My Short Interview with
by Lanny Swerdlow
Lanny Swerdlow: Hi! With me today is Dr. Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, the revolutionary book (as far as I'm concerned) The Blind Watchmaker, and his newest book, Climbing -- er...
Richard Dawkins: ...Mount Improbable.
Lanny Swerdlow: Climbing Mount Improbable. I've got a couple of questions that, ever since I've read the book, I've always wanted to ask you. They're kind of grand in their scope of things, they're not particularly specific. In your book The Blind Watchmaker, I believe that you made the argument that the principles of evolution apply everywhere in the universe. In other words, the laws of thermodynamics apply on a planet a hundred-billion light years away from the earth as well as they apply on the earth. So the principles of evolution apply on that planet as much as they would on earth.
Richard Dawkins: It's a less-strong claim than for the laws of thermodynamics. I think for the laws of thermodynamics we more or less know that they apply everywhere in the universe. The laws of Darwinian evolution: First off, we don't know if there's life anywhere else in the universe; there may not be. It is actually seriously possible that we may be alone in the universe. Assuming that there is other life in the universe (and I think most people think that there is), then my conjecture is that how ever alien and different it may be in detail (the creatures may be so different from us that we may hardly recognize them as living at all), if they have the property of organized complexity and apparent design -- adaptive complexity -- then I believe that something equivalent to Darwinian natural selection -- gradual evolution by Darwinian natural selection; that is, the non-random survival of randomly varying hereditary elements -- will turn out to be applied. All life in the universe, my guess is, will have evolved by some equivalent to Darwinism.
Lanny Swerdlow: Also from reading your book The Blind Watchmaker, I kind of pick up the idea that the mechanism of evolution not only apply to origin of species, or DNA survival, but in a way, apply to everything in the universe, from quarks to galaxies.
Richard Dawkins: I would prefer not to say that. I certainly haven't said that in any of my books, and I would be reluctant to say that. I think that something very special happens in the universe, when a self-replicating entity, which DNA is -- DNA is probably not the only one, but DNA is the self-replicating entity that we know. When that comes into existence, then there is a whole new game that starts. Before that, you had just physics; you have molecules bumping around, forming new molecules according to the ordinary laws of chemistry. Once, by those ordinary laws of chemistry, a molecule springs into existence which is self-replicating, then immediately you have the possibility for Darwinism, for natural selection to occur. Then you have this extraordinary process, which we only know of on this planet, but may exist elsewhere, whereby things start to get more complicated and start to appear as though they've been really designed for a purpose. If you look carefully for what that purpose is, it turns out to be to replicate, to pass on, to propagate that very same DNA, or whatever it might be.
Lanny Swerdlow: People will sometimes look at the physical universe and say it looks like it was designed.... Isn't the fact that a solar system survives based on [the fact that] it has properties which will ensure its survival, versus another solar system that is unstable?
Richard Dawkins: So you're kind of trying to make a Darwinian view of solar systems.... In a way, but let me make a distinction, then, between what we call one-off or single-generation selection, and cumulative, multi-generation selection. A solar system survives because -- let's say, a planet orbiting a star will orbit the star at a particular distance, which is the right distance for that planet and that star. That's the crucial distance. If it was orbiting faster, it would whiz off into deep space; if it were orbiting slower, it would spiral into the star. So, there is a kind of selection of planets to be orbiting at the right speed and at the right distance from their stars.
But that's not cumulative selection, that's one-off, single-generation selection. It's like one generation of biological selection. It's like finches who have the wrong size of beak for a hard winter. The ones with the wrong size of beak die, so in the next winter, the next generation have all got the right size of beak. That's one generation.
What's really crucial about biological evolution is that that doesn't stop at one generation, it goes on to the next and the next and the next, and it takes hundreds, it takes thousands of generations to build up, cumulatively, the really impressive adaptive complexity that we get in living things, like eyes and elbow joints. So, that's the reason why solar systems don't look very impressively designed, whereas living bodies look very, very impressively designed indeed. They've been through many generations of cumulative selection.
Lanny Swerdlow: I was listening to your previous interview and a question popped into my mind that I wanted to ask; it's kind of a hot-button question. They asked you a question about children being gullible and you explained that this is an adaptive mechanism, that they have a lot to learn when they're young, so they'll take in a lot of information. Some of the information is good, some of the information is bad, and the problem is that once they've taken in this information they're pretty well set for the rest of their lives. Is this one of the reasons explaining why religion and belief in supernatural forces is so ingrained in people because it's indoctrinated into them when they're very young and very gullible? and even when they get older and can start reasoning better, it's been so ingrained into them that they can't get out of it?
Richard Dawkins: Yes, I do think that. What would be consistent with that view is the fact that (really, rather remarkably) of the people who are religious, the religion that they have is almost always the same as that of their parents. Very occasionally, it isn't. This is an almost unique feature about people's beliefs. We talk about a child as being a 4-year-old Muslim or a 4-year-old Catholic. You would never dream about talking about a 4-year-old economic monitorist or a 4-year-old neo-isolationist, and yet, you can see the parallel.
Lanny Swerdlow: Yes!
Richard Dawkins: Children really ought not be spoken of as a Catholic child or a Muslim child. They ought to be allowed to grow until they're old enough to decide for themselves what their beliefs about the cosmos are. But ... the fact [is] that we do treat [children] that way, and ... parents seem to be regarded as having a unique right to impose their religious beliefs on their child; whereas, nobody thinks they're going to impose their beliefs about -- I don't know -- why the dinosaurs went extinct, or something of that sort. But religion is different. And I do think that you can explain an awful lot about religion if you assume that children start out gullible. Anything that is told to them with sufficient force -- particularly if it's reinforced by some kind of threat, like, "If you don't believe this, you'll go to hell when you die" -- then it is going to get passed on to the next generation. Above all, "You must believe this, and when you grow up, you must teach your children the same thing." That, of course, is precisely how religions get promoted, how they do get passed on from generation to generation.
Lanny Swerdlow: Almost sounds Darwinian! Last question, last night ... I saw ... the program, and I read about you, and then they had a little squib, in the program, of somebody opposing you. I was kind of taken aback by that.... Obviously, what you're talking about is very controversial, because some people who are religious feel it's attacking their very basic religious beliefs. I wonder if you might have a comment on -- here's a science group that, for some reason, feels so pressured by religions (or something), that they'll do an extraordinary thing by putting a religious argument in a Program; something they've never done before. How do you react to that?
Richard Dawkins: I think that you're overreacting to this particular thing. I think that when somebody's trying to sell tickets, it's quite good to put in a -- er, some negative, um -- I don't blame them for that at all. The particular extract that was put in was not by any known person. It was just a letter to the editor of a journal in which I'd had an article published. The person who wrote it is not somebody I've ever heard of; it was not a refereed article. It was just that if you say anything in the press that remotely treads on people's religious toes, all hell breaks loose. You always get a great mailbag full of stuff. Now, I just throw it straight in the bin! Newspapers, obviously, have a duty to publish some random selection of the papers that they get in, and I think that's what happened in this case.
Lanny Swerdlow: Finally, ... do you see the concepts of evolution as sort of an atheistic explanation of the origins of life? And, is that why the religions have so much problem with it, because it undermines their basic foundations?
Richard Dawkins: Well, evolution is different about this, because there are a large number of evolutionists who are also religious. You cannot be both sane and well educated and disbelieve in evolution. The evidence is so strong that any sane, educated person has got to believe in evolution. Now there are plenty of sane, educated, religious people: there are professors of theology, and there are bishops ... and so obviously they all believe in evolution or they wouldn't have gotten where they have because they would be too stupid or too ignorant. So, it is a fact that there are evolutionists who are religious and there are religious people who are evolutionists.
My own personal feeling is that it is rather difficult. I find that the reason that I am no longer religious is that the argument from design has been undermined by evolution. So if the basis for your religion is the argument from design, if the reason why you are religious is that you look at the world and you say, "Isn't it beautifully designed! Isn't it elegant! Isn't it complicated!" then Darwinism really does pull the rug out from under that argument. If your reason for being religious has nothing to do with that, if your reason for being religious is some still, small voice inside you which utterly convinces you, then the argument from design, I suppose, has no bearing on that. But what, I think, Darwinism has done is utterly to destroy the argument from design which, I believe, is probably, historically, the dominant reason for believing in a supernatural being.
Lanny Swerdlow: Thank you very much! I sure appreciate your time.
Richard Dawkins: Thank you.
The Likelihood of
-- by Richard Dawkins
(source of excerpt unknown)
I suspect that most people have a residue of feeling that Darwinian evolution isn't quite big enough to explain everything about life. All I can say as a biologist is that the feeling disappears progressively the more you read about and study what is known about life and evolution.
I want to add one thing more. The more you understand the significance of evolution, the more you are pushed away from the agnostic position and towards atheism. Complex, statistically improbable things are by their nature more difficult to explain than simple, statistically probable things.
The great beauty of Darwin's theory of evolution is that it explains how complex, difficult to understand things could have arisen step by plausible step, from simple, easy to understand beginnings. We start our explanation from almost infinitely simple beginnings: pure hydrogen and a huge amount of energy. Our scientific, Darwinian explanations carry us through a series of well-understood gradual steps to all the spectacular beauty and complexity of life.
The alternative hypothesis, that it was all started by a supernatural creator, is not only superfluous, it is also highly improbable. It falls foul of the very argument that was originally put forward in its favour. This is because any God worthy of the name must have been a being of colossal intelligence, a supermind, an entity of extremely low probability -- a very improbable being indeed.
Even if the postulation of such an entity explained anything (and we don't need it to), it still wouldn't help because it raises a bigger mystery than it solves.
Science offers us an explanation of how complexity (the difficult) arose
out of simplicity (the easy). The hypothesis of God offers no worthwhile
explanation for anything, for it simply postulates what we are trying to
explain. It postulates the difficult to explain, and leaves it at that.
We cannot prove that there is no God, but we can safely conclude the He
is very, very improbable indeed.
by Ian Parker
Richard Dawkins, arch-Darwinist, author of "The Selfish Gene", and Britain's village atheist, has a reputation for intellectual austerity and single-mindedness: he is a professor who will not stop professing. Because he knows the meaning of life (which is evolution by natural selection), and because others do not know it, or only half know it, or try willfully to mess with its simple, delicious truth, he promotes his subject in a way that -- if you wanted to drive him crazy -- you could call evangelical. Besides writing his beautifully pellucid and best-selling books on Darwinian themes, Dawkins, who is a zoologist by training, is forever finding other opportunities to speak on behalf of evolution and on behalf of science. Now in his mid-fifties, he has become a familiar floppy-haired figure on television and in the newspapers, where he energetically scraps with bishops and charlatans. He recently argued, for example, that astrologers should be jailed, and he has complained warmly about what he alleges are one novelist's slurs on his profession. ("Sir," he wrote to the Daily Telegraph, "Fay Weldon's incoherent, petulant and nihilistic rant is the sort of thing I remember scribbling as a disgruntled teenager.") Dawkins regards it as his duty not to let things pass, or rest, and as he makes his slightly awkward -- but still dashing -- progress through the British media he occasionally encounters charges of arrogance and aggressiveness. It is not universally agreed that he is science's ideal public-relations director.
This, though, is now his job. Dawkins has been appointed the first Charles Simonyi Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University -- Simonyi, the sponsor, being a soft-spoken Hungarian-born American made rich by long employment at Microsoft. Dawkins will now be expected to do more of what he has been doing: to write books, appear on television, and help counter what he calls "the stereo- type of scientists' being scruffy nerds with rows of pens in their top pocket" -- an image that he regards, with a typical level of moderation, as "just about as wicked as racist stereotypes." Richard Dawkins has been made the new Oxford Professor of Being Richard Dawkins.
Because of all his media activity -- those bright, staring eyes on television -- it has sometimes been possible to forget that Dawkins's reputation is founded on a remarkable writing achievement. Twenty years ago, with "The Selfish Gene" (1976), Dawkins managed to secure a wildly enthusiastic general readership for writing that was also of interest to his professional colleagues: he seduced two audiences at once. Biologists found themselves learning about their subject not from a paper in a learned journal but -- as in an earlier tradition of scientific disclosure, one that includes Darvin's own work -- from a book reviewed in the Sunday press. His later books, "The Blind Watchmaker" (1986) and "River Out of Eden" (1995), had a similar effect.
Like so much of Dawkins's enterprise, the inspiration for "The Selfish Gene" was rebuttal: the book was designed to banish an infuriatingly widespread popular misconception about evolution. The misconception was that Darwinian selection worked at the level of the group or the species, that it had something to do with the balance of nature. How else could one understand, for example, the evolution of apparent "altruism" in animal behavior? How could self-sacrifice, or niceness, ever have been favored by natural selection? There were answers to these questions, and they had been recently developed, in particular, by the evolutionary biologists W. D. Hamilton, now at Oxford, and George Williams, of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. But their answers were muted. Dawkins has written, "For me, their insight had a visionary quality. But I found their expressions of it too laconic, not full-throated enough. I was convinced that an amplified and developed version could make everything about life fall into place, in the heart as well as in the brain."
Essentially, their insight was that altruism in nature was a trick of the light. Once one understands that evolution works at the level of the gene -- a process of gene survival, taking place (as Dawkins developed it) in bodies that the gene occupies and then discards -- the problem of altruism begins to disappear. Evolution favors strategies that cause as many of an animal's genes as possible to survive -- strategies that may not immediately appear to be evolutionarily sound. In the idea's simplest form, if an animal puts its life at risk for its offspring, it is preserving a creature -- gene "vehicle," in Dawkins's language -- half of whose genes are its own. This is a sensible, selfish strategy, despite the possible inconvenience of death. No one is being nice.
Starting from this point, "The Selfish Gene" took its reader into more complex areas of animal behavior, where more persuasion was needed -- more mathematics, sometimes, and more daring logical journeys. Dawkins assumed no prior knowledge of the subject in his reader, yet was true to his science. He made occasional ventures into ambitious prose (genes "swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots"), but mostly relied on sustained clarity, the taming of large numbers, and the judicious use of metaphor. The result was exhilarating. Upon the book's publication, the Times called it "the sort of popular science writing that makes the reader feel like a genius." Douglas Adams, a friend of Dawkins's and the author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," found the experience of reading it "one of those absolutely shocking moments of revelation when you understand that the world is fundamentally different from what you thought it was." He adds, "I'm hesitating to use the word, but it's almost like a religious experience."
Twenty Years later, Richard Dawkins finds himself something of a curiosity -- a scientist with an honorary doctorate of letters, a philosopher with a CD-ROM deal, an ambassador who acknowledges that he is "not a diplomat," and a rather reticent man who in print is by turns flamboyantly scornful and boundlessly enthusiastic. I had been told that he "thinks scientifically and only scientifically"so when I recently visited him at his apartment in central Oxford -- he has since moved house -- I was surprised to find a great many wooden carrousel animals there, and a lot of cushions, which made a kind of sitcom chute from chair to floor. It was interesting, too, to note the cupboard by the living-room door, which had been lovingly hand-painted to represent the details of the life of Richard Dawkins: a childhood in Africa, a college room, a computer, a head of Charles Darwin, a young daughter "building castles in the air," and a panel suggesting an international reputation. The cupboard, I learned, was painted by Dawkins's mother, and was a gift to her son on his fiftieth birthday. (He is now fifty-five.) The horses and other large wooden animals were brought into the apartment by Lalla Ward, Dawkins's wife (his third), who inherited the collection. She used to be an actress, and it has caused some joy in the British press that Professor Dawkins is now married to a woman who played the part of an assistant to the television science-fiction character Doctor Who. (It's as if Stephen Jay Gould had married Lieutenant Uhura.)
Having finished with some students, Dawkins now appeared in the living room. A handsome matinee version of an Oxford don, he was wearing leather slippers and blue corduroy trousers. His manner managed to suggest both caution and assurance -- he has something of the air of a bullied schoolboy suddenly made prefect.
We talked about God, and other obstructions to an understanding of science. Dawkins complained of a "fairly common pattern in television news: right at the end a smile comes onto the face of the newsreader and this is the scientific joke -- some scientist has proved that such and such is the case." He went on, "And it's clearly the bit of fun at the end, it's not serious at all. I want science to be taken seriously, because, after all, it's less ephemeral -- it has a more eternal aspect than whatever the politics of the day might be, which, of course, gets the lead in the news."
Much of what is important to others is ephemeral to Dawkins. He shares his life with Darwin's idea -- one that the philosopher Daniel Dennett, of Tufts, has called "the single best idea anyone has ever had." Dawkins does have tastes in art and in politics. He does have friends, and he has become more sociable in recent years. But his non-scientific tastes seem to shrink at the touch of science. He admires Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," but told me, "I really do feel what Bach might have done with some really decent inspiration, considering what he achieved with what he had." He was imagining "Evolution," the oratorio.
While we were talking at his apartment, the telephone rang often. Inevitably, Dawkins was one of the first to be featured in a jokey column in the Guardian called "Celebrity Scholars: A Cut-Out-and-Keep Guide to the Academics Whose Phones Are Always Ringing." He is not a geneticist, but because he once wrote a book that had the word "gene" in the title he is frequently asked to comment on contemporary genetic issues -- the discovery of genes "for" this or that, say, or the ethics of genetic engineering -- and he ordinarily refers journalists to colleagues with the relevant expertise.
Dawkins is still most comfortable dealing with the pure, incontestable logic of Darwinian evolution. His fifth book, "Climbing Mount Improbable," will be published this month in the United States. With a fresh, unifying metaphor, Dawkins here continues his long-term project to make natural selection as Persuasive and comprehensible to others as it is to him. On the peaks of Mount Improbable, he explains, are to be found, say, a spiderweb and the camouflage of a stick insect. It would seem that one has to scale sheer cliffs of improbability to reach such complexity by natural selection. For one thing, natural selection does not Provide for developments that will turn out to be advantageous only after a million years of evolution. What use is a wing stub? What good is a half-evolved eye? But Dawkins points out the long, winding paths that lead to the summit of Mount Improbable -- paths that have the gentlest of slopes and require no freakish upward leaps. He takes his reader up the slope from no eye to eye: a single (not entirely useless) photosensitive cell caused by genetic mutation, a group of such cells, a group arranged on a curve, and so forth. Dawkins knows that the length of this path will always daunt some readers. "Human brains," he writes, "though they sit atop one of its grandest peaks, were never designed to imagine anything as slow as the long march up Mount Improbable."
Dawkins took me to lunch in New College, where he has been a fellow for twenty-six years -- "a bread-and-butter worker," he says. He and Lalla Ward and I sat at a long wooden table in a high-ceilinged room and ate soup with huge silver spoons, and between courses Lalla Ward set herself the task of making a rather introspective-looking college employee return her smile.
As a writer and broadcaster and propagandist, Dawkins has now left the laboratory far behind him. Wondering if this was a source of regret, I asked him if he would exchange what he had achieved for a more traditional scientific discovery. "I'd rather go to my grave having been Watson or Crick than having discovered a wonderful way of explaining things to people," he says. "But if the discovery you're talking about is an ordinary, run-of-the-mill discovery of the sort being made in laboratories around the world every day, you feel: Well, if I hadn't done this, somebody else would have, pretty soon. So if you have a gift for reaching hundreds of thousands -- millions -- of people and enlightening them, I think doing that runs a close second to making a really great discovery like Watson and Crick."
After lunch, we walked back to the apartment, a hundred yards away, passing through a Chinese-style flock of student cyclists. In his cluttered living roorn, Dawkins talked about his past. His father, he said, worked in the British colonial service in Nyasaland, now Malawi, but with the outbreak of the Second World War he moved to Kenya to join the Allied forces. Richard was born in Nairobi, in 1941. In 1946, his father unexpectedly inherited a cousin's farm near Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire, and in 1949 the family returned to England. Dawkins drifted into zoology at Oxford, but he became fully engaged in it only when, some time after his arrival, the speculative nature of the subject revealed itself to him. "I think students of biochemistry, for example, before they can even start, probably have to get a lot of textbook knowledge under their belt," he says. "In animal behavior, you can jump straight into controversy and argument."
While still an undergraduate, Dawkins was taught by Niko Tinbergen, the Dutch-born animal behaviorist (and, later, Nobel Prize winner), who had him read doctoral theses in place of the standard texts. Dawkins remembers reading one thesis about two species of grasshopper, Chorthippus brunneus and Chorthippus biguttulus, that coexist on the European continent and look the same. "The only known difference between them is that they sing differently," he says. "They don't reproduce with each other, bemuse they sing differently. As a consequence of their not reproducing together, they're called two separate species -- and they are. It' s not that they cannot breed but that they do not. Dawkins continues, "In the thesis that I read, the author found it was easy enough to fool them to mate with each other by playing them the song of their own species. And I got a feeling for how you design experiments when you're faced with a problem like this -- and the intellectual importance of this first process in evolution. It happened to be grasshoppers, but it's the same process for all species on earth. They've all diverged from an ancestral species, and that process of divergence is the origin of species -- it's the fundamental process that has given rise to all diversity on earth."
Dawkins graduated in 1962, and started immediately on his doctorate, for which he developed a mathematical model of decision-making in animals. In 1967, he married for the first time, and took up a post as an assistant professor of zoology at Berkeley. He became "a bit involved" in the dramas of the period, he told me. He and his wife marched a little, and worked on Eugene McCarthy's Presidential campaign. (Although colleagues today see Dawkins as apolitical, and enemies have sought to project a right-wing agenda onto his science, he has always voted on the left.) He returned to Oxford after two years and continued research into the mathematics of animal behavior, making much use of computers. In the winter of 1973-74, a coal miners' strike caused power cuts in Britain, preventing Dawkins from properly continuing his computer-driven research. He decided to write a book, which he finished a year later with "a tremendous momentum." The book was "The Selfish Gene," and its Preface starts, "This book should be read almost as though it were science fiction. It is designed to appeal to the imagination. But it is not science fiction: it is science."
When "The Selfish Gene" was published, in 1976, readers began writing to Dawkins that their lives had been changed; and most were pleased with the change. (Dawkins's peripheral theory of the self-replicating "meme," as a way of understanding the transmission of human culture and ideas -- a meme for religion, or for baseball hats worn backward -- began its impressive self-replicating career.) But Dawkins also caught the attention of his peers. Helena Crooning, a British philosopher of science, explains the response this way: "Very often in science one finds that there are ideas in the air, and lots of people hold them, but they don't even realize they hold them. The person who can crystallize them, and lay out not only the central idea but its implications for future scientific research can often make a tremendous contribution. And I think that's what 'The Selfish Gene' did. Lots of scientists, they'd been Darwinians all their lives, but they'd been inarticulate Darwinians. And now they really understood what was foundational to Darwinism and what was peripheral. And once you understand what is foundational, then you begin to deduce conclusions." In a variety of fields, Dawkins proved to be a catalyst.
In the twenty years following the publication of "The Selfish Gene" -- years of teaching, fatherhood, wealth, and encroaching responsibilities as the British media's favorite scientist -- Dawkins has published any number of papers and articles, and four more books, including "The Blind Watchmaker," a best-selling study of Darwinian design, written with the reach and elegance of "The Selfish Gene." On a rolling mass of ants in Panama, for instance:
I never did see the queen, but somewhere inside that boiling ball she was the central data bank, the repository of the master DNA of the whole colony. Those gasping soldiers were prepared to die for the queen, not because they loved their mother, not because they had been drilled in the ideals of patriotism, but simply because their brains and their jaws were built by genes stamped from the master die carried in the queen herself. They behaved like brave soldiers because they had inherited the genes of a long line of ancestral queens whose lives, and whose genes, had been saved by soldiers as brave as themselves. My soldiers had inherited the same genes from the present queen as those old soldiers had inherited from the ancestral queens. My soldiers were guarding the master copies of the very instructions that made them do the guarding. They were guarding the wisdom of their ancestors.
These have been twenty Years of rising confidence and influence. "The world must be full of people who are biologists today rather than physicists because of Dawkins," John Maynard Smith, the senior British biologist, says. Outside the universities, in a climate newly friendly to accessible science books, Dawkins has become a literary fixture. Ravi Mirchandani, who published Dawkins at Viking, says, "If you're an intelligent reader, and you read certain literary novels that everybody has to read, along with seeing Tarantino movies, then reading Richard Dawkins has become part of your cultural baggage."
Dawkins's version of evolution also attracts critics, for it is dazzlingly digital. It features "robots" and "vehicles" and DNA, not flesh and fur; some evolutionary biologists regard him as a kind of reductionist fanatic -- an "ultra-Darwinist" who overplays the smooth mathematical progress of natural selection and its relevance to an animal's every characteristic, every nook and cranny. A biting review of "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Lewontin, of Harvard, published in Nature, talked of "Dawkins's discovery of vulgar Darwinism." It was an error of "new Panglossians," Lewontin wrote, to think that "all describable behavior must be the direct product of natural selection." (This is the sin of excessive "adaptationism.") In the continuing debate, Maynard Smith, George Williams, and W. D. Hamilton are in one camp; in the other are Steven Rose, Lewontin, Leon Kamin (these three collaborated on a book called "Not in Our Genes"), and Stephen Jay Gould, the man who is in many ways Dawkins's American counterpart. Dawkins and Gould have undertaken the same project -- eliminating the barrier between the practice of science and its communication to a wider audience. And they stand shoulder to shoulder against the creationists. But they would not want to be stuck in the same elevator.
In 1979, Gould and Lewontin wrote a famous paper called "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme," which argued that natural selection can be limited by or can be a by-product of an animal's architecture in the way that the spandrels of St. Mark's in Venice (described by the authors as "the tapering triangular spaces formed by the intersection of two rounded arches at right angles") are "necessary architectural by-products of mounting a dome on rounded arches," and were not designed to be painted upon, although that might be how it looks. Gould also contests the evolutionary "gradualism" of the Dawkins camp, and promotes "punctuated equilibrium" -- the theory that evolution goes by fits and starts. Gould's opponents suspect him of exaggerating his differences with contemporary Darwinism: they want him to know that one can make a stir in science without making a revolution. Dawkins said, "I really want to say that there are no major disagreements." But he added, "I think the tendency of American intellectuals to learn their evolution from him is unfortunate, and that's putting it mildly."
Earlier this year, Richard Dawkins took part in a public debate in a hall on the edge of Regent's Park, in central London. The debate, which was organized by the Oxford-based Jewish society L'Chaim, set Dawkins against the very distinguished Jewish scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. The question to be debated was "Does God exist?" In the lobby, tempers were fraying as it became clear that the event had been greatly oversubscribed. Three hundred people were sent away, and one could hear cries of "I've got a ticket! I'm not moving!" and so on
The two speakers took their places on the wooden stage of the main hall, and were introduced with some old Woody Allen jokes. Dawkins then spoke of design, and of the miserable logic of trying to use a God -- who must be complex -- as an explanation of the existence of complex things. By contrast, he said, "Darwinian evolution explains complicated things in terms of simple things." In reply, Rabbi Steinsaltz made an occasionally witty but rather digressive speech, in which he always seemed to lose interest in a point just before he made it. He talked of giraffs, though it was not entirely clear what we were to think of them. ('"You know these animals. Beautiful eyes.") Dawkins found himself arguing with a theist of his imagination rather than with the man to his right, who was frustratingly unresponsive to his favorite evolutionary sound bites. ("Not a single one of your ancestors died young. They all copulated at least once.") One member of the society told me that Dawkins was significantly gentler than he used to be at these meetings: he used to go into "a frenzy of savage attack, saying all religious people are delusional, weak-minded." That night, he seemed to win the debate, speaking in his curious shy, confident way.
This is the kind of event that presents the new Professor of Public Understanding with a problem: he has become wary of the atheist's reputation suffocating the evolutionist's. And yet he cares deeply about religion; he is sure that it matters. "It's important to recognize that religion isn't something sealed off in a watertight compartment," he says. "Religions do make claims about the universe -- the same kinds of claims that scientists make, except they're usually false." Richard Dawkins is not a great one for cultural relativism. He says, "The proof of the pudding is: When you actually fly to Your international conference of cultural anthropologists, do you go on a magic carpet or do you go on a Boeing 747?"
In Dawkins's kitchen in Oxford, a headline had been torn out of a newspaper and stuck on the wall, in an office-humor sort of way It read "THE PROBLEMS OF DAWKINISM." The main problem, which is experienced particularly by those who have not read his books, remains one of tone. Douglas Adams says, laughing, "Richard once made a rather wonderful remark to me. He said something like 'I really don't think I'm arrogant, but I do get impatient with people who don't share with me the same humility in front of the facts.'" The glory of Darwinism fills Dawkins's brain, but it drops out of the brains of others, or is nudged out by God or Freud or football or Uranus moving into Aquarius, and Dawkins finds this maddening. "It is almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism, and to find it hard to believe," he has written. Dawkins does not seem to have developed this point, and he sometimes allows disdain or mockery to take the place of a clearer understanding of it -- the evolution of resistance to evolution. Even the admiring Charles Simonyi, who funds the job for which Richard Dawkins is so precisely suited, and so precisely unsuited, says he has urged Dawkins to "tame his militancy."
"I'm a friendly enough sort of chap," Dawkins told me. "I'm
not a hostile person to meet. But I think it's important to realize that
when two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the
truth does not necessarily lie exactly halfway between them. It is possible
for one side to be simply wrong."