Professor Richard Dawkins
Professor Richard Dawkins is an ethologist, evolutionary biologist, author and documentary presenter. An Oxford University graduate, he has been responsible for some of the biggest ideas in biology including his work in popularising the theory that the gene is the principal unit of selection in evolution and proposing the concept of memetic evolution. His books have been some of the highest-selling popular science books of all time and include The Selfish Gene, Unweaving the Rainbow and The God Delusion. Dawkins is also a strong and vocal critic of religion.
I think that evolution, my own subject, is not a bad start because it’s very simple to understand.
On becoming interested in science
I think, possibly, at about the age of six, when I learnt about the planets and was seized by the idea that this world was just one of many. I knew their names and I knew the order they came in. I don’t think I had a conception of the vastness of space; I think I didn’t realise the distances between the planets were tiny compared to the nearest star but I think that probably was…I can sort of remember telling my little sister about the planets. I don’t know if she liked it or not!
On first encountering the theory of evolution
It was surprisingly late, actually, I got it from my father. He explained it to me in a way that was perfectly correct but I sort of didn’t really get it, well, I sort of got it but didn’t think it was powerful enough for the job required of it and I didn’t really fully grasp how powerful it is till I was about 15 or 16, which I’m afraid is rather late. At school, partly from teachers and, actually, partly from talking to my peers, my fellow schoolboys, so I think I understood about the evolving process before I understood about the mechanism of it, which is natural selection, Darwinian natural selection. See, my father read Botany at Oxford, I read Zoology at Oxford. I wasn’t a naturalist, I wasn’t a bird watcher or anything like that, which is the usual reason why my colleagues went into biology. I think it wasn’t really until I got to Oxford, really, in my second year, when I really and truly got seized by it.
On what made Darwin’s argument so powerful
It’s interesting that the year before ‘On the Origin of Species’ was published, the joint paper by Darwin and Wallace – joint papers – by Darwin and Wallace in 1858…perfectly clear, if you read them today they’re extremely clear and persuasive. Nevertheless, they didn’t persuade. People didn’t get it. It took Darwin’s long argument of ‘On the Origin of Species’ to really ram it home and I think Darwin himself said it had to be a long argument. It was the massive accumulation of evidence that Darwin achieved and hammering it home, anticipating every difficulty that any reader might think of and answering it. Darwin was extremely good at the art of explaining, in particular, a very key part of the art of explaining is putting yourself in the position of the reader and anticipating, ‘Yes, the reader will miss that. The reader won’t understand that. The reader will need to have that more fully explained. Here’s an opportunity for the reader to misunderstand which I must plug.’ Darwin is brilliant at that and that has to be done at book length.
On the complexity of ‘design’
It’s not just complexity, it’s complexity in a specified direction which is the direction of pseudo-purpose, the direction of being good at something, good at flying or hearing or seeing or jumping or running or swimming. That’s what’s so utterly remarkable about living things and I don’t need to mention particular examples because just about every living thing is riddled with examples where you say this looks overwhelmingly like design but it bloody well isn’t design. I mean, that’s the important thing to understand and I’ve been quote mined about this over and over again. It is fabulous how living things have created, by the process of natural selection, the illusion of design. And among the things that natural selection has done is create brains which themselves then, as it were, reinvent the process of design: human brains, the brains of engineers and artists and so on who rediscover the process of making things that are complex and good at doing something. So we make aeroplanes, rediscovering what birds and bats and insects did hundreds of millions of years ago. We make cameras that rediscover eyes and so on. It is utterly wonderful, it’s fascinating, it’s thrilling, it’s enthralling and the most enthralling thing about it is we understand how it came about and there’s not a jot or a tittle of design in there.
On evolution as a matter of chance
Anybody who thinks that evolution is a matter of chance would be entirely right in saying, ‘Well, it’s got to be wrong’. I mean, you’d have to be a naive idiot to think that something as complicated and as beautiful and as elegant as an eye comes about by chance. Of course it doesn’t. It comes about by cumulative natural selection. Mutation is a random process but the reason why eyes and knee caps and ears and things are so complicated and elegant is it’s a cumulative process of chance being favoured by natural selection. There are numerous analogies that one can use; one that I’ve used in various places is a combination lock on a bank vault. The point about a combination lock in a bank vault is you can spin the dials for a million years and you’re never going to open the bank vault if you do it at random. But if every time you spin the dial, and every time you get a little bit warmer, the door opens a chink and a few coins spill out, then you’ll have it open in no time at all because each little step of the way gets rewarded and that’s what happens in natural selection. If eyes had to evolve by all the bits of the eye suddenly coming together like shaking twenty dice and expecting to get twenty sixes, it’s never going to happen. But if every time you get a little bit, every time you get a slightly higher number than before you get rewarded, you can, as it were, ratchet the thing, then it happens very fast. And I think maybe that’s one way to explain it. The trouble is that people who want to misunderstand sort of deliberately misunderstand. ‘Oh well, but you know in advance what you’re trying to get’, or something like that and, of course, that’s not part of the analogy. Remember that an analogy is only a partial analogy.
In real life, what happens is that, something like eyes, which is the example that Darwin himself considered, and Darwin mentioned the eyes as something that superficially seems to be almost miraculous, that’s the bit that they quote mine and then don’t carry on with the quotation; the point is that anything that forms a slightly better image than the one before will be favoured by natural selection. It doesn’t have to be a fully functioning eye as we or a hawk or a cat know it, it only has to, in the first place, be capable of detecting whether it’s light or dark. Then an improvement on that would be detecting whether the light comes from over there or over there. The next step might be slightly increased ability to tell the direction which the light comes from and then each step of the way you gradually move step by step by cumulative step towards forming a crude image and then improving the image and improving the image until you’ve got something that you could actually call a focused image. And every step of the way has to be an improvement on the one before. And it’s easy in the case of eyes but it’s slightly harder in other cases to construct a plausible, commutative staircase of improvement. And then you can look around the animal kingdom and you can find every step of the staircase represented somewhere in the animal kingdom. Not because those invertebrate animals that you’re looking at are on the way to becoming us, which might be another misconception, but because their relatively primitive eyes serve them perfectly well for the purpose that they need an eye for. It just illustrates the point that eyes of various levels, as we would think, imperfection, are actually, ah, exist, have evolved and can be improved upon and are improved upon elsewhere in the animal kingdom until you get eyes like the human eye or the eye of a bird of prey which are very, very good indeed but again not perfect. They’re actually imperfect in revealing ways.
On people who find science dull
I mean, I could pluck out little vignettes for them but that’s not the way I would do it. I’d say, ‘Boring?! How can you possibly say that?! You exist as a fantastically complicated machine with a brain that can read, write and speak and enjoy music and enjoy poetry and make love and all these things and that’s come about by the laws of physics, filtered through this strange process, this natural process of evolution by natural selection and over billions of years, atoms following the ordinary laws of physics have given rise to you. How could that possibly be boring?’
[If you want start a journey into science] I think that evolution, my own subject, is not a bad start because it’s very simple to understand, it’s not like quantum theory or relativity, very simple to understand and yet it’s fantastically powerful. Very, very simple idea and yet what it explains is everything about life. The diversity of life, the complexity of living things, eyes and brains and hearts and cells. Even a single cell is bewilderingly complicated and yet you can understand how it came about in principle just by understanding evolution.
On the supposed rise of anti-science
I don’t know that it is on the rise, maybe it is, I mean, I think part of it is blaming the messenger in a way, if, say, science foretells some sort of disaster, global warming or something, shooting the messenger is part of it. Maybe blaming science for terrible weapons, of course you need science to build terrible weapons, you need science to do anything, whether it’s terrible or good. I mean, if you want to do something well, you’ve got to use science and so if you want to make terrible weapons, use science. But you don’t blame science for that. So that could be part of it. But I think part of it might be a feeling of being threatened. People who are not educated in science feel threatened, feel frightened, because they don’t understand it and they want to retreat to a sort of comforting world that they do understand. Science can be quite hard if you really want to get into it, some of it is quite mathematical, so there might be a feeling of threat there.
On religion as a coping mechanism
Now, I wouldn’t say I had a terribly religious upbringing. My parents are not religious. I was sent to Christian school, but Anglican schools, and it’s a pretty attenuated strain of the virus, it’s not really full-blooded indoctrination like you’d get in a Catholic or an Islamic school so I think I got off pretty lightly. So when I got rid of it I didn’t have terrible withdrawal symptoms or anything like that. So, if life for you will end, which it will, I don’t understand how anybody can cope by believing a falsehood. You can’t convince yourself that X must be true because it would be nice if X were true. The only reason to believe X is true is if there’s evidence X is true. But there are people who will say, ‘Oh well, I tried Buddhism and I didn’t feel that was quite right for me and then I tried Islam and then I tried Christianity and then I returned, and so on’. It’s not a matter of what feels right for you. What feels right for you is irrelevant to anything. What matters is, is there any evidence for it and it doesn’t matter how difficult it may be to cope with, you can’t invent false facts. You can’t suddenly believe in things for which there’s no evidence just because it helps you to cope.
On the moments of beauty in science
I mean, there are lots but perhaps I could single out looking up at the stars in East Africa. No light pollution, just seeing this extraordinary sight of the heavens peppered with stars and knowing that they’re all different distances, but huge distances, knowing that I’m looking back in time when I look up at the stars. And each star that I look at is a time machine taking me back to a different time because it takes different times for the light to get here from there. That would certainly be one of them.
Or a spider web. This extraordinary construction that is built by behaviour that is beautifully designed, as if it was designed by a human, but you know it’s from natural selection, working via the behaviour of the spider. That I think is one of the first things that comes to mind. Just imagine, suppose someone discovered that dolphins were building knotted nets out of seaweed or something, and that they had a net structure and they tied little knots and everything to make a net to catch fish in. I mean, imagine if somebody discovered that. We’d go bananas with glee and yet spiders do it every day and a spider web is just a nuisance but yet it is marvellous.