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?

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.

Richard Dawkins, notable atheist. Photograph: Getty Images
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Jeremy Corbyn vows not to resign. What next for Labour?

The leader's decision to fight the rebels sets the stage for a new leadership contest or a protracted legal battle.  

Throughout Sunday as the shadow cabinet resignations mounted up (reaching 11 by the evening), Jeremy Corbyn's allies insisted that he was unfazed. "He's not wavering," one told me, adding that Corbyn would seek to form a new frontbench. At 21:54pm, the Labour leader released a statement confirming as much. "I regret there have been resignations today from my shadow cabinet," Corbyn said. "But I am not going to betray the trust of those who voted for me - or the millions of supporters across the country who need Labour to represent them."

Corbyn added that "those who want to change Labour's leadership" would "have to stand in a democratic election, in which I will be a candidate". The shadow cabinet, he said, would be reshaped "over the next 24 hours" ("On past experience, 24 hours to pick a shadow cabinet is ambitious," a Labour source quipped in reference to January's marathon reshuffle). 

Any hope that Corbyn would retreat without a fight has been dispelled. Tom Watson will meet him tomorrow morning to "discuss the way forward", a statement regarded as "ominous" by some of the leader's allies. Labour's deputy failed to back Corbyn's leadeership and warned of the need to be "ready to form a government" following an early election. But even if Watson calls on the leader to resign (which insiders say is far from guaranteed), few believe he will do so. 

Corbyn retains the support of his closest allies, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett, and has been backed by shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry and Andy Burnham ("Those who put personal ambition before the party won't be forgiven or forgotten," a senior MP declared of the Manchester mayoral contender). He will look to repopulate the shadow cabinet with supporters from the 2015 intake, such as Clive Lewis, Richard Burgon, Cat Smith and Rebecca Long-Bailey. 

The Parliamentary Labour Party will meet on Monday at 6pm and discuss a motion of no confidence against Corbyn, tabled by veteran MPs Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey. This will likely be followed by a secret ballot on Tuesday between 9am and 5pm. The rebels are confident of winning a majority (though dismiss reports that as many as 80 per cent will oppose Corbyn). But the Labour leader is still unlikely to resign at this juncture. Having entered office with the backing of just 15 MPs (now 14 following the death of Michael Meacher), he is untroubled by losing support that he never truly had. "He's an oddity. Very gentle but very robust," an ally told me. 

At this point, Corbyn's opponents would be forced to launch a direct leadership challenge, most likely in the form of a "stalking horse". John Spellar, a veteran of Labour's 1980s strife, Hodge and Barry Sheerman have been touted for the role. A matter of fierce dispute on Sunday was whether Corbyn would automatically make the ballot if challenged. Labour's lawyers have told the party that he would not, forcing him to win 50 MP/MEP nominations to stand again (a hurdle he would struggle to clear). But Corbyn's allies counter that their own legal advice suggests the reverse. "It could get very messy and end up in the courts," one senior rebel lamented.

Some take the view that natural justice demands Corbyn is included on the ballot, the view expressed by Tony Blair to MPs. In a new leadership contest, Watson and/or Angela Eagle are regarded as the likeliest challengers, though there is still no agreed alternative. Many argue that the party needs a "Michael Howard figure" to achieve party unity and limit the damge at an early election. He or she would then by succeeded by a younger figure (a "Cameron") such as Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis or Lisa Nandy.

But a Labour source told me of the potential contest: "Don't rule out Yvette. The only grown-up candidate and I believe she wants it". He emphasised the need to look beyond the task of "unifying the party" and towards the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. Cooper, an experienced economist, was best-qualified to lead at a moment of "national crisis", the source suggested. Watson, he added, wanted "the leadership handed to him on a plate" with backing from grandees across the party. John McTernan, Blair's former political director, said that he would be "very happy" to have the Brownite as leader. Despite Watson's leading role in the coup against Blair in 2006, many from Labour's right believe that he is best placed to defeat Corbyn and unite the party. Some point to Eagle's fourth-place finish in Labour's deputy leadership election as evidence of her limited appeal. 

McDonnell, Corbyn's closest ally, who MPs have long believed retains leadership ambitions, insisted on Sunday that he would "never stand". Most believe that the shadow chancellor, a more abrasive character than Corbyn, would struggle to achieve the requisite 37 MP/MEP nominations. 

The Labour leader's allies remain confident that he would win majority support from members if challenged. Rebels speak of an "unmistakable shift" in opinion since Brexit but concede that this may prove insufficient. They are prepared to mount repeated challenges to Corbyn if necessary in order to "wear him down". But an early general election, which Boris Johnson is expected to trigger if elected Conservative leader, could deny them the chance. 

As the PLP assembles in Committee Room 14 at 6pm, the activist group Momentum will assemble in Parliament Square for a #KeepCorbyn protest. It is a fitting symbol of a party fatally torn between its members and its MPs. Unless the two can somehow be aligned, Labour will remain united in name only. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.