Selfish Memes

09.23.13

Rediscovering Richard Dawkins: An Interview

He might be prone to controversial outbursts, but what does the world’s leading atheist and scientist really like to talk about? J.P. O’Malley visits Dawkins in his Oxford home to find out.

Whenever Richard Dawkins’s name appears in the news nowadays, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. The occasional controversial outburst by the British scientist about religion can sometimes be insulting, misinformed, and arrogant. They also make it easy for us to forget why we come to read his work in the first place. While it’s certainly true that Dawkins’s 2006 book The God Delusion was an intriguing riposte to the world of theology, it’s not his area of expertise.

Too often Dawkins's anti-clerical rhetoric makes him seem like a dour and negative man. But lure him into a conversation about biology and the tone changes. The angry and defensive manner is replaced by a sincere warmth and geniality. It is a shame that Dawkins’s scientific views have taken a backseat in the public domain.

Dawkins’s 12th book is An Appetite For Wonder, a memoir. It brings the reader back to his childhood days during the Second World War in sub-Saharan Africa, where his father worked in the British Colonial Service. We also read about Dawkins’s privileged upbringing in Oxfordshire in southern England, where the family moved to when he was a small boy. Dawkins also spends considerable ink in this memoir recalling how he came to write The Selfish Gene, his first book. Its phenomenal success in 1976 made him a modern day prophet for Charles Darwin’s ideas.

I met with Dawkins at his home in Oxford, and tried to rediscover why he is still one of the world’s most innovative thinkers today.

You discuss in the book an experiment you conducted very early in your career, where you deprive chicks of natural sunlight, to explore the concept of whether their knowledge of the world around them is innate or learned. Does that experiment tell us anything about the advanced information that humans are genetically equipped with?

No, it doesn’t, because the experiment hasn’t been done on humans. But something like it could be done on humans. It would be regarded as unethical to do it, unless it was very mild treatment. But in principle you could deprive humans of all kind of things to see what happened. You could bring up children without contact to language and see if they could develop their own. You could bring up children without any knowledge of how to copulate, and then see if they could work it out when they reach sexual maturity. I don’t really see how there would be much objection to bringing up babies in an environment where light came from below for a few days. It could be done when they are in hospital so they experience light, but they are not actually deprived of light.

If we brought children up with light coming from below, so that every time they saw a solid object, like their mother’s face, it would look the reverse. Obviously babies don’t peck like chicks so what do you do? Something like gaze fixation. A lot of work has been done on babies fixating their gaze on things that interest them. And it’s been shown that if you give them a picture of a face, they will fixate on a face that is the right way up, rather than the wrong way up. But as far as I know that experiment hasn’t been done.

How important was W.D Hamilton’s theory of kin selection in the two papers he published in 1964 in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, for you writing The Selfish Gene? Would you never have written the book if you weren’t so inspired by his ideas?

I think in order to write The Selfish Gene it required Hamilton. I hadn’t read George C. Williams at the time, but I think that might have done it. But Hamilton was enormously influential on me. I had pretty much laid out the rhetoric of The Selfish Gene in 1966, a full 10 years before the book was written. And that was inspired by Hamilton.

Can you remember when you first started to think seriously about questions like why are we here, and what is our purpose in life?

I guess I should have tried to say more about that in the book, but didn’t really. It was probably at Oxford that I started seriously thinking about those questions. But I think I was probably curious about them at the age of about 8 or 9. And being inspired by the idea, or at least by the question of whether space has a bound, or time has a bound, or goes on forever. University, especially in biology, gave me the tools to think about this in greater detail.

You comment in this book about your lack of skeptical thinking in your childhood years. Do you believe concepts like Santa Claus are harmful to children?

I genuinely don’t know the answer to that question. I do understand people when they say that you destroy the magic of childhood if you encourage too much skeptical questioning. So I’m not absolutely gung-ho for not letting children have that sort of magic. On the other hand, I think there is a greater magic in reality. You can substitute fairies and goblins, with the stars, the galaxies, and looking down a microscope. Or even just getting children to think about the astonishing fact of our existence, like how many blood vessels are in your own body, for example. I feel that you haven’t lost the magic of childhood if you get rid of Santa Claus. I don’t think you should just sit children down and say: there is no Santa Claus. I would rather say, let's think about it, and turn it into a game. There is something cheap about magic that works just because it is magic.

You also talk about the atmosphere of bullying in your school days. It seems to have really disturbed you. Why do you think young children might be prone to such cruelty?

I really don’t know. I mean we are all mystified by how the Gestapo, and the guards in the concentration camps, could be so cruel. So with adults we pretty much feel mystified by cruelty. And yet when we look back at our own childhood we experienced it. It was a sort of everyday thing, bullying fellow children to tears. Or in my case, just failing to stop it. I am mystified by it, and I guess in a way it was the theme of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. I think he was somehow suggesting that this is a primitive state to which children revert, and to which we have to be educated out of. And people like the Gestapo are either not educated out of it, or they just revert to it.

Many people have argued that your coining of the word meme in The Selfish Gene was you trying to make a contribution to human culture. What is your response to this?

Well, I always explicitly deny that. I was really just trying to illustrate the point that natural selection, although it normally depends on DNA, it wouldn’t have to be DNA. For example, on Mars it will be some other equivalent to DNA. And I was trying to illustrate that with a more familiar example, which would be something like the repetition of a limerick. I was not trying to make a contribution to human culture. However, others have used the meme concept to try and do so, and good luck to them. I like the fact that they are doing it.

Natural selection is a mechanical process with no foresight, which can only blindly favor short-term gain. The Panglossian view of natural selection is an appealing idea to us as human beings, you argue, because brains have foresight. But it’s wishful thinking. Can you discuss why?

Natural selection cannot favor long-term gain, but our brains can foresee certain courses of action. Although they might temporarily seem positive, in the long run they are negative. We frequently look into the future of mankind and see dangers. We see if we carry on doing what we are doing in 20 years’ time there will be no rainforests left, just to use one example. Looking into the future may be one of the reasons that brains evolved in the first place. Natural selection can’t do that. If decimating rainforests is good for individual survival and reproduction, then that is what is going to happen. That is what will evolve, and it will be favored by natural selection. Our brains can foresee that if we let natural selection take its course then it could be disastrous in the long run.

“There is a positive strand of Muslim propaganda that says they are good at science. That is what I was responding to.”

So we can go against the biological imperative that natural selection might suggest, right?

Yes, it’s quite interesting to look at the stages at which brains gradually usurped this function of optimizing the behaviors of animals. We can begin by just speeding the process up—not looking ahead, but just plain learning, as in reward and punishment. It’s like a kind of speeded up natural selection. In natural selection you have to wait for generations to go by for the improvement. Some individuals have to die, while others have to survive and reproduce. After 10 generations you might get an improvement. With learning you can get that improvement within a single generation because the equivalent of dying is getting punished. And the equivalent of reproducing and living is getting a reward. Humans are constantly looking into the future, simulating what might happen if we take various courses of action.

You and the late American evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould often disagreed over your respective theories on evolution. You’ve said that he made his anti-gradualism hypothesis more radical than it really was, and that his use of the word episodic—to unite three kinds of sharp discontinuity in evolution—was misleading. Can you outline where you believe he went wrong?

He was guilty of muddling up episodic versus gradual evolution, and conflating three totally different kinds of episodic [catastrophes, macromutations, and the theory of punctuated equilibrium]. There is no disputing that sometimes life takes a dramatic change. A meteorite hitting the earth is a good example. That forced a total catastrophe, where dinosaurs were wiped out. Another kind of episodic change is macromutations: where a parent has a baby that is radically different. It has two heads, for example. The first animal to be segmented—to go from just a single body to a body with two segments—must have been a macromutation. There must have been a baby born with two segments rather than one. Macromutation is another kind of episodic change, but it’s obviously completely different from massive change with meteorites. There is a kind of poetic similarity, but that is all.

What about the third kind, punctuated equilibrium?

Well, since [Gould] used punctuated equilibrium for all those things, perhaps I should say rapid gradualism, which is the main kind of contribution that he and Niles Eldridge made: the idea that there is an episodic high-speed evolution, which is so fast that the fossil record doesn’t pick it up. So in the fossil record you see what looks like a sudden change, but what actually happened was that over a period of about 10,000 years there was rapid gradual change, and it looks even more episodic as often happens. You find the fossils in a main continent, but the rapid change takes place on an outlying island, which is pretty likely to happen. The Galapagos Islands, for example.

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‘An Appetite for Wonder’ by Richard Dawkins. 320 pp. Ecco. $ 27. ()

So you are saying if you are digging for fossils it looks like it was a sudden macromutation change, but it wasn’t?

Well, what actually happened was that an ancestral population was blown by a hurricane onto an island, and there it evolved under different conditions on the island. And then 10,000 years later, an individual, or a few individuals, were blown back to the mainland, having changed. Well, you can see that kind of episodic change is again entirely different from the other two. And I think [Gould] was guilty of using a poetic language to conflate those three kinds of episodic changes.

Talking about the structure of the eye, you’ve said that the only reasonable explanation for it evolving is for the benefit of the replicators responsible for its developments. It’s foolish, you’ve previously argued, to think that some behavior pattern has evolved for the benefit of the individual or of the group, since both the individual and the group are vehicles. Can you explain what you mean by this?

When people argue about the unit of selection they mean all sorts of things. I like to mean the unit that can be said to benefit the unit of adaptation. I’ve sometimes called it the optimum. And the replicator and the vehicle are two equally important types of units doing different things in the course of natural selection. What actually survives or doesn’t survive—in the long-term sense of natural selection—is the gene, the replicator, because DNA is potentially a perfect replicator with the occasional mutation at the end of a long line of generations. What is left in the world is a lot of successful genes, or replicators. Natural selection is the differential survival of replicators in gene pools. Some of them get less numerous, others get more numerous. However, genes are not naked bits of DNA floating around in a soup. At any given time they are sitting in individual organisms.

A typical animal is a very definite unit, right?

Yes. It has two legs, two arms, a brain, it moves around. All the cells of the organisms move around together in a random way. They are a unit. The organism makes decisions. It decides to go this way or that way. It decides to pounce on a prey, to hide in the grass, to take off and fly, so the organism does behave as a very unitary entity. And that is why I call it a vehicle. It is a vehicle for the genes that ride inside it. It takes whatever steps natural selection favors to keep those genes going. And those necessary steps tend to mean that the organism behaves as a unit. That is a quality that is favored by genes. And it is favored by lots of genes. Because all of the genes in an organism have been favored in the past by natural selection to make organisms behave in a unitary way as vehicles. It’s a consequence of natural selection that they have built for themselves in cooperation with other genes. They have built unitary vehicles, which we call organisms.

In your book The Greatest Show on Earth you describe the laryngeal nerve as something eloquent of terribly bad design. However, it is completely explicable, you argue, the moment you forget design, and start thinking in terms of evolutionary history instead. Can you explain this in more detail?

Just look back at our fish ancestors. You can also see it in modern fish as well. The equivalent of the laryngeal nerve is one of the nerves that supplies the row of gills, which [humans] have all lost, except in the embryo. And there are also blood vessels supplying the gills. The equivalent of that nerve— the most direct route to its end organ—is to go south of the equivalent of the artery. When fish came out onto the land, began developing, turning into reptiles and mammals, and started to develop a neck, the nerve found itself moving further away from the artery, which became part of the chest. So the most direct route from the brain to the larynx was now not south of that artery. But nevertheless, with each generation, the slight increase in neck was only a tiny increase in the detour that the nerve had to take. And so the marginal cost of an extra millimeter of detour was negligible, in comparison to the very substantial cost of a major embryological upheaval—a great big macromutation—to jump the nerve over the artery. You must think of it in terms of the long history, because once upon a time, in our direct fish ancestors, that was the most direct route.

What do you think are the positive forces that Darwinian social theory can bring to our society?

When you apply Darwinian thinking to social studies, you have to be careful. Social scientists think they have a perfectly good subject going, and they don’t want biologists barging in and importing nasty things like genes! But it’s got to be true that however much our biology is overlain with complicated cultural social effects, we have animal brains. We have evolved in Africa, to survive in Africa, under conditions where we lived in small bands, like baboons, where we had to worry about being eaten by lions, or where the next meal was coming from, and about warfare with neighboring tribes. All of these things must have shaped our brains. And although we have largely emancipated ourselves from the original causes of that shaping, there must be certain relics of it still there. And those relics play themselves out in strange and familiar ways: in boardroom disputes, in high management, in pub brawls, or whatever it might be. Our animal origins are constantly lurking behind, even if they are filtered through complicated social evolution.

Have you noticed a change in the atmosphere in how atheism is discussed in the public domain since 2006, when you wrote The God Delusion?

There are different ways of persuading people [away from religion]. The more polite, respectful way probably works for some, and the more in-your-face way works better for others. I think it’s perfectly fine that both approaches should be adopted.

What do you say to those who have accused you of being prejudiced against Muslims?

I have never been prejudiced against individual Muslims. I’m disapproving of all religions. But I think ridicule is a legitimate weapon. I don’t mean a sort of “fuck off” abuse. I would never do that. But ridicule, which at its best, may consist of nothing more than repeating back to them the things that they believe, like, for example, that Muhammad flew on a winged horse. Just simply stating that without comment is the best kind of ridicule, because then people can just see how absurd it is.

What about the recent controversy you had on Twitter when you mentioned that Muslims had won fewer Nobel prizes than non-Muslims? Isn’t that insulting?

That should not be taken out of context. What I was getting at was the fact that so many Muslim spokesmen claim that Islam has made great scientific contributions. Back in the Dark Ages, Islam kept the flame of classical Greek science going. This is true. But there are also those who say you can find great truths of science in the Quran, where they say things like the embryo develops from a clot of blood, and things like that, which is extremely unimpressive. I could have, for example, compared Nobel prizes of Muslims with Nobel prizes of Jews. That would have been a comparison of one religion against another, and the comparison would be humiliating for Muslims. It sounds ridiculous if it’s taken out of context. Instead of Muslims, I could have substituted red-haired people, or bird watchers, or whatever, and that makes nonsense of it. But the point about it is that red-haired people don’t go swanking around that they are good at science. They are just red-haired people. Whereas there is a positive strand of Muslim propaganda that says they are good at science. That is what I was responding to, really.

Would you talk openly about your opinions on religion like this in private? At a dinner party, for example?

I wouldn’t at a dinner party, no. It depends if it comes up or not.

Have you ever had to part ways with friends over your difference of opinions over religious beliefs?

No. It’s never come up. I heard a story the other day of a neighbor of mine, who was at a dinner party with the local vicar, who is an extremely nice man. And another guest at the dinner party, who was also a neighbor, but a devout fundamentalist Christian. This woman attacked the vicar throughout the dinner party, for not being Christian enough. He is a modern liberal churchman, who wouldn’t see eye to eye with an evangelical fundamentalist. And she chose the dinner party where he was the guest to belabor him with this abuse. I wouldn’t dream of doing that.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed, and modified since its first posting.