Fervour of a rational treasure

February 27, 2004

Christopher Wood discovers what really drives biologist Richard Dawkins to wonder.

It is too early to describe the landscape of the post-Hutton report world. But just in case the days of a free press are numbered, I will take the opportunity to commit a habitual journalistic indiscretion by betraying two details of the living room in Oxford where I met Richard Dawkins.

The first is the presence of the largest television set I have ever seen, a welcome sign of frivolity in the life of the tireless interpreter of evolution. I like to think he watches King Kong and reruns of Dr Who episodes (his actress wife once played Dr Who's assistant).

The second is a copy of Dr Johnson's Dictionary . This also seems right. Dawkins' books exhale the same lucid breath as those of Johnson. To read both is to enjoy the sound of a humorous and humane voice, espousing the superiority of reason to prejudice. Both believe the truth is not "out there somewhere" but within the grasp of inquiring minds, and both are unafraid to speak it. There is in both a note of plain-spoken straightforwardness in an age dominated by public dishonesty (as all ages are).

As Dawkins frequently asserts, analogies can go only so far, and while Johnson was a fervent Christian, Dawkins is a notorious opponent of religion. In his book of essays,

A Devil's Chaplain , he calls religion a "mind virus" whose spread he compares to that of computer viruses. Both men, however, are exemplars of the art of thinking clearly and carrying an argument logically. Like Johnson, Dawkins is a devastating newspaper columnist and a vigorous participant in public life - lately often through letters to the press excoriating the president of the US.

Dawkins was a lecturer in zoology at Oxford University when he first publicly demonstrated these talents with the publication in 1976 of The Selfish Gene . In it, he explains that what is best for the gene, and not for the species, is the driving force of evolution, and introduces the world to the controversial idea of the "meme" - a self-replicating cultural attribute whose propagation is analogous with that of the gene.

The book has become hugely successful, appearing on university reading lists and being translated into more than a dozen languages - an honorary textbook. This was no doubt partly owing to its tone, which has characterised Dawkins' six subsequent books. Serious scientific discussion is offered in a jargon-free style comprehensible to non-scientists but calculated not to patronise them - an ethos captured in the title of Dawkins' current post at Oxford, the Charles Simonyi chair in the public understanding of science.

In the follow-up to The Selfish Gene , The Extended Phenotype , the formula was pursued. "I've always felt scientists ought to write for each other in a style lay people can understand," Dawkins says, "so I set myself the challenge of writing a book for professional colleagues in such a way that lay people could enjoy it if they wanted to bother."

In so doing he addressed the gulf that he believes still exists between those of the poetic and scientific persuasion. "A lot of people still feel they don't know any science, and some people treat that almost as something to be proud of. Others exaggerate the difficulty of science and assume they're not going to be able to understand a scientific book. There are curious differences in the way scientific books and, say, history books, are written. There's less of a gulf between the way people write history for lay people and for other historians. They write the same kind of book, and that should be done for science as well."

The Extended Phenotype was followed by what is perhaps Dawkins' tour de force , The Blind Watchmaker , which explains in detail the operations of natural selection, what evolution is and what it is not, and how seemingly unbridgeable chasms of improbability were crossed in order for complex and highly adapted phenomena - the human eye, for instance - to develop.

It is one of the most celebrated popular science volumes of recent times, through which shines Dawkins' wonder at the intricacy and beauty of creation (never mind that there was no creator). Yet a few years later, Dawkins had to contend with some readers reporting that his books had removed all sense of the purpose of existence. He responded by reasserting his delight in the natural world in Unweaving the Rainbow , which seeks to correct the belief that by explaining the mysteries of the universe we make the universe less a thing of beauty. Rather, Dawkins insists, creation becomes more wonderful - poetic, even - the more we know of it.

In Unweaving the Rainbow , Dawkins also takes on various forms of pseudo-science and mysticism that play on people's gullibility - astrology gets a predictably severe clobbering. "It does depress me," he says, "because I think of what people are missing. They're going through life being fed a second-rate substitute for the truth, which nowadays we are privileged to have access to. In medieval times there was no alternative, but now there is and it's such a shame to be born into the 21st century and not take advantage of what it has to offer."

Not very far from astrology in Dawkins' demonology is religion, and in A Devil's Chaplain , he strenuously refutes current trendy attempts to reconcile science with religion. Does he think serious scientists can ever be religious?

"Einstein and many other physicists frequently used religious language. But if you actually look at what they believe, it turns out to be so different from what most people mean by 'religious' that it's almost a misuse of language to give them the same label. Einstein frequently used the word God as a name for the deep mysteries of the universe that filled him with a sense of reverence and humility, as they do me. In the Einsteinian sense, I am religious. It is true there are some scientists who are religious in the going-to-church and praying-for-the-forgiveness-of-your-sins sense, but I think they are quite rare. The number of good scientists who actually think that Jesus performed miracles, had a virgin for a mother and rose from the dead is very small."

Some have cheekily suggested that Dawkins is himself religious in his devout advocacy of neo-Darwinism. But Dawkins is ready for them. "It stems from a confusion between strong advocacy and fundamentalism," he says. "You can advocate something strongly because the evidence for it is strong, which I would like to think is what I do. Or you can advocate something strongly almost for the opposite reason. Because there's no evidence for it, you stick firmly to what it says in your holy book or whatever."

Dawkins is putting the finishing touches to his next book, The Ancestor's Tale , "a history of life written in the form of a backwards pilgrimage through time, very loosely modelled on The Canterbury Tales , a progressive pilgrimage to a destination that is the origin of life".

Looking rather further ahead, Dawkins has written that he would consider it an honour to be fossilised. That will take some time: and in any case, not everyone is so lucky. But should archaeologists be fortunate enough to disinter Dawkins' legacy, they will be compensated for the absence of human remains by some of the best science writing of the age.

 

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