odd about these expensive Catholic schools …..

    Besides, as someone else says:

    “Happy Henry Licks Betty’s Big C***, Nagging Maggie Always Shits, Peter Sucks Clare’s Arse”

    Hydrogen, Helium. Lithium, Beryllium, Boron, Carbon, Nitrogen? Oxygen? Fluorine? Neon?

    Tim Newman – “Steady on. Some people never stopped dreaming, and became socialists.”

    As long as they get a dose of the Bible as well:

    When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
    For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

    Steve – “So Richard D is a highly intelligent and wealthy man, and his three wives are/were probably bright too. Out of the four of them, have they only produced one child? Way below replacement rate.”

    And to think at least one of them was on Doctor Who too! All those genes going to waste.

    “That’s absurd. The average Jeremy Kyle guest has more children.”

    Idiocracy wasn’t supposed to be a documentary.

    “Even Stephen Hawking has three kids. No wonder he seems happier.”

    Well he probably didn’t change a lot of nappies or get up in the middle of the night for feedings.

    dearieme – “what a pricelessly daft remark.”

    You think? Tell you what, a tenner and it is yours.

    Rob – “And what about TV crime dramas where the police always catch the criminals. Ridiculous. Ban them.”

    It is interesting how TV crime dramas, especially American ones, have become so deceitful. All Police Captains are Black. Which they may well be for all I know. Although a lot fewer criminals are caught in cities run by Black police captains. So are a reasonable number of doctors. But very few criminals.

    British TV shows are just as bad about people of Jamaican origin. The most common meeting your average Londoner is likely to have with one will be in the course of a mugging. But TV continues to show them as happy, cheerful, Rastas that are just on the right side of the borderline of patronising racist buffoonery.

  37. He made the news both sides of the Atlantic just for saying something slightly absurd. A good day’s work, I’d say.

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