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Why do so many Nobel laureates look like Richard Dawkins?

Richard Dawkins' statement that "All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge" has attracted a lot of attention. Was he just being a troll? Or is there a wider point to be made about where science happens in the world?

Richard Dawkins, notable atheist. Photograph: Getty Images

There's a great parody in the current issue of Private Eye in which Craig Brown pretends to be Richard Dawkins on Twitter. It captures perfectly, with almost documentary verisimilitude, in fact, the blend of irascibility, conceit and high-handed disdain for religion that shines through Dawkins' online persona. Brown's version of the God Delusion author berates a shop assistant wearing a crucifix, criticises Bach for sneaking references to Jesus into his St Matthew Passion and wonders exasperatedly why anyone would be stupid enough to think it a "good point" that you can't prove God doesn't exist.

It's almost perfect. Except that even Craig Brown can't quite reproduce the sheer obtuseness of the original. Dawkins' well-honed technique (it often amounts to trolling) is to say something pointlessly provocative, wait for the inevitable backlash (the traditional response, playing on his well-known love of grammar, is "Your a dick") and then express innocent bafflement that anyone could possibly object. As often as not these days, his target is Islam and/or Muslims; a predilection that seems close enough to an obsession to have attracted accusations of racism. I don't believe that myself (my guess is that he has been stung by earlier accusations of cowardice for concentrating his fire on the softer target of Christianity) but I do suspect that being accused of race-baiting has only increased his determination to push things.

Yesterday's was a classic:

For an Oxford man, that's some admission. It's also true, as it happens: the 32 Nobel Prizes awarded to people with a connection to Cambridge's largest college far outweighs the number given to persons of Muslim background or faith. It's even more strikingly true if you exclude the Peace Prize and the prize for literature (and Dawkins was really making a point about science). Only two Muslim scientists have won the Prize: the Pakistani Abdus Salam for Physics and the Egyptian-American Ahmed Zewail for Chemistry. But it's equally true that (again excluding the peace and literature prizes) Trinity boasts more Nobel laureates than the entire female gender. Only 17 women have ever been awarded one of the scientific prizes.

Clearly the success of Trinity College graduates and academics in the Nobel Prize stakes requires some sort of explanation, as does the apparent underachievement of scientists from the Islamic world. His Tweet was clumsy and offensive, but it hints at a real issue. But what is actually going on?

Looking at the list of Nobel laureates since the prizes were first awarded in 1909, the most striking thing is the overwhelming predominance of Western countries, in particular the United States, and of a handful of institutions. Of 863 individual winners, 338 have been American or based in the United States. A further 119 have been British. Germany is in third place with 101 winners, and France a distant fourth with 65 (which is more than Trinity, but less than Cambridge as a whole). Most of the remainder come from other Western nations. Again, the effect is even greater if Peace and Literature are omitted. The university affiliations tell a similar story, with the top US institutions (Harvard alone has 147 affiliated winners) and Oxbridge dominating the lists.

The reason for this isn't an international conspiracy and it's ridiculous to view it as some sort of failure on the part of Islam. Rather, it shows that modern science (by which I mean academic, research-intensive science) has been and remains an overwhelmingly Western phenomenon. To ask "where are all the Muslims?" as Dawkins does is to miss the point. One might as well ask, Where are all the Chinese? China has just 8 native-born Nobel winners, and all but two of them are affiliated with Western universities, mostly in the United States. There are approximately the same number of Chinese nationals in the world as there are Muslims, and China, like Islam, had its golden age (in China's case, several of them) when it led the world in technology and science. Japan does rather better, with 20 winners; but then Japan adopted the Western model of university-based scientific research in the late 19th century, and even so only won its first Nobel Prize in 1949.

Given the type of work that wins a Nobel Prize for science, it's still remarkable that Trinity College has so many more winners than other Cambridge Colleges, but it's not all that remarkable that it has more winners than most non-Western countries put together. It says something about the way modern science developed, and about the continuing place of Anglo-American institutions within modern scientific research, but it says no more about Islam than it says about China (or about women). Which is to say, not much.

I suspect that what Dawkins wanted to suggest, if he wasn't being simply dickish, was that something in Islam is indeed responsible for the decline of Arab science, that was once so promising. Here's another of his tweets:

Do we hear boasts about their science? Jim Al-Khalili has written an excellent book, Pathfinders, about the medieval Arab pioneers of such fields as optics and medicine (has Dawkins read it? It would be rather surprising if he hadn't). Al-Khalili is President of the British Humanist Association, as it happens, so you won't find him "boasting" about the scientific superiority of Islam. But he has written that

. . .the scientific revolution of the Abbasids would not have taken place if not for Islam - in contrast to the spread of Christianity over the preceding centuries, which had nothing like the same effect in stimulating and encouraging original scientific thinking. The brand of Islam between the beginning of the ninth and the end of the 11th century was one that promoted a spirit of free thinking, tolerance and rationalism. The comfortable compatibility between science and religion in medieval Baghdad contrasts starkly with the contradictions and conflict between rational science and many religious faiths in the world today

You can in fact make a similar case for Christianity, despite what Galileo experienced at the hands of the Inquisition. Both Islam and Christianity, in their different ways, present a vision of the world that is ordered, that is governed by laws, and that as the product of an intelligent designer is inherently intelligible. If you say that Christianity held back science, you have to explain why the modern scientific revolution took of in a Europe that remained profoundly Christian. Newton, for one, believed that his scientific work was in large part a religious undertaking. If you say that Islam is anti-science, you have to explain why for many centuries it was anything but. It's probably true that the Muslim world became more religiously conservative, and thus more anti-science, just as Western Europe was becoming more religiously open. But that's a historical contingency that says nothing more fundamental about Islam as a belief system than the earlier scientific success. It could easily have gone another way.

Likewise, China under the Ming dynasty largely withdrew from international trade just as Europeans began their great voyages of exploration. The ultimate result was an economic and political eclipse that has only recently been reversed.

There are many reasons why modernity developed in Western Europe and its American offshoot and why the West continued to be economically and politically dominant for so long. Political, geological and geographic factors all played their part, as to a lesser extent did philosophy and theology. But the long list of Western Nobel laureates has a more proximate cause: the weight of economic and intellectual capital that has accumulated in a small number of leading institutions, among which Cambridge University is among the most significant. Religion has very little to do with this. I've no doubt that there will be more Muslim Nobel prize winners in the future, not least because if you walk around Cambridge today it's not difficult to find Muslims doing science.

A final point. The United States may boast almost as many Nobel Prize winners as the rest of the world put together, but it is also home to millions of diehard creationists. What has Richard Dawkins to say about that?

This post first appeared on Nelson's blog and is crossposted here with his permission.