Science's storyteller

December 18, 1998

He is a vocal atheist with a combative if not militant image, but few scientists have a larger audience than Richard Dawkins. He talks to Tony Durham.

He does not pretend to be Charles Darwin, and he does not claim to know the mind of God. He is not on Microsoft's payroll and only in a roundabout way is he funded from the unloved software giant's profits. If Richard Dawkins is to be reproached for anything, it might be for spending his childhood in tropical Africa oblivious to the beauty of nature that surrounded him. A fault he more than made up for in The Selfish Gene and its five successors, books that enwrap a rigorously Darwinian exposition of nature with a sense of wonder at its marvels.

The Selfish Gene, Dawkins's 1976 blockbuster, argued that life is ultimately a struggle between mindless self-replicating units of information encoded in DNA. So lucidly does Dawkins express this rather bleak message, drawn from the work of the evolutionists George Williams and William Hamilton, that the book has become a classic of science writing.

A couple of turnings away from the afternoon traffic jam, and North Oxford calm descends. The front garden could do with a few more shrubs and the detached house, maybe 100 years old, does nothing to attract attention. The money has been spent inside.

Dawkins, 57, in a dark jumper and more outdoorsy-looking than his pictures, opens the door. At the back of the hall, light pours from a well-equipped office. It is the next bit that arouses the estate agent: the tall, airy 50-foot reception room, its white vastness relieved by several bulky, wooden carousel animals.

One secret of successful people is that they do not try to do too much. You would think Oxford University's professor of the public understanding of science might do some research on what the public actually knows about science and where people's ideas about science come from. But Dawkins admits that he leaves such painstaking investigations to other professors in the field - such as John Durant of Imperial College. Instead he interprets his job, in a chair personally funded by Microsoft millionaire executive Charles Simonyi, as "promoting the understanding of science". This is what he does, and with his memorable metaphors and articulate eagerness he does it exceptionally well.

He himself is particularly proud of his writing in The Blind Watchmaker about bats and the way they steer and hunt by sound waves. Dawkins considers the bat's navigatory problem and the possible solutions, the problems those solutions introduce, and then the successive rounds of solutions that lead to exquisite adaptations in the bat's body over thousands of years - adaptations that no organism could ever have achieved in a single leap.

The same approach is at work in the chapter on spider webs in Dawkins's fifth book, Climbing Mount Improbable. How would a silk-spinning predator make a living? Dawkins approaches the question from the point of view of the spider, living in "a world of silken tension". Every detail of web shape and construction is there for a reason, and each follows logically from what came before, yet not one is consciously designed.

Key Dawkins themes are here: the evolution of complex "designoid" structures by an accumulation of tiny modifications over centuries; the selfish genes that allow the male spider to be the female's lunch once the male has ensured that his genes will survive in her offspring; and the "survival machines" that selfish genes construct for themselves. The web is as much a survival machine as the spider's body. The idea that genes reach out into the world and operate far beyond the organism's skin was the theme of The Extended Phenotype, his second and most technically academic book.

Like the physicist Stephen Hawking, Dawkins has fuelled the public's interest in reading about science, demonstrating that books can compete with television. He has done a fair bit of television himself. He is married to Lalla Ward (his third wife), an actress best known for her TV role as Dr Who's pretty assistant Romana. (On a recent tour to promote Dawkins's latest book, Unweaving the Rainbow, the pair undertook joint readings.) But television is not ideal for the subtle arguments in which he deals. "My particular forte is doing it in words. I am not a terribly visual person."

Many people want to debunk Darwinism, either because it contradicts their religion or through a vaguer feeling that it denies human dignity and freedom. Dawkins has devoted much of his time to vigorously - and sometimes rather militantly - repelling these attacks. He has explained, for example, how complex structures such as the human eye - structures that look as though they might have been designed by a higher intelligence - evolved by gradual, natural processes or chance modification and natural selection over generations.

Besides conducting a running debate with those who argue that God made the world, Dawkins has got into well-publicised arguments with fellow biologists. The Blind Watchmaker included an attack on the "punctuated equilibrium" theory of American scientists Niles Eldredge and Stephen J. Gould. Eldredge and Gould believe that the evolution of a species may stand still for millions of years and then make giant leaps in a short time. Dawkins, by contrast, stresses the constant, gradual nature of evolution.

The row rumbles on. Unweaving the Rainbow attacks Gould's claim that five phyla, or basic animal body-plans, evolved in a brief and exuberant burst of evolution during the Cambrian epoch. At the heart of all this is a genuine scientific puzzle. PreCambrian rocks contain no fossils of complex animals. Then in the Cambrian period fossils of five animal body-plans appear, almost instantly in geological terms. Gould thinks the phyla appeared rapidly in the Cambrian era. Dawkins thinks they evolved more slowly during the Precambrian. Gould, therefore, has to explain a unique event in evolution, which never happened again. Dawkins has to explain why no Pre-Cambrian fossils survive.

But there is a third theory of the "Cambrian explosion" which says that each new phylum arose instantly, over night, in a single generation. Dawkins regards this theory, promulgated by some of Gould's followers, as dangerous, anti-Darwinian nonsense. A mollusc, he points out, does not give birth to a segmented worm. In reality, Gould is as convinced a Darwinist as any 20th-century biologist and can hardly be blamed for his followers' views . But Dawkins still accuses Gould of "bad poetry", the error of the populariser who lets a sense of wonder overwhelm scientific rigour.

Yet Dawkins has seen many of his own ideas take wings and fly beyond his control, and he even has a theory to account for the phenomenon: he coined the term "meme", by analogy with "gene", for a selfish, self-replicating idea.

The meme theory was introduced not as a theory of human culture but "again to make exactly the same point that what matters in any theory of Darwinism is self-replicating information," says Dawkins. The human brain provides a new foundation for replication, not, this time, of genes - but of ideas. "You have, in effect, a new primeval soup. Once you have got that new primeval soup, a new replicator could be the basis of a new Darwinism."

Is this life? "It does not matter how you define life. If on another planet there is Darwinian replication and evolution I I think I would probably want to call it life. But if someone else preferred not to, that is their privilege." Dawkins, who has a long fascination with computing, is equally relaxed as to whether the L-word should be applied to computer experiments carried out under the banner of artificial life. He readily accepts that something as complex as human sexual behaviour has evolved and is genetically influenced, regarding it as another example of Mount Improbable being climbed in many, many tiny steps.

Far from his image as the hard man of reductionist genetics, he has plenty of time for the view of developmental biology that sees organisms shaped by mathematical rules and self-organising physical processes. "Anyone who says this is anti-Darwinian has completely misunderstood the role of adaptation."

On close inspection Dawkins has fewer real intellectual enemies than his combative public image suggests. But there is one issue on which he is known to be uncompromising. Dawkins is a vocal atheist, to the point where many interviews and profiles dwell on little else but his antagonism to those who believe in God, including Christian scientists. "I am getting fed up with that," he says. Will he talk about God for 30 seconds? "No," he insists with a smile. "God's out."

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