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Some People Will Get Mad: An Interview with Richard Dawkins

Dawkins_WonderThroughout his storied scientific career, Richard Dawkins has never backed down from big or controversial ideas. Whether he's revolutionizing the discussion over genetics and natural selection (as he did with The Selfish Gene, his landmark 1976 book that also expanded the conversation well beyond the scientific community) or making provocative statements in the debate between atheism and religion, Dawkins has never backed down from a good fight, either. (Check The God Delusion and its more than 2,000 customer reviews for a taste of that fracas.)

With his latest release, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, Dawkins pulls back the curtain on his upbringing, eductaion, and the events that led him to a career as a groundbreaking geneticist, as well as behind-the-scenes looks at his early research techniques and ideas. He stopped by our room at Book Expo America in May to talk about the memoir (available September 24), as well as other topics--some big, some controversial, but all definitely Dawkins. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Jon Foro: Why did you choose to write a memoir at this point of your career?

Richard Dawkins: I’m getting on a bit, and my mother’s getting on, too—she’s 96—so it was a good opportunity to tap her memories about my childhood. Quite a bit of it is about my childhood. I hope it’s funny, I hope it’s entertaining. And I’ve long wanted to do something like this.

A: You adopted computers early on in your research. Are there affinities between thinking about natural selection and programming computers? It struck me, when you were speaking about hierarchical organization of behavior [a sort of modular set of prioritized actions that governs animal behavior], that it’s like object-oriented programming.

RD: Yes, very much so. And I think that programming computers—quite apart from being useful—does actually help you to think. But when you’re thinking about how animals work, how the brain works ... brains must in some sense be programmed, and probably using the same kind of software tricks. But of course there’s no programmer, it’s done by natural selection and genes--the genes that program development of brains. But in some sense, it’s helpful to think about brains as being computers. But of a very different kind, and having software of a very different kind.

JF: Except that computers can be said to be completely deterministic, whereas humans have the opportunity to override….

RD: [laughs] Do you think?

JF: [laughs nervously] Well, I don’t know. I’m asking you.

RD: Yes, I think philosophically speaking, we’re probably all deterministic. But humans and animals have such complexity that we have the illusion of having a kind of free will that we can override it.

JF: How did the Dawkins Organ fit into your research?

RD: That was a device that I invented for recording animal behavior, when you’re watching an animal behave, or a human for that matter. Well, humans are animals. You want to record what they do, when they do. In the old days, people used to write it down, and then they moved on to keyboards, and the keyboards would sometimes record it onto a moving belt of paper. And it was immensely tedious to decrypt it, to transcribe it. So you want to do it straight onto the computer, and if you’re doing it out in the field, you haven’t got a computer with you—in those days, you didn’t have laptops. So the Dawkins Organ was literally an organ. It played different musical notes. You couldn’t hear them, but they were [recorded] electronically onto the tape. So as you watched an animal doing a whole series of things, you’d press buttons--BEEP boop BOOP boop BOOP BOOP boop BOOP BOOP boop—and each note represented one behavior pattern. And my invention was to write a computer program which could decode this. The computer was programmed to behave like a person with perfect pitch, and listen to the notes, and print out a record of exactly what the animal did when. And the trick was that I used software to work out the pitch of the note. There were no electronics doing that. It was all done in software.

JF: You write a lot about your experience at prep school in this book, and a lot of the social lessons that go along with that. And the theme of the bully pervades your work thereafter in genetics. Did your social experience inform your ideas about The Selfish Gene?

RD: Ah. I never thought of that. It’s true that I ruminate on bullying a fair bit in two of my schools. And I do think that at a certain age, children are pretty barbaric--a Lord of the Flies sort of thing. And it occurrs to me that The Selfish Gene has echoes of that. There is a sense that I suppose it’s true that The Selfish Gene is about… well, I hesitate because a lot of people think that it means that we are selfish or should be selfish. It’s actually that genes are selfish.

JF: And there was another suggested title: The Immortal Gene.

The Immortal Gene might well have been a better title, and it was suggested to me at the time I was writing the book. And perhaps I should have adopted that.

JF: What would you say is the most misunderstood aspect of evolution?

RD: Oh, that it is a process of chance, of blind, random chance. If you think that, as many people do, no wonder they doubt it. Because you’ve only got to look at a living creature to know that it can’t possibly be the result of blind chance. It obviously has to be the result of some non-random process. And it is. And the non-random process is called natural selection. It’s just that people rush to the conclusion that because it’s not designed, the only alternative is random chance, which it isn’t. Natural selection is an elegant substitute for random chance and for conscious design.

JF: The other side of that coin would be the supposition that evolution is a path forward toward some goal.

RD: Exactly. And that’s also quite erroneous. It’s not aimed at any particular goal. But with hindsight, the illusion of design is pervasive. And so the “progress”—I use the word advisedly—towards an eye or an ear or a brain or a heart or a kidney, you can see it as “progressive” towards something that works well for what it does. But it’s not aimed to a distant target the way humans might aim at a distant target in formulating some plan.

JF: Does technology or civilization change the evolutionary game for humans?

RD: Yes, possibly. I mean it is perfectly possible that human technology can take over the reins. We’ve already been doing that in selecting of domestic animals and plants for centuries, even millennia. And so you can set out to improve the milk yield of cows--that has been achieved by humans taking control of selection. Not natural selection in this case—artificial selection.

The other half of the Darwinian equation is mutation: the production of the variation that selection can act upon. And humans have hitherto not taken control of that, but they’re going to in the future. They’ve already started inducing mutations.

JF: Natural selection is not random. Mutation is random.

RD: Yes. Mutation is random, but it may not be in the future, when humans take control of it.

JF: You’ve been described as a “strident atheist.” Is that a position you took intentionally, or were you surprised at the ardency of the reactions that you’ve received?

RD: I am an atheist. I’m not a strident atheist. It’s almost as though the word strident is just tacked onto the word atheist automatically. “He’s an atheist, he must be strident.” I think people actually may even hear stridency when it isn’t there because they’re so used to the idea that religion gets a free pass. You don’t criticize religion. Why don’t you? Because you just don’t. Well, people got so used to that, that if they hear an even mild and very unstrident criticism of religion, they hear it as strident.

It’s an attack. But strident would be the voice of a Hitler, a voice of a revivalist preacher who’s shrieking at the audience, that their sins will find them out and they’re going to hell and things. That’s strident. But I talk in sober, measured tones, not strident voice. [smiles]

JF: You describe yourself as a child—you were religious, and maybe a little bit superstitious, as well (there’s a funny bit about describing the ghosts that you imagined were chasing you). When did that start to change for you?

RD: Well, I suppose in my teens. I think most children inherit the religion of their elders, their school, the culture in which they’re brought up. I was brought up in Anglican culture, Anglican schools.

JF: Do you think there's a possibility that the religious urge is genetic?

 RD: Yes. I think there’s a distinct possibility. After all, it’s certainly true that anthropologists, looking around the world, find something like religion in all cultures. That seems to be a human universal. It’s not a human universal in the sense that everyone has it. In the same sense that heterosexual urges… it’s a human universal, but not everyone has it. I think I prefer to say that there is some psychological predisposition in the human brain which leads it to become religious under the right circumstances, and many cultures provide the right circumstances.

JF: How remarkable would you say Darwin's achievement is, considering the tools at his disposal when he did his work?

Darwin’s achievement was to explain a colossal amount that was totally mysterious before. Darwin explained the rich diversity of life, the complexity of life, the beauty of life, and above all, the remarkably powerful illusion of design. And he displayed all that with a truly remarkably simple idea. An idea so simple that we have to wonder why on earth nobody thought of it before the 19th Century.

I contrast it with the achievement of, say, Newton two centuries earlier. Optics, gravity, the laws of mechanics, calculus.  And it never even occurred to Newton or Aristotle or any of the great philosophers to just explain what living things are, why they’re here, why they’re so complicated. And I think the problem may be that the true explanation is so simple. It can’t be right! Something as complicated as life has got to be explained by a designer. And I think that may be why nobody got it until Darwin, and nobody got it until the 19th century. When you get it—when you understand it—it’s so simple. As Huxley said when he closed The Origin of Species, “How extremely stupid of me not to have thought of that!” I think that’s an appropriate reaction.

JF: Your memoir leads up to the publication of The Selfish Gene. Is there a volume two in the works, and when might we expect it?

RD: There is volume two. This was originally going to be all one book, taking me up to the present. When I got halfway through, I think I realized that the second half was going to have to be rather different, anyway. The Selfish Gene did provide a very natural watershed, and it would have seemed like two books. And so I asked the publishers whether it would be OK to split it, and they were quite pleased with the idea. And I’m very pleased with the idea.


An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist is available September 24, 2013.


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