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Interview: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is an ethnologist and evolutionary biologist. A vocal proponent of atheism, he is also the author of many books, such as The Ancestor’s Tale, The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow, A Devil’s Chaplain, and The God Delusion. His latest book is The Magic of Reality.

This interview first appeared in io9’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. Visit io9.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.

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Your new book The Magic of Reality is a science book aimed at kids. What gave you the idea for this book, and what are you hoping to accomplish with it?

Well, science is wonderful, science is important, and so are children, so are young people, and so what could be better than to write a science book for young people? But actually it’s a book for all ages.

Each chapter begins as a question, like: What is a rainbow? What is an earthquake? What is the sun? And then begins with mythical answers to that, and then having dealt with three or four myths, proceeds to what really is the sun, what really is an earthquake, which is, of course, the scientific answer.

What are examples of some of the myths that you included?

In the case of the sun there are Aztec myths which are quite amusing, and which unfortunately end up rather less amusing with the horrific rituals of offering sacrifices of human hearts to the sun god. And there are Ancient Greek myths of the sun, Ancient Egyptian myths of the sun. In the case of the rainbow there’s the legend of Utnapishtim from the Epic of Gilgamesh in Ancient Sumeria, who was told by one of the gods to build an enormous boat to hold all the animals, because there was a great flood coming, and he did, and then when the flood went down the gods put up a rainbow as a signal that they were never going to make another flood again. That may sound familiar because, of course, the story of Noah was simply a plagiarism of the Sumerian story of Utnapashtim.

You make the point in the book that all of these ancient books, although they were supposedly inspired by all-knowing gods, don’t include anything that the peoples themselves weren’t familiar with, so they make no reference to diseases being caused by microorganisms, or that the universe is expanding, anything like that.

Yes, that’s right. I’d forgotten I made that point, but it’s quite a good point, yes. Okay. Thanks for reminding me of that. Yes, quite true.

The book is illustrated by Dave McKean. How did you two start working together?

This was fixed up by the publishers and by our respective literary agents, and it worked very well, and I think the pictures are very good and suit the text very well. But I didn’t fix it up myself, I don’t think. I can’t remember. I think it was done by the publishers.

Did you focus on the text and just leave the art to Dave?

Exactly. Yes, I just wrote the text and then he took the text and pretty much chose what he wanted to illustrate.

I mean, there was a certain amount of back and forth, and so when he’d done the art then of course I modified the text to make reference to it.

Speaking of educating children, there’s often a conflict we have between the rights of parents to direct the upbringing of their children versus the rights of children to be exposed to accurate information. How do you think that we should balance those two interests?

My balance would come out in favor of the children. I guess there are some rights of parents with what they choose their children to learn, but I’m biased in favor of freeing children to learn and not letting parents be too doctrinaire in indoctrinating their children.

Creationists often try to mislead the public into thinking that there’s a scientific controversy over whether evolution happens at all, which is of course ridiculous. What are some actual scientific controversies among evolutionary biologists?

There are some very interesting controversies. I mean, there’s the controversy over the importance of natural selection rather than random genetic drift in driving evolution. And that’s an active controversy, a very interesting one, plenty of data to bear upon it. I think nobody would claim that random genetic drift is capable of producing adaptation, that is to say the illusion of design. Random genetic drift can’t produce wings that are good at flying, or eyes that are good at seeing, or legs that are good at running. But random genetic drift probably is very important in driving evolution at the molecular genetic level. That’s one controversy. Another one is the controversy of punctuated equilibrium in the fossil record, which you may have heard of. So there are very interesting controversies within evolution; however, whether evolution occurs is not one of them. It definitely does.

Is group selection an active controversy, would you say?

Yes, we’d have to include that. I don’t think that’s a very interesting controversy. I think it’s largely a controversy about words. But yes, that is a controversy which you can find active scientists participating in, unlike the alleged controversy over whether evolution happens at all, where no active scientist thinks that it doesn’t.

What do you think about the issue of whether homosexuality is biological, and how would natural selection account for that or be involved with that?

Superficially it’s a problem if it is genetic—if the difference between people’s sexual preferences is genetic—because at least a pure homosexual would be unlikely to reproduce and therefore pass on the genes. So the first question you ask is, is it actually genetic, and the answer is probably to some extent yes. There’s some evidence from twin studies comparing monozygotic twins—who have exactly the same genes, pretty much—with dizygotic twins, who don’t, and because homosexuality is one of the many things which is more highly correlated between monozygotic and dizygotic twins, you’d probably have to conclude that there is a genetic component, and that means that we have a Darwinian problem to explain why male homosexuality, for example, seems to be about ten percent, and that’s too high to be easily explained.

Various explanations have been offered. There’s the “worker bee theory” that gay men look after not their children but their nephews and nieces etcetera. There’s the “sneaky male theory” that apparently homosexual males are often actually bisexual, and the fact that they appear to be homosexual leads dominant males—in our cavemen ancestors, so to speak—to leave them behind when they went off, leave the women in their charge, and this would have been a possible way in which genes that make men appear to be homosexual could be passed on by sneakily, so to speak, mating with females when the dominant males are away. I’m not that wedded to either of those two theories.

I rather like the idea that when we talk about genes for anything, like a gene for being gay or a gene for being aggressive or something of that sort, that a gene for anything may not have been a gene for that thing under different environmental conditions. And the hypothetical example that I’ve used for that is, suppose that there’s a gene that makes you gay if you were bottle-fed but that has some completely different effect if you were breast-fed. So in the days before bottles were invented that gene would not have manifested itself as gay behavior, but now that bottles are common it can do so. I hasten to stress that I only use the idea of bottle feeding as a possible example. There is absolutely no evidence that that is an environmental trigger for this particular gene, but there could be a trigger of some sort from the environment, in which case we would be asking the wrong question if we say, “Why do gay genes survive?” Because it may be that at the time when natural selection was really going on there was no such thing as a gay gene.

So what are some recent developments in evolutionary biology that you’re the most excited about?

Well, there’s the perennial problem of what’s the use of sex, and that is still unsolved. I’m very excited by molecular evolutionary studies and the use of molecular genetics to reconstruct possible ancestral trees about how long ago the common ancestor lived of any two species you care to name, like say humans and chimpanzees, and molecular data suggests that the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees lived rather recently, only about six million years ago, and you can do similar molecular analyses to work out how long ago the common ancestor of any other pair of species lived. So I’m very excited about that. Molecular genetics can also show off some rather surprising relationships like, for example, the close relationship of whales to hippopotamuses, which I think nobody ever guessed until molecular data was looked at. The closest relatives of whales are hippopotamuses, even closer than any other cloven-hoofed animals. So it’s not that whales and all the cloven-hoofed animals are sort of distant cousins. It’s that whales come off actually within the cloven-hoofed animals. They’re closer to hippos than to anything else. And that’s a very remarkable finding which has come about purely since the molecular genetics revolution. And there are lots more like that. There are projects to analyze the genome of extinct animals like mammoths and like Neanderthal people, and I find them very exciting as well.

Can you elaborate a bit on the “What is sex good for?” issue? I would think that sex is a good way for there to be genetic variety within the population for natural selection to act on?

Yes. Well, that’s fine if you think that natural selection works at the level of the population. If you think that natural selection chooses good populations versus bad populations, in other words, if you’re a group selectionist. Then there’s not a problem. But there is a problem if you’re not a group selectionist, like most evolutionists are not, and so you have to face the fact that on the face of it an asexual female, a female who doesn’t indulge in sex and simply clones herself, is twice as successful at passing on her genes as a female who uses sex. A female who simply dispensed with males altogether would be doing better under quite a lot of conditions, and so whatever the benefit of sex is, it can’t be a slight benefit; it’s got to be a colossal benefit to overcome the enormous benefit of being asexual. And so that’s really why it’s a difficult problem, and why it’s been exercising the minds of evolutionary theorists for about thirty years now.

You knew Douglas Adams and he talked a lot about what a big influence your books were on his thinking. Could you just tell us, how did you first become aware of Douglas Adams and how did the two of you first meet?

I loved his books, and I particularly was fond of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and I think it’s the only book where I’ve read it and then immediately turned straight back to page one and started again, and read it all the way through again without a break. And I then wrote him a fan letter—I think the only fan letter I’ve ever written, and then he wrote me a fan letter back, which was very nice, and invited me to visit him the next time I went to London, and I did. And I remember ringing the bell in his house in North London, and this gigantic man coming to the door. He wasn’t fat, just tall. Well-built, but tall, and clearly amused at the reaction that one’s first sight of him had on people, because he knew that his height was rather striking. He was just sort of … gently laughing. And we hit it off immediately, and quite frequently met after that. I used to use him as my sort of guru on technological questions. He and I both loved the Apple Macintosh, so every time a new Mac came out, or a new gadget came out that you could run on a Mac, we would exchange notes on it and he would tell me what it could do and things like that.

So I understand he actually introduced you to your wife Lalla Ward. How did that come about?

Yes, that is true. He knew her through a different route. He knew her because he had been script writer for Doctor Who at one stage in that series. Any Doctor Who script which is witty—they aren’t all witty, but if you come across one that’s witty, it’s almost certainly going to be one of Douglas Adams’s. He injected a wonderful sort of surreal wit into the Doctor Who scripts.

Anyway, he wrote scripts while she was playing the companion, and so he knew her through that, and Lalla and I met at … I think it was his fortieth birthday party. We were introduced to each other by Douglas, who was at that time talking to Stephen Fry, who is another immensely tall man, and so Lalla and I, as it were, conversed underneath this archway that was Douglas Adams and Stephen Fry sort of talking over our heads. And so Lalla and I talked through that archway for a bit, and then the party was so incredibly noisy we couldn’t hear ourselves speak, so we simply left the party and went off and had dinner, and we’ve pretty much been together ever since.

On YouTube I came across this video from a TV program where you invite a volunteer from the audience to read a section of Hitchhiker’s Guide, and then it turns out that Douglas Adams is sitting in the crowd, and he comes up and reads a section about the animals who want to be eaten—

Yes, that was quite a nice little episode, because it’s supposed to be children who come up when you call for volunteers, obviously, so I said in my best sort of avuncular voice, “Would anybody like to come up and help me with reading this passage from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?” And so a great forest of hands shot up, little hands, plus one very big hand, which was Douglas, and so I called him out, and this enormous man came to the front and read this lovely passage from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, where the animal has been bred to be eaten and to enjoy it, and to want to be eaten, and it’s a very, very typically Douglas thing, a lovely flight of fancy, but also a flight of intelligent thought.

So besides Douglas Adams, would you consider yourself a science fiction fan, and if so who are some of your favorite authors?

I couldn’t really, because I haven’t read enough. I’m not one of those people who reads the science fiction magazines, like Astounding Science Fiction and so on. I’ve read a fair number, not that many, science fiction books by a fairly limited number of authors: Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Fred Hoyle … Fred Hoyle the famous astronomer, the great astrophysicist who invented the Steady State theory of the universe and was a very distinguished physicist, and who should have won the Nobel Prize actually, but didn’t because he was such an impossible character. But Fred Hoyle wrote quite a lot of science fiction, most of which is not very good, it’s sort of potboiler stuff, but the first one, The Black Cloud, is excellent. And a couple of others that he wrote on Andromeda, A for Andromeda and Andromeda Breakthrough. Those three books by Fred Hoyle are very good, and among the best science fiction I’ve read, mainly because they actually teach a lot of science. I actually learned a lot of science from his science fiction books. And I wrote a forward to an audio edition of The Black Cloud in which I put down a list of the science that I had learned from it. I’m very fond of an author called Daniel Galouye. I don’t think he’s written all that many books, but I’ve read three of them and they’re all very good. John Wyndham. I can’t think of very many more.

I heard you say at one point that you liked this idea that if you were to trace your ancestry back, at each stage the people would be able to reproduce with each other, but if you get far enough apart then people can’t reproduce with each other … that you might want to do a science fiction novel involving that somehow.

That idea is certainly prominent in The Magic of Reality. It dominates Chapter 2. I didn’t remember that I thought of doing a science fiction story along those lines. I suppose you could, yes. But once you’ve said the plot you’ve said it really. I’m not sure what you could do with it in the way of fiction. The other plot that I had thought of, which actually you might be able to do something with, is hybridizing humans and chimps, because that’s borderline possible. I mean, it’s never been done yet, but it’s not totally ridiculous to think about. Since we now have both the human genome and the chimp genome in toto, you could theoretically concoct a kind of halfway stage between them which you could either think of as being a reconstruction of the common ancestor of humans and chimps, which lived six million years ago, or I suppose you could think of it as what you might get if you hybridized it.

Now, if you were to make that halfway house genome and clone an individual from it, there I think you do have the makings of a science fiction story because that would raise all sorts of ethical problems in people’s minds, social problems. So you could use your fiction story to explore what might happen. I mean, the religious types would freak out totally. And many people would think it was a very immoral thing to do. You could explore the problems that the hybrid individual, the halfway house individual, might have fitting into human society, or indeed chimp society. So I think you could make a science fiction story about that.

When you talk about hybridizing humans and chimps, are you talking about doing genetic engineering or actually just mating humans and chimps?

Well, I mean in a fiction story you could do either of those, and I’m not sure which would make the best fiction story. Perhaps literally breeding them together, because that would engender an additional frisson of yuck factor in people’s minds. But the genetic engineering route might be more scientifically interesting.

But humans and chimps are genetically closely enough related that you actually could produce offspring?

No, I’m not saying that, and I suspect they’re probably not close enough that you could actually mate them and breed in the ordinary way. But they’re not so far that it would be a ridiculous plot in a science fiction story. I mean, it would be less ridiculous, for example, than the plot of Jurassic Park, which I rather like. I mean, I rather like the idea of getting blood out of mosquitoes in amber. That’s very ingenious. But I think that is actually less plausible than the hypothetical plot of mating a human and a chimpanzee and getting fertile offspring.

What actually is implausible about the Jurassic Park mosquito thing?

Oh, that DNA doesn’t survive that long. I mean, we’re talking 65 million years, and DNA doesn’t survive that long. And even if it did, it would then be a very difficult problem to grow the dinosaur. But it’s a reasonable science fiction plot. It falls within the brackets of what I would think would make good science fiction, as opposed to pure mystery fantasy, which I don’t regard as science fiction at all.

So your advocacy for evolution has put you at odds with some really strange characters, such as Ted Haggard and Ben Stein. Do any of those encounters stand out as the most surreal?

Well, you’ve seen those two on film. The Ted Haggard one was aggressive, or ended up aggressive. I think nowadays I wouldn’t play it like that. I mean, I think I’ve now learned that a better way is to give these people enough rope to hang themselves rather than argue with them. In the case of Ben Stein, I didn’t know I was arguing with him at all. I mean, I wasn’t told this was a Creationist front. The producer, a deeply dishonest man of the name of Mathis, I mean, a real slimeball, led me and various other people like P.Z. Myers and Michael Ruse and others, led us all to believe that we were taking part in a serious science program, and in conversation with me Mathis even led me to believe that he was an anti-Creationist. So when I met Ben Stein—I’d never heard of Ben Stein—this rather unpleasant man came into the room, and I wasn’t aware that he was unpleasant; I wasn’t aware that he was a Creationist, and I started answering his questions in good faith, and only very gradually tumbled to the fact that this interview was not what it had been cracked up to be, but I still treated his questions honestly.

And so for example when he asked me whether I could, under any circumstances at all, think of how life on Earth could have been intelligently designed, or could there ever be life that was intelligently designed, I bent over backwards to think, well, you know, can I think of an extreme condition in which it might be intelligently designed? And I thought of Francis Crick’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion that life on Earth had been seeded by directed panspermia, by some extraterrestrial intelligence, seeding the Earth with bacterial life, and this sort of bending over backwards to think of a way in which intelligent life might under some circumstances, you know, what’s the best case I could make for intelligent life, and this was seized upon: “Dawkins believes in little green men!” This was a thoroughly dishonest tactic. Now, if anybody’s listening who’s ever invited to make a film by this man Mathis, he’s dishonest. Don’t do it.

Speaking of really strange characters, I gather from your recent op-ed in The Washington Post that you’re not a big fan of this year’s crop of Republican presidential contenders?

Is anyone that you know? I mean, no, of course not. These people are know-nothings, and it would be a tragedy if any of them was elected. No serious scientist, or nobody even of any education at all, takes Creationism seriously. It’s almost as though the American electorate is splitting into two species, with the civilized, educated ones on one hand and the total ignorant know-nothings on the other, and it’s terribly sad that a large number of voters seem prepared to vote for somebody because he’s like them rather than because they think he’s actually qualified to lead the country.

Your website has this “Convert’s Corner” where there are letters from readers who have abandoned religion after reading your books. Have any of those letters stood out as being particularly memorable?

They’re well worth reading. They’re quite numerous, and many of them are very nice. A lot of people say that they weren’t actively converted by reading The God Delusion, but what The God Delusion did was give them the confidence to come out, give them the confidence to actually say what they believe rather than to secretly keep it to themselves.

You founded an organization called the Richard Dawkins Foundation. What sorts of projects has the foundation been involved with?

There are two, there’s one in Britain and one in America with the same name. In America we’ve done quite a lot of films, quite a lot of DVDs, videos, including things we call “vignettes,” which are sort of three-minute, five-minute little films of a scientist—it might be me, it might be somebody else—having a conversation with somebody else, trying to make one point, one little vignette point, which could then be used by teachers to sort of slot into their lessons just to make one point. Also, longer videos, which have been often conversations between me and another scientist or a philosopher, or another scholar of some kind. We’re trying to pioneer a sort of interview which is not really an interview; it’s more of a conversation between equals, or between people who have expertise in different subjects, like say me as a biologist and Lawrence Krauss as a physicist, where we each learn from each other. So it’s a kind of mutual tutorial, trying to get away from the debate format where you have a punch-up which doesn’t really illuminate. So we’re trying to pioneer the mutual tutorial conversation rather than the debate punch-up.

All right, so that does it for our questions. Is there anything that you wanted to talk about that we didn’t cover?

Well, the book The Magic of Reality [has just come] out in America; it’s [been] out [for a while] in Britain, and it’s doing very well. It’s gone straight into the Sunday Times Bestseller List, which is the sort of British equivalent of the New York Times Bestseller List. It’s gone straight in at number two, which is excellent news. It’s rather unusual for a book to go straight in so high on the list as that. There’s an app for the iPad, which is the sort of ebook version of The Magic of Reality. It only runs on the iPad; it doesn’t run on a Kindle. And it’s more than just an ebook because it has all the pictures for one thing, but it also has various simulations, games, animations, which illustrate points in the book to help explain things, when animation or a movie does it better than just still pictures.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.