If the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope have no problem with evolution, why are our children being brainwashed and our science teachers under attack? In an exclusive interview, Richard Dawkins explains why his new book is here to prove once and for all that humans did not walk with dinosaurs
Richard Dawkins at New More..College, Oxford.
A last-minute crisis in the Dawkins household meant that we were unable to meet — as was planned — at his home in Oxford where I had intended to infer from his three libraries, the birds’ nests that he apparently keeps in his living room, all sorts of deep meanings about Britain’s Top Public Intellectual (Prospect magazine, May 2008).
The day before our interview, however, there was an urgent telephone call from Dawkins’ assistant: Richard’s beloved dog had died, I was told, the atmosphere in the household was too funereal for an interview. Instead, we were to meet in one of the characterless rooms in New College where, when the day came, Britain’s “angriest”, most “vituperative” atheist — as his many critics like to call him, along with “belligerent”, and even “mad” — greeted me in a cheerful if rather delicate mood from behind a set of double doors.
Anybody who has ever met Dawkins outside a debating room describes him as a rather shy man — not at all the “Darwin’s rottweiler” of public life. In private I found him to be charming, if slightly irritable at times, a surprisingly romantic creature who is also the kind of person one can imagine bitching behind your back for being too thick. At one point he launched into a long, perfectly articulated and very soulful description of what it was like looking up at the stars at night in an attempt to convey how an understanding of science can enhance one’s experience of the natural world. He is also passionate about poetry — Housman, Shakespeare, Yeats — and admits to being “rather embarrassingly, rather shamingly moved to tears when I read poetry aloud”.
The loss of his dog was clearly on his mind on the day we met, as was evidenced by the awkward conversational dead end we meandered into at one point: “I just loved that little dog, just adored her,” he said. “She was a Coton de Tulear. It’s a breed that comes from Madagascar.” There was another melancholy pause while he ruminated aloud: “Just the dearest little dog. She had been ill for quite a long time. Her name was Pamba — the Swahili for cotton. It is ... there’s a sort of an attitude that ‘it’s only a dog’. But ‘only’ is not the right word. You can love a dog as much as a human . . .”
The idea that Dawkins is capable of doing very much more than deeply offending people is probably inconceivable to those who accuse him not only of a virulent disrespect for religion but of being an apologist for Hitler and Stalin who, it is rather irrelevantly pointed out, were atheists too (except that Hitler was raised a Roman Catholic and Stalin studied at a Georgian Orthodox seminary). Dawkins prefers to see himself in the John Lennon mould (“Imagine there’s no religion”) — at odds with the vocabulary that he sometimes chooses to employ when he wants to win an argument. He can be just unbelievably scathing sometimes and, it must be admitted, amusingly so, provided you’re on the same team: the Pope is “either wicked or dim”, for preaching against the use of condoms in Africa; Howard Jacobson is “an odious pseudo-intellectual”; Noah’s ark is “petty. Pathetic, really”, when compared with what evolutionary theory has to tell us about how life really began.
Of course it’s exactly this combative (he calls it “clear”) tone that has made him so famous, so deeply revered and profoundly hated, and I very much doubt that he would have been even half as successful or well known had he agreed to tone himself down, as many of his colleagues in the scientific community would like him to do. “I think there’s a widespread perception that I am polemical and strident and shrill and things,” he says a little dolefully. “I don’t think I’m strident and shrill. Because religion is seen as off limits I’m seen as excessively angry and polemical and somehow not to be taken seriously as a sort of balanced, nuanced thinker. Time and time again I’m described as just as fundamentalist as a fundamentalist.” Does it matter? “I think probably that my reputation suffers somewhat because of that. ”
He admits to feeling misunderstood at times and during our conversation frequently refers to his old friend Douglas Adams, who was his great champion and whom he clearly still misses intensely. He has his atheist wing-men Christopher Hitchens and A. C. Grayling, but despite its terrific sales, Dawkins’ previous book, The God Delusion, managed if not to offend then at least to shock or irritate almost everyone else in public life. For The God Delusion Dawkins got a pounding in the press from many columnists who didn’t take to what they often referred to as his own “missionary zeal”. There were fellow academics who said that he’d scored an own goal. And Terry Eagleton must have slaved for days over a never-ending article for the London Review of Books in which he accused Dawkins of being too ignorant of the Scriptures to have any kind of informed opinion about the existence of God. To his credit, anything that’s written about him, good or bad, Dawkins links to his website, alongside a campaign encouraging closet atheists to 'out' themselves and an online shop where you can buy T-shirts with large As printed on them (you can guess what the A is for).
The new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, is more what I would call emollient, although Dawkins doesn’t agree and says that it merely fills a gap in his repertoire. He’s written eight books on evolution so far and one wouldn’t have thought there can be that much more to say on the subject. But with the rise of creationism in the US suddenly there is. “Forty per cent of Americans believe that the world is less than 6,000 years old,” Dawkins says, several times, and indeed even most religious folk in Britain would concede that this is a worrying statistic, not ameliorated by the fact that the same ideas are beginning to be taught in some British schools.
And so Dawkins set about writing The Greatest Show on Earth to demonstrate how we know evolution is true. It took him about a year, and the resulting book is a beautifully crafted and intelligible rebuttal of creationism and intelligent design.
Wasn’t it faintly depressing for a scientist in the 21st century to find himself arguing the case for evolution? “There’s an aspect of that,” he says. “But I don’t want to put that in a too depressing, negative way. It’s a challenge — a cheerful sort of challenge because it’s so thrilling and exciting.” When he wrote The God Delusion his stated aim was to convert everybody who read it to atheism. With the new book it is to shake some sense into creationists: “I suppose anybody who reads it should no longer be capable of thinking evolution isn’t a fact,” he says, perhaps rather optimistically, I think. “I’d like to think there’s got to be something wrong with people who finish the book and don’t think that.”
I’m afraid he’s destined to be disappointed, as down deep he himself knows. There’s an hilarious transcript in Chapter 7 of a televised conversation he once had with someone called Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women of America (in his Waspy, amusing way he points out that Wright’s “opinion that ‘The morning-after Pill is a paedophile’s best friend’ gives a fair idea of her powers of reasoning”). Anyway, Wright is asking Dawkins to “show me the evidence of the in-between stages from one species to another”, and Dawkins is telling her over and over again to visit any natural history museum and look at the fossils. But Wright is having none of it: “If evolution has had the actual evidence then it would be displayed in museums, not just illustrations,” she says.
It’s hopeless. And Dawkins concedes that, “[Wright] certainly wouldn’t read the book and even if she did read it, it wouldn’t make any difference. Nothing is going to change the mind of somebody who is so doggedly certain ... I think you have to make a real distinction between people who are religious in the sense that your vicar or bishop is religious but accept that evolution as scientific and people like Wendy Wright, who think the world is 6,000 years old, which is flat contradictory to every scrap of evidence we’ve got. That does drive me to despair because nothing’s going to shift those people.” Nevertheless, he’s optimistic that, “many people just don’t know what the facts are. They are simply uneducated. And that’s a fault of us as scientists for not going out there and communicating with them.”
It’s not just in America of course (none of Dawkins’s books has been translated into Arabic). But at least in the US his books aren’t banned. Why does he think creationism has had such a revival in the States? “It is a political question in a way. I think in America there’s a political almost paranoia among these sort of Sarah-Palin-voting rural-small-town population who feel belittled by the urban New York-San Francisco intellectual periphery of the country. They feel like a kind of underdog. It’s the same lobby that feels that everybody has the right to carry a gun.”
How about in Britain? “I don’t know what it is in Britain. Maybe it’s just American influence. Maybe it’s Islamic influence which is strong.”
The most powerful parallel Dawkins draws in his book is between Holocaustdeniers and what he refers to as “historydeniers”, by which he means creationists.
“I have American colleagues who have told me that they’ve had students go to the dean and complain that their religion is being insulted by this professor who is teaching about evolution.” He likens teaching science in parts of America to teaching ancient history to a classroom dominated by “a baying pack of ignoramuses ... who scurry about tirelessly attempting to persuade unfortunate pupils that the Romans never existed.”
Unlike with the previous book, most people in Britain will agree with most of what Dawkins has to say in The Greatest Show on Earth. But they still find him irritating for being such a literalist, so passionate and emotional.
What drives him, I think, is not so much outright anger but a sense of incredulity, alongside a profound desire to be understood. He admits to getting annoyed with “fuzzy-thinking” vicars.
“Do you go to church? You’ve heard sermons?” he asks. “The vicar will talk absolutely straight about something like Adam and Eve. But then if you stopped him on his way out of church and you said, ‘Vicar, you don’t actually believe in Adam and Eve, do you?’ and he would say, ‘Of course I don’t believe in Adam and Eve’. And I would say, ‘Well why don’t you say so in the sermon? Because plenty of people in your congregation won’t have realised that and I think that’s a very serious point’.”
One gets the impression that he is in an almost permanent state of dumbfoundedness at humankind’s ability to hold two contradicting ideas in its head: “It’s almost as though they [vicars] don’t really see the distinction between actually what’s true and what is only true in a metaphorical or mythological sense. It’s as though they don’t really care about the difference. I think that’s it! They don’t really care about the difference!”
And does this fuzzy-headedness mystify him? “Yes, it does. And they will say things like, ‘Well it’s obviously not true but who cares in what’s true?’ And they’re not really interested in what’s true, they’re interested in what feels right or what feels good or what’s moral or, um ... if I may put it this way, what feels to be true: ‘There’s a deeper truth than mere scientific truth’ and that sort of thing. ‘There are spiritual truths that transcend scientific truths and which are so much more valuable and humane’.” And what goes through Dawkins’ head when he’s listening to these kinds of opinions? “Well! A kind of intense irritation! Because I don’t mind people talking about mythological truth but I do mind them muddling it up. There is such a thing as scientific truth and I think it matters, and if you don’t think it matters then I get annoyed.”
We’ve moved away from creationists here, but the principle is the same: our capacity as humans to believe in things that have no scientific underpinning. Is creationism, would he say, a form of stupidity? Does he find it annoying that there are so many stupid people in the world?
“I don’t think I would put it that way,” he says. “Well, I was going to say a lot of ignorant people, but that sounds abrasive too. Ignorant is just a factual statement. I’m ignorant about football and all sorts of things. And I don’t think you’d take it as an insult if I said you don’t seem to know anything about football. It’s actually just a factual statement; it means you don’t know anything about it. I know quite a lot about evolution and there are plenty of people out there who know nothing about evolution and who probably who would enjoy learning something about evolution. Perhaps they can teach me about football.”
Does he think he’s an intellectual snob? “Nooooo,” he almost yelps. “I would say I am an elitist in the good sense, which is in the sense that you’re not snobby but you want to be part of an elite and you want other people to be part of that elite too.” And one senses that when others fail to become part of the elite, he gets depressed.
What he does far better than mauling other people with his fabulous intellect is unravelling the delights of the natural world, a fact that has been slightly obscured over the past two years with all the fuss stirred up around The God Delusion. The new book brings readers back in touch with the wonder of Nature, as will, I think, his next project: a children’s book on evolution.He’s not, in the end, so dogmatic about atheism that he doesn’t celebrate Christmas (“I am a cultural Christian”) and he even admits to “a very very slight sentimental nostalgic liking for The Holly and the Ivy.”
As to the big unanswered questions: “I think we all think that there’s something else out there. I do, certainly. But it’s not supernatural. It’s ... I think there’s a lot that science doesn’t know and indeed may never know, and that’s exciting.”
One final criticism often leveled at Dawkins is that if you take away belief in God, society collapses and the world suddenly becomes a cold and comfortless place. He immediately leaps in with an “all that matters is what is true or not”. But I think he would be better off talking a little more about his own experience of life, which is certainly not devoid of comfort or love. He is on a third marriage, to the Doctor Who actress Lalla Ward, and is said to be on good terms with his first wife. He has many close friends. Consolation in an atheist world comes through “human contact, human love. We are intensely social animals and I think we derive great comfort from talking to loved people, listening to them.”
Soon after he gives me the talk about stars. If only this, Richard Dawkins’ poetic, highly articulate, deeply moved and moving side could come to the fore more often, we might begin to remember how very lucky we are to have him.