Early this morning, the Sunday Telegraph reported on an “awkward revelation” for the well-known atheist and author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins: His eighteenth-century ancestors owned upwards of 1,000 slaves and the Dawkins family estate was purchased in part with (slave) blood money. Dawkins has responded, calling the story a “smear tactic” and “surreal,” and implying it’s payback for a “week of successfully rattling cages,” including that of a well-known Anglican leader. While it seems entirely beside the point who Dawkins’ ancestors were — some were leading abolitionists, after all — at least one group has already intimated that he should make reparations for his family’s “crimes against humanity.” Reparations is not a subject to be laughed away, to be sure, but what particularly stood out in this story was evidence of an agenda behind the Telegraph story, going by a Guardian report that came out several hours later.
Dawkins said 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, he said the reporter rang back and suggested Dawkins may have inherited a “slave supporting” gene from his distant relative.
On his site, Dawkins identified the reporter in question as Adam Lusher, who wrote the Telegraph story. What’s journalistically questionable in all this is Lusher’s fishing expedition for some way to link Dawkins’s character to that of his morally reprehensible antecedents. Bringing up the Biblical passage, which Dawkins called “one of the most disagreeable verses of the Bible,” and positing a “slave supporting gene” seem designed either to elicit guilt on Dawkins’ behalf or indict him on his remote ancestors’ crimes. It’s one thing to point out how even the most righteous and well-meaning people have bad (very bad) apples somewhere on the family tree. But it’s something altogether different to suggest, pardon the extended metaphor, that all the fruit is rotten as a result.