An Interview with Richard Dawkins

Metaphors that Richard Dawkins likes:

An Interview with Richard Dawkins

Metaphors that Richard Dawkins likes:

An Interview with Richard Dawkins

Troy Jollimore
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter

Few contemporary scientists have as large a public profile as does Richard Dawkins. Through his best-selling books, his frequent public appearances, and his conceptual contributions to intellectual discourse, he has changed the way scientists and the educated public think about evolution and the nature of life. His books on evolutionary biology, from The Selfish Gene (1976) to The Ancestor’s Tale (2004), are brilliant examples of how to write about sophisticated scientific ideas for an intelligent and curious general readership. This achievement is reflected in the title of his current position: the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.

Dawkins has achieved not only recognition but considerable notoriety—the result, it sometimes seems, of having proposed or defended one controversial idea after another. Over the course of his career he has become associated with, and at times served as a spokesperson for, views and positions including sociobiology, biological reductionism, the gene-centered view of evolution, memetics, atheism, and secular humanism. While he is a prominent Darwinist, Dawkins entirely eschews so-called “Social Darwinism.” He is deeply committed to a progressive agenda that aims to decrease violence and oppression and improve the quality of people’s lives, not only by employing the means of science but by encouraging a better understanding of science.

In 1986’s The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins took on the “argument from design,” the most influential argument for creationism, which holds that living beings are so intricately put together that only the existence of an intelligent, purposeful being could possibly explain their existence. Dawkins wrote that in undermining the argument from design he wanted “to persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence.”

Much of his work since The Blind Watchmaker has addressed related themes, culminating in the 2006 best-seller The God Delusion. The book, in which Dawkins argues that belief in a theistic god is intellectually unjustifiable and, on the whole, socially and ethically harmful, stirred a lively debate; responses were numerous and, in many cases, vitriolic. Some commentators complained that the book would further widen the chasm between believers and nonbelievers. Others praised it—some, indeed, for precisely the same reason.

On March 8, 2008, Dawkins spoke about The God Delusion to a packed lecture hall at the University of California, Berkeley. Earlier that day I was able to speak with him for an hour in his room at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco.

—Troy Jollimore


THE BELIEVER: Some might say The God Delusion is not a science book. It’s a book intended, I think, for a very broad audience.

RICHARD DAWKINS: Science books can of course be for a very broad audience and many of my earlier books were. I do think of it as a kind of science book, actually, and I think I’m a little bit unusual in that. As you know, many of my scientific colleagues would say there’s a complete divide between science and religion and they don’t conflict in any way: they are “non-overlapping magisteria.” The idea is that you can be a scientist and then, quite independently, it’s your own business whether you’re religious or not. I’ve never really held to that view. I think the existence of a supreme creative being is a scientific question. That doesn’t mean it’s scientifically testable – although that’s an interesting thing to talk about – but I think it’s a scientific question, in the sense that the existence of an intelligence at the beginning of the universe – which would be a sort of theistic position – is opposed to the position I favor, which states that intelligence arises late in the universe as a consequence of a gradualistic evolutionary process. Those are very, very different scientific interpretations of the origin of a sort of massive creative intelligence. So I think The God Delusion kind of is a scientific book. Or at least, the bits of it which are concerned with the non-existence of God are scientific chapters.

BLVR: Indeed, one of the things you make clear in the book is you are not talking about all religions. If there is such a thing as a religion that has no belief content—one that is, say, purely a matter of practice—you’re not so interested in that. You’re interested in theism, the idea that there is a divine intelligence, a god that resembles a person.

RD: Yes, I wouldn’t be particularly hostile if it was simply a sort of set of rules for living the good life. I wouldn’t even call that a religion, I think. No doubt we all have such rules. And so when somebody says ‘Oh my religion is not a theistic religion, we don’t believe anything supernatural, we just believe that in order to lead a good life you should do so and so,’ I would have no quarrel with that, nor would I call it a religion.

BLVR: Anyone who has read your book will realize, or ought to have realized, that the arguments, if successful at all, undermine the very claim that theology is a legitimate way of finding out about the universe and what it’s like. But some critics don’t want to engage the arguments; they want to sidestep the entire debate and just say ‘Dawkins is a scientist, therefore he is not entitled to write about these things.’

RD: Yes. Now what do you feel about that? I mean, what do you feel about sort of, really clever intelligent well-read people like, say, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is said to be a world-class theologian, and he’s a very charming man—what are they actually doing when they do theology? I’m wondering whether it’s a little bit like when anthropologists go and study a tribe, and, while they don’t actually believe the mythology of the tribe, the way they write, it’s almost as though they do. Because they steep themselves deeply in the mythology of the tribe, in the ancestors and the dream time and the ghosts of the ancestors and whatever it might be, and what they’ll tell you is that the whole structure of the mythology of this tribe has a kind of internal logic that you have to understand the whole foundation of before you can get into it. And within the context of the tribe’s mythology/theology, things make sense. They don’t make sense in a scientific way, but they make sense within the mythology of that tribe. And so I suppose a scientist could regard professors of theology arguing about the real meaning of the Trinity or the real meaning of the Transubstantiation as doing something quite sophisticated in the same way as the aboriginal elders discussing the dream time. Would that be a fair way of putting it, do you think?

BLVR: I suspect so, and I think that’s very interesting, because it connects with another set of issues which you’ve written about in the past, and that is, postmodernism. There is this idea that perhaps—and this again goes back to “non-overlapping magisteria”—that perhaps the Darwin story, as people sometimes say, is ‘scientifically’ true of the universe, but the God story is ‘religiously’ true. And I just can’t make heads or tails of that. I don’t know what that means.

RD: Yes. I mean, I think I came closest to appreciating this sort of cultural relativist point of view when I read a novel by Elspeth Huxley, which you probably won’t have read because it’s not widely known. It’s called Red Strangers. She died recently, she must have been about a hundred years old, and she was brought up in Kenya, and spent a lot of time with the Kikuyu people. And so she deeply imbibed the mythology of the Kikuyu tribe. The novel, Red Strangers, is a kind of epic historical novel, set in the Kikuyu, starting at the end of the 19th century and going on until the arrival of the British, who were the aliens. They were like the Martians arriving. They were called ‘red’ because they were sunburned. By the time the British arrive, in the novel, the reader has become so deeply schooled in the way of the Kikuyu that the reader thinks that the British are the strange, alien ones. Elspeth Huxley very, very skillfully manipulates the reader into the internal logic of the Kikuyu world. And I, as a scientific reader, nevertheless found myself seduced into this mindset, such that when I saw through the eyes of the Kikuyu in the novel the customs of the British—I am after all British, I mean they are my customs—they seemed to me to be strange, weird, and alien. And I’m very grateful to Elspeth Huxley for showing me at least one way in which I could almost become sympathetic to that point of view.


BLVR: As you have pointed out, physical objects feel solid to us, though in fact physics tells us they are mostly empty space. And you say that since human beings are the product of a long process of evolution, we shouldn’t assume that we have evolved to form true pictures of the world; rather it makes more sense a lot of the time to think that we were evolved so as to be able to form useful pictures of the world. Now, that last bit sounds exactly like something that a postmodernist like, say, Richard Rorty would say. But I think you intend this in a somewhat different sense.

RD: That’s right. I mean, when I try to get my head around the baffling strangeness of modern physics, one of the ways in which I console myself for my inability to do so is to say my brain was shaped by natural selection in the Pleistocene, in Africa, when what mattered was how to survive in a world of medium-sized objects not travelling near the speed of light and not anywhere near the quantum realm where weird things happen. So it’s almost as though the definition of ‘weird’ is that which does not apply to the historical world in which our brains were naturally selected. Now, I’d be interested to know your opinion as a philosopher, whether it’s plausible to say that that which is strange and that which is unworldly is just a function of what our brains were naturally selected to survive in. I mean, solid objects—we need to treat them as solid—it wouldn’t be any good if we thought of them as being full of empty space.

BLVR: Right. You couldn’t live that way.

RD: You couldn’t live that way. And so, natural selection has given us sense organs, has given us brains, has given us hands, eyes, etc., which treat objects as things that you can’t walk through, because you can’t walk through them! And so when physicists come along and tell us that actually there is almost infinitely empty space between the nuclei of atoms and the reason why you can’t push your first through a table is fields that are preventing that from happening, well, is that postmodernist? Is that relativistic?

BLVR: This connects with a theme that comes up many times in your work, about the separation between who we are and who our genes are. You ended the original edition of The Selfish Gene with a line about our being able to rebel against the selfish replicators. And then in The God Delusion you talk about this wonderful idea of morality possibly as simply an unintended byproduct, but a wonderful byproduct. I wonder if you find it plausible to think that our ability to, say, understand higher mathematics or to develop physical theories of the universe is also essentially a byproduct. We don’t need those skills in order to survive in ordinary circumstances.

RD: I think it’s got to be a byproduct. I can’t [think of] any other way to put it. And in a way, what’s surprising is that we are so astoundingly good at it. I mean, it’s not just a little bit of mathematics we can do. There are people who can move themselves huge distances away from the practical realities in which survival matters. So a great mathematician—or a great musician or a great poet for that matter—it looks to me as though the human brain is capable of not just byproducts but Byproducts with a capital B. These are mega byproducts we are talking about here. And I wonder what the limits are. I’m rather intrigued by the thought that if we were to meet real aliens from outer space, if they arrived here, and if they could get here they’d have to be hugely more advanced than we are because we certainly couldn’t get there, so if we ever met them and they told us about their physics which would be a physics of thousands of years, perhaps, ahead of ours, would at least our finest minds, the finest minds of our species, be able to take it on board, or would it be totally beyond our possible ken?

BLVR: It might be that you would have to start with a child and educate them in their ways from the beginning. The relevant limitations might be cultural rather than biological.

RD: Do you think that science ever will solve everything, or, or do you think that there will be deep questions which are forever beyond all possibility of solution?

BLVR: I will agree with some people who take themselves to be critics of science on one thing, which is that not everything is a scientific question.

RD: Okay.

BLVR: As you know I write poetry, and I think there is such a thing as a poetic understanding that does not reduce to a simply scientific conception. In fact one of the things I like about your work is that I think it avoids, to a large extent, the sort of reductionism that, say, you find in E.O. Wilson. Wilson often says things like ‘Look, everything is a branch of science, you know, poetry and philosophy and so on are all really branches of biology, and ultimately that’s what’s going to answer all these questions.’ And I actually don’t think that that is true.

RD: Okay. What would be an example of such a question? Moral questions, ethical questions would, I imagine, fall into that category – poetic matters? I suppose that, though I’ve never written verse, some of what I’ve written has a kind of poetic edge to it. When I talk about, say, the Genetic Book of the Dead. That’s the idea that the genes that we carry around inside us are a walking text history of our ancestors, because the genes that we have as we walk around, the genes that we have inside us, have been shaped and carved and whittled by the natural selection of past ages. A whale will have within its genetic story, within its Genetic Book of the Dead, an account of life in the sea, obviously, but it will also have an account of life on land, and for all we know, ancestors of whales at some point went through a stage of living in deserts, in which case it would have just the opposite kind of story as well. So that idea, that every animal alive today carries within it a book where the chapters are parts of its own history—that seems to me to be a poetic idea, which is carrying a scientific truth, and in a way that a purely scientific account might not convey.

BLVR: I think that’s right. The subject matter is pure science, but the understanding of it doesn’t really come without the ability to grasp some of those metaphors, and without the ability of someone to come up with the metaphors in the first place. And so it’s using literary techniques to help us with an understanding of science that is not simply knowing facts. It’s grasping a picture, as Wittgenstein might have said about it.

RD: Yes. It’s poetic imagery being used in the service of science. But we got into this by talking about certain questions that science couldn’t answer, and I’m not sure that this quite qualifies, does it, because we are still talking science

BLVR: It is a scientific question, we’re just using poetic methods. Whereas—well, you mentioned morality, and that, I think, would be a true example of a non-scientific issue.

RD: I think we both agree that science can never say what’s right and wrong. But the scientific way of thinking can sort out illogicalities in thinking about what’s right and wrong. And so for example if we’re talking about, say, abortion, the morality of abortion, a scientist could say ‘Well, I can’t tell you whether it’s right or wrong, but I can tell you that you’re being inconsistent if you, say, are passionately against aborting a human fetus which has only a few cells, and yet you’re quite happy to slaughter cows and eat them. So at least point out that there’s a potential for a contradiction. And that is a scientific argument. And indeed, much of moral philosophy uses the scientific kind of logic in studying moral questions, although, presumably there has to be some sort of non-scientific—would you call it axioms? Premises?

BLVR: There’s a lot of disagreement about this, but presumably yes, you need some sort of non-scientific input. Of course, the problem there is that as soon as people hear “non-scientific” in that context they often think “Well it must be religious, because what else is there?”

RD: Exactly! That’s the problem, is when people say “What else is there?” The totally illogical jump from there to saying “Well it’s got to be religious.”


BLVR: I also wanted to ask you about the probability argument, or the ultimate Boeing 747 argument. My experience talking to people who have read your book has been that this is perhaps the part of the book that’s most likely to be misunderstood by people.

RD: Yes. You take something very, very complex, like an eye, and you say ‘This couldn’t have come about by chance.’ Well of course it couldn’t! But they [proponents of Creationism] will say: ‘It couldn’t have come about by chance—therefore God must have did it.’

BLVR: And that of course is one source of misunderstanding right there, because people think, falsely, that natural selection and chance are the same thing.

RD: That’s right. So we get that out of the way, and the ultimate 747 argument says, you take that favorite creationist argument and you turn it around so that it shoots the creationist in the foot! Because of course God would have to be even more complicated than the thing that you’re trying to explain, like an eye. Things as complicated as Gods would have to come into the universe late, as the result, the ultimate result, of a slow and gradual incremental process. Now, what misunderstandings do you say you meet with that?

BLVR: People don’t see why God would need to be explained. They understand the rationale for needing to explain the eye, but not for needing to explain God.

RD: What they say is, is something like ‘Well but, but, but, God makes the rules, I mean, He can be eternal if He wants to, He can just exist if he wants to, God can do anything.’ And as you say, this is just moving the goalposts. I mean, you can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to use the probability argument about eyes, then you’ve got to play fair, and use it about Gods.

BLVR: It’s so odd what people think needs to be explained, and what doesn’t. Every time someone asks me about the beginning of the universe—you know, “where did it all come from?”—it makes me wonder why they assume that it had to come from anywhere. I mean, isn’t it perfectly possible that it was just always here?

RD: Yes. Fred Hoyle, who, by the way, actually invented the phrase ‘big bang’ as a satirical attack on it, was an advocate of the ‘steady state theory.’ The view was that as the universe expanded, matter was created: new galaxies were created spontaneously in the gaps left between the existing galaxies—so that the universe remained in a steady state.  The galaxies don’t actually get further apart, or rather they do but new ones come in their place. So the overall state of the universe remains the same. And when people said ‘But what do you mean, “spontaneously created new matter”?’ he said, It’s no more difficult than to imagine that it came into existence in a big bang in the first place. I mean, either of them are very hard to understand. Both of them science finds very hard to understand. And certainly theology doesn’t help!

BLVR: A very controversial thing that you say in The God Delusion is the comparison of religion with child abuse. This really rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, and for obvious reasons. How do you feel about the reaction to that comparison, and if you were to write the book again, would you say it the same way?

RD: Pretty much the same way, I think. I mean, first, I think when people talk about child abuse they often mean sexual abuse. And I think I’ve been rather nice to priests, because I actually go out of my way to say that the accusations of sexual abuse against Roman Catholic priests have been perhaps rather overdone. So I think I should be given a certain amount of credit for that! But I think the more important point is that physical abuse, unpleasant though it is, is not obviously and self-evidently more abusive than mental or psychological abuse—for example, teaching a child that it might go to hell for all eternity, or making a child afraid that perhaps her father is going to hell because he doesn’t go to church. I quoted the example of a girl of seven who cried and was deeply upset because a friend of hers the same age who had died  was a Protestant, and was therefore going to hell. And this woman (as she was when she told me about it) compared it to being physically, sexually abused by a priest, and said that of these two kinds of abuse there’s no question was the more upsetting. It was the mental abuse of being told about hell, and told that her friend had gone to hell. Well, I think that’s an entirely defensible position. It’s not obvious, I mean, you could object to it, you could say no, no, physical abuse is worse. But nevertheless, it’s not totally stupid or ridiculous to say that teaching children about hell is as bad as and possibly worse than, at least, the milder forms of sexual abuse.

I’ve also used the phrase ‘child abuse’ to refer to the religious labeling of children, even calling a child a Protestant child as I myself did a moment ago, which is something that our society buys into all the time. Whether or not we are religious ourselves, we quite freely talk about a Catholic child or a Protestant child or a Muslim child. And I’m conducting a consciousness-raising campaign to try to stop people using that language – consciousness-raising in the same sense as feminists campaigned to have as stopping using ‘man’ in phrases like ‘one man one vote.’ We’ve all had our consciousness raised about that, and I think we can do the same thing about the labeling of children by the religious opinions of their parents. And I think that that is, again, a justifiable use of the phrase ‘child abuse.’

BLVR: It certainly is surprising how widely accepted that practice is, given how much that idea smuggles in about the role religion plays in identity.

RD: It smuggles in a hell of a lot! It’s pure custom—we’ve just simply grown used to it, like we’ve grown used to the idea that you can’t criticize a religion because it gives offense. Why not give offense? I mean, let’s not gratuitously offend. We won’t go to someone and say, you’ve got a very ugly face, in the interest of truth! But I think if somebody’s talking nonsense, you don’t just say ‘I think you’re talking nonsense,’ you say ‘I think you’re talking nonsense because A, B and C—now reply, if you can.’ That shouldn’t give offense.

BLVR: Why do you think it is that in the United States in particular, the level of ignorance about, and resistance to, Darwinian evolution is so high?

RD: A big question, that. One school of thought says that it’s exaggerated, that the difference between, say, the United States and Europe has been exaggerated. I think Christopher Hitchens is of that view. And, without having any public opinion poll data to back us up, I share his intuitive feeling: traveling around the U.S., I don’t get the feeling talking to people that it’s any more religious than other countries in the Western world that I’ve visited. Politicians, the language of politicians, certainly says something opposite. I mean, no politician in Britain would invoke the name of God, I think ever, actually, let alone in every single speech, which is what I think American politicians do.

BLVR: Absolutely. You have to.

RD: They think they have to. And I’m beginning to wonder whether they really do have to, or whether perhaps it’s all a great big myth. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that turned out to be true? But I guess we’ve got to be pessimistic and assume that there is a pretty large constituency out there to whom they really are appealing. So assuming that that is true: why? Where does it come from? I’m not American. I’ve heard various theories. One interesting theory is that it is because of the constitutional separation of church and state, which America has deeply built into its constitutional DNA. In Britain we don’t have that, we have an established church—the Queen is the head of the Church of England—in all the Scandinavian countries historically there’s been an established church, etc. But in America, because religion is not part of the establishment, it’s become free enterprise. And all the tricks of salesmanship, of Madison Avenue, are used to sell my church as opposed to your church. And it becomes a kind of exercise in big money high pressure salesmanship. Maybe that’s why. Another suggestion I’ve heard, from a colleague, is that it’s due to America being a country of immigrants. Immigrants, when they arrive from, say, central Europe, leave behind a whole support system, a kinship support system of grandmothers and aunts and things. They arrive with nothing, in a big and daunting country. And so they look for a fictive family, they look for fictive kin. And the church provides that.



BLVR: Where you think science is going? Do you think we are headed for a single “theory of everything,” as people sometimes say?

RD: Well that’s of course very relevant to what we were talking about earlier, whether there are going to be some ultimate questions that can never be answered. I’m not a physicist and so in a way I’m the wrong person to ask, but as a amateur observer of the scientific scene who has talked to a lot of physicists, I get the impression that it’s divided about fifty-fifty between those who think that physics will one day be “solved”, and those who think that perhaps every time you open a door and do something, other doors get opened beyond that one and so you never really solve everything. There’s also a difference of opinion about the emotional reaction to finding that everything had been solved. Some people would think that was a glorious nirvana of understanding, to understand everything. And I can see that. But I can also see that it could be a bit frustrating not to have anything to do anymore. Actually, even if it was solved, of course there would be plenty more to do, in, in detail; even if you solve the ultimate questions, say about where the laws of physics come from, there’s an awful lot of physics left to do, as there’s still an awful lot of biology left to do even though biology has had its Darwin, and has had its Watson and Crick. There’s lots and lots and lots more to do. I sometimes feel that, whereas biology has had its Darwin, physics is still waiting for its Darwin, in a way, and so physics is in a kind of pre-Darwinian phase. I’m not sure whether physicists would like that.

BLVR: It may be that the subject matter of physics simply can’t be unified in that way.

RD: It may be. And that would be a fascinating thought as well.

BLVR: That made me think again about what makes poetry poetry, and I think there’s an interesting thing that can be said on an abstract level, which is that I think poets  have a conception of truth that is different from what philosophers have and what scientists have. Philosophers and scientists tend to think of truth as converging, so that ultimately all the theories come down to the one true that accommodates everything else. Whereas, if we think about metaphorical truth, as poets do, we don’t think of metaphorical truth as necessarily converging. We don’t think of the latest metaphor as replacing the earlier ones. We think more of adding metaphors, and so you just come up with a new one, and now we see an aspect of the world that we didn’t describe before.  

RD: Yes, I’m sure that’s right, but maybe truth is not what we’re talking about anyway there. In the Romantic period, poets came close to despising scientific truth, didn’t they? [People] think science takes the joy out. Well I wrote a book called Unweaving the Rainbow, which took on Keats’ idea of the rainbow being unwoven. It’s a view that I could never view with much sympathy, because it seems to me that the more we understand, the more beautiful it becomes. Richard Feynman, somewhere, talks about seeing a red flower and how you might think it’s beautiful, and wax beautiful, wax poetic about it, but he sees a greater beauty, because he understands why it looks as it does. There is a level of beauty in understanding, and scientific understanding when you really get it is aesthetic, it is among the highest aesthetic experiences that you can enjoy.

More Reads

An Interview with Matt Bai

I first met Matt Bai, political writer for the New York Times magazine, in Iowa, December 2003. We were following Howard Dean, the presumptive Democratic nominee. What we had ...


An Interview with Alan Bishop

In 1981, in the golf course purgatory that is Phoenix, Arizona, a pair of half-Lebanese brothers from Detroit and a So-Cal transplant formed Sun City Girls (named after a ...


An Interview with Ian MacKaye

In the ’80s underground music scene, integrity was everything, and D.C.’s Fugazi had more of it than anyone. They only played five-dollar all-ages shows and their sole ...