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An interview with Richard Dawkins

Christopher Brodie

Richard Dawkins is the first holder of the newly endowed Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. He is best known for his award-winning popular science books, beginning with the best-selling The Selfish Gene in 1976 and including The Blind Watchmaker (1986), Climbing Mount Improbable (1996) and Unweaving the Rainbow (1998). An outspoken atheist, Dawkins is also a frequent participant in public discussions of science and religion. His latest book, The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, is a backward journey through four billion years of evolutionary history to the origin of life, drawing insights from the "tales" of 40 creatures met along the way.

Associate Editor Christopher Brodie spoke with Dawkins by telephone in December 2004.

I want to talk with you a bit about The Ancestor's Tale. What made you want to write a book that was more general than your other works, that encompassed ground that you've previously covered? Lalla WardClick to Enlarge Image

It doesn't really cover previous ground. I've never written about the actual detailed facts of evolutionary history before. My previous books have all been attempts to make evolution easier to understand, to make theory easier to understand. This is the first book that really lays out the detailed facts of evolutionary history.

In doing so, you took an unconventional approach, starting with humans and moving back in time to the origins of life. What were the challenges of that approach?

Well, it was a bit difficult, because history obviously does go forward, and the language of narrative tends to move forward. So there were slight problems there. I think it was worth it, because if you do your history forwards, it looks as though evolution is aimed at the endpoint. And if the endpoint happens to be humans, as it is likely to be—because we are human and we are most interested in humans—then it looks as though history were aimed at humans from the start, and that's positively wrong. The advantage of going backwards is that you always come to a climax at the origin of life, no matter where you start. So that was the rationale for doing it, but it did of course present some problems.

In the introduction, you explain the rationale for using Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as a model, and you describe aspects of The Ancestor's Tale that correspond to it. Literature uses many mythic themes and allegories. What should be the place of myth and religion in literature, and in the internal life of man, as opposed to science?

I occasionally use the imagery of religion because it's part of our culture and because you can't understand literature without it. It's something that's deeply built into everybody's consciousness in the English-speaking world, so to use religious imagery, whether it's from Chaucer or from the Bible, resonates with people. I'm not sure I understood your question.

Let me place it more in context. I'm calling you from North Carolina, which is located in the Bible Belt. I've taught biology at the high-school level, and some of my students and their parents struggled with the concept of evolution as being contrary to their stated religious beliefs. Your work champions evolution as a way of viewing life on Earth. And yet there's an internal life, a life of the mind, that makes sense with mythic themes and allegory. I wanted to hear you comment on how you see religion and myth.

Okay, well, the first thing, I suppose, is to say that respectable, educated theologians, from the pope and archbishop of Canterbury down, all support evolution. So any of your students who think there's a conflict between evolution and religion don't understand their religion and should go and learn it up.

Then you ask about the role of myth and allegory and other religious images in the life of the mind. Well, as I've said before, they do clearly play a role in the life of the mind. I think that when religions attempt to make statements about the nature of the world, as most of the major religions do, then they are almost invariably wrong. And when they don't, when they simply attempt to raise the spirits or provide uplift, then they don't conflict with science. But science itself can do that job very well on its own. For example, Einstein uses language which sounds religious; indeed, he even uses the word God. But it's very clear, if you read Einstein carefully, that Einstein did not believe in anything supernatural. Einstein derived uplift and inspiration from science, from the contemplation of the wonders of the universe, but he certainly had no supernatural belief, and indeed he was very scornful of supernatural religion. And that would be my position as well.

Are there differences in the way scientific communities in the United States versus Britain view evolution as a paradigm because of our struggle with being a Puritan-based, Puritan-founded country?

Well, I don't think there's any difference in the science of the countries. First, I want to hasten to say that American scientists are the finest in the world, without a doubt. If I talk to American scientists, it's no different from talking to British scientists. We share essentially identical worldviews. But it's very different if you talk to American laypeople and British laypeople. Only about 40 percent of the population of Britain, according to a recent survey, believe in a supernatural God, whereas about 95 percent of the American public do. So that's a huge difference. But there's no difference that I can detect in the scientists of the countries. In both cases, among scientists the number of people who believe in a supernatural being is low.

You include in the book several references to recent political events in the United States. Do you think that what you call "the tyranny of the discontinuous mind" is becoming more widespread?

Well, that needs explaining. The tyranny of the discontinuous mind is something which I devote "The Salamander's Tale" to expounding.

The world is largely full of continua, so if you talk about somebody as tall or short or clever or stupid, we deceive ourselves into thinking that there's a kind of discontinuity between those things, whereas actually there's a continuum. This shows itself in expressions like "20 percent of the population are below the poverty line," as though there was a line. It's much more truthful to actually say how rich or how poor people are, rather than count the number who lie below or above some sort of line. So that's what I mean by the tyranny of the discontinuous mind.

A strong word like tyranny is appropriate, because it leads to things like the absurd objections to stem-cell cloning, which result from people's worries about abortion, which results from their treating any human embryo, no matter how young, as fully human. Being possessed of a discontinuous mind, they are unable to see that a one-celled zygote or a four-celled embryo is not human in the same sense as an adult human, or a one-year-old child. It [the zygote or embryo] can't think, it can't feel pain, it can't feel fear, it can't love, it can't hate—all it has is a potential. And the discontinuous mind can't cope with that. What we should do is say that there's a continuum between the embryo and the adult, such that the embryo gradually becomes human in all those senses. So a one-year-old child is more human than an embryo but less human than an adult in all sorts of ways. A human embryo before it gets a nervous system is less human, paradoxically, than an adult chimpanzee in all sorts of important respects—in the sense of being able to feel fear or feel love or feel hate or feel pain. So we need to learn to banish the discontinuous mind and to think instead in terms of a continuum for whatever it is that we're interested in, whether it's the ability to suffer, the ability to love, the ability to fear—and the right to be treated with human rights or the rights that we ascribe to sentient beings. That's the message of the salamander's tale, which could be subtitled "The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind."

You mention in the book that you are appalled at the works of liberal thinkers from 100 years ago—I think this is part of "The Grasshopper's Tale." You are appalled at their comments on race, and you wonder what scholars 100 years from now might be appalled at. You speculate that it might be our treatment of other species. This made me wonder: Are you a vegetarian?

No, I'm not, and that's an interesting question. What I believe is that we should try to minimize suffering. And so I would have no objection to killing something to eat it, provided it doesn't suffer. So I'm much more worried about the suffering in slaughterhouses and in factory farms—the dread that might enter the mind of a cow or pig when it's being led to the slaughter. To the extent that slaughtering practices are humane, I see no objection to using animals for meat.

The objection to using humans for meat would be not just that they are human, but that they would feel fear, they would know what was coming to them, they would be in a position to suffer in a way that a pig or a cow, if it was well treated, would not. So my aim would always be to reduce suffering, not to take a kind of absolutist position that there is something special and unique about humans which entitles them to exploit and use other species of animal for any purpose.

This view seems to be a benefit of evolution research—that it suggests such a continuum of life.

Well, let me just expand on what you've just said. It is, of course, true that there is a continuum between us and every other species, and it's literally a gradual, seamless continuum, except, of course, that most of the intermediates are extinct. If they were not extinct, then we would immediately see the absurdity of the speciesist double standard, whereby we treat humans as special—even human embryos as special—as opposed to chimpanzees or gorillas. We would immediately see the absurdity of that because we would be linked to those species by an unbroken chain of intermediates with whom we could interbreed. So if you really understand the implications of evolution, it becomes extremely hard to uphold the speciesist morality and ethic that we more or less universally live by. The tyranny of the discontinuous mind really does pervade our ethics and our morals.

How should biologists in general and geneticists in particular be trained? Seeing things as part of a continuum rather than as discrete entities that are isolated from one another by species distinctions is not the way biology has traditionally been taught. The distinctions between species, which seem quite precise in their Latin names, are not precise at the molecular level. So, particularly when I share more in common with a chimp that has type A blood than with a human that has type B blood—at that locus—how does that change our perspective?

Well, that's rather a specialized point, that you're more closely related to a chimp with the same blood type with respect to that one gene. I describe it as a kind of democracy of genes, and with respect to the vote of the vast majority of genes, of course we are more closely related to each other than we are to chimpanzees. So I think you can think of this idea of a democracy, a majority vote of genes, where species that still survive are usually pretty distinct. Occasionally they're not, as in the case of the salamander's tale. But because the intermediates are all extinct, every human is far, far closer to every other human than any human is to any chimp. So that's reasonably straightforward.

It's only when you start hypothetically imagining that the intermediates have not all gone extinct that you get into problems of defining the difference. And in those species where they've only just recently diverged, and so there is still the possibility of interbreeding between them, they form a kind of continuum from one species to the other with intermediates that still survive.

In terms of humans as animals that are evolving in response to our environment, is our current engineered environment that we control selecting for specific phenotypes?

Well, that's a difficult question. In a sense it must be—there is bound to be nonrandom survival of genes going on. But nowadays our environment is changing so rapidly that you can't pin down the environment that is doing the selecting. Moreover, since it is so hard to die young nowadays—since it's so hard to fail to reproduce because you're dead—what that means is that the difference between those who do reproduce and those who don't is more usually a matter of choice: whether you choose to have children or not. And only if that has a genetic component do we have natural selection going on.

But until quite recently, it does look as though different human environments have selected for different genes. Things like skin color and body shape seem to be well associated with the environment where people have lived. The Inuit have a different body shape from the Dinka, for example, and the Pygmy of the equatorial African forest is different again. Lactose intolerance, which is the primitive human condition in adults, has gone in those peoples who have a pastoral history. And so most Europeans, for example, can drink milk as adults, but most Chinese can't. That reflects a difference of natural selective conditions among our ancestors.

Right. But in a sense, those ancestors who were acted upon had much less control over their environment than we do at this point, so do you think that with the level of control we can exert now, we're at a lull?

I think we are at a lull. Theoretically, of course, we could steer evolution in any direction we chose. Nobody's doing that, I'm glad to say, but it would be possible to take a decision to breed the human equivalent of Pekingeses or bulldogs, and it could easily be done. But it's not, and I hope it won't.

This book is notable because it's based on your professional work as a scientist but also adopts a literary structure. Every once in a while, one sees barriers being broken down between different corners of the campus—literature and genetics in this case, but physics and philosophy has been a popular coupling recently. Do you think this is a trend, and if so, is it a good one?

Yes, I think it's always good to at least reexamine traditional barriers on the campus and see if there are other ways in which we could partition our subject. One of my previous books, Unweaving the Rainbow, was an attempt to break down the barriers between science and, well, poetry, I suppose. And yes, I am all for that.

I'm not as familiar with the educational system in Britain, but here it seems that we get shunted off pretty quickly into our respective domains, and it's hard to struggle back to some common ground. Has that been your experience?

No. Well, it's even worse here—we're shunted off even earlier than you are. And in many ways I think that is unfortunate. In Britain you tend to have to make a choice between science and art subjects at the age of about 16, and once you've made that choice it's very difficult to get back to the other one.

You mention in the book that you did some traveling in California in the 1960s. And you also emphasize the gulf between a chemical trip and an intellectual pilgrimage. Do you think that chemical trips can influence intellectual pilgrimages?

Oddly enough, I never actually experienced any chemical trips when I was in California. I spent two years as an assistant professor at the University of California in Berkeley. And although no doubt there were many chemical experiments, chemical trips, going on around me, I never actually experienced one. So I can't speak from first hand. But I can positively say that none of my own scientific thoughts have been inspired directly by pharmaceutical agents.

You are widely regarded as the perhaps the world's best advocate for evolution. What are the rewards and drawbacks of occupying such a public space?

I don't think I want to go along with that characterization. I'd rather take on a more modest role than that. But I do think that it's important that people, that biologists generally, should take a bit of trouble about defending their subject against its enemies, who are, unfortunately, extremely powerful, because they're extremely well financed. If you look at the money that's available—tax-free—to organizations who make it their business to fight against science in the guise of fighting against evolution, then I think that biologists and scientists generally need to recognize that their subject is under threat, particularly in the United States. And we would be foolish if we didn't heed this threat and try to do something about it. So if you characterize me as playing some sort of leading role in this fight, I shouldn't be, because it should be a role that everybody in the field is playing their part in.

What is your next book going to be about?

I'm not sure yet. I'm still sort of recovering from the previous one. It might be some sort of F.A.Q.—frequently asked questions. In my role as professor of public understanding of science, I do get a lot of letters from people asking questions, and I try to answer them. I have thought for some time of putting them together in the form of a book of questions and answers—a sort of edited collection of questions and answers. But nothing definite is planned yet.

Would you have any words of advice for other scientists who are trying to write books for a general audience?

I think, let the science speak, because it's inherently fascinating. That's one piece of advice. The second, separate piece is try to put yourself—it's so obvious, I mean it doesn't need saying—in the position of the reader. Not just one reader, but, successively, lots of different readers. Imagine this was being read by Uncle Joe, imagine this was being read by your doctor, imagine this was being read by your lawyer, imagine this was being read by your old French teacher. So every time you read through your stuff, imagine it through the eyes of some particular individual, and it will have an automatic sort of Darwinian selection effect on your words, and you'll recognize—"Oh, he wouldn't have understood that, she wouldn't have got that point," and so you change it. And by the time a chapter has been through this succession of filters, it comes out clearer, because you've anticipated all the difficulties that people will have.

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