Richard Dawkins: How I Write

The influential evolutionary biologist and fierce defender of atheism on his first memories and having to write 3,000 words before he’d call a day productive.

David Levenson/Getty

What is an early and vibrant memory of yours, from growing up in Kenya?

I left Kenya when I was two, so not many memories. I have a picture in my head of my father coming on leave from the army, and my recognizing him by his brown shoes. My family later moved to Nyasaland, now Malawi, and we lived there until I was seven. I remember lots from those times, but especially vivid were the yellow and black swallowtail butterflies and the taste of nasturtium leaves.

Tell us a funny story about your Oxford experience.

It was my habit, when interviewing entrance candidates, to invite them to show how they could think, rather than test their knowledge. In pursuit of this aim, I sometimes asked them to estimate, very roughly, how far back in time we’d have to go before we hit a shared ancestor between the candidate and me. One young woman, when asked this question, looked me up and down intoned, in a slow, rural Welsh accent, “Back to the apes.”

When you wrote The Selfish Gene in 1976, it changed the way people thought of evolution and began the discussion of genes among the general populace. How did your academic career change with that book? Sometimes academe is wary or jealous of popular successes…

It did change my life in that I became more of a public figure. I had to get used to speaking on the radio, or writing newspaper articles. I was invited to present a BBC Horizon TV documentary on The Selfish Gene, but was too shy to do so. I recommended John Maynard Smith instead, and he did a very good job. I don’t think I suffered much from the jealousy effect you are talking about, unlike Carl Sagan who was never elected to the National Academy, almost certainly because of jealousy. By contrast, I was elected to the British equivalent, the Royal Society.

Did you have a single a-religious epiphanic moment, when you realized that, for you, there was no God? Saul on the road to Damascus levitating back onto the horse?

Not really like Saul. I early on lost confidence in Christianity when I realized that it was only one of many religions and it was an arbitrary accident that I happened to be born into Christianity. But I retained a belief in some kind of divine creator until I finally lost all religious faith when I understood Darwinian evolution and how it explains the illusion of design in the living world. I then became quite militantly anti-religious.

Were you surprised by the number of twisted knickers caused by The God Delusion, in which you argue that God cannot exist? Or did you expect such a reaction?

Not really surprised. People tend to identify with their religion, almost as much a part of themselves as their face, so I should have—and did—anticipate some twisted knickers. The book spawned more than 20 “replies” books whose titles used the words “God,” “Delusion,” “Dawkins,” etc. in various permutations.

Tell me about founding the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

I made a certainly amount of money from The God Delusion: not very much but enough to make me think I should give some to appropriate charity. “Appropriate” seemed to indicate America rather than Britain, since the religion virus is stronger in America. But as a British taxpayer I couldn’t give directly to America in a tax-efficient way. Lawyers advised me to set up a British and an American charity with the same aims and statutes, so I could give to the British charity which could, in turn, legally give to the American one. The American Foundation is now very active. It runs the website RichardDawkins.net, produces DVDs and YouTube videos on scientific and rational themes, helps to sponsor the Clergy Project (which attempts to rescue clergy who have lost their faith), and the Ex Muslims of America similarly, and is working to build up a database of freethinking organizations throughout North America.

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Please recommend three books (not your own) to your readers, and tell us why you like them.

Pluto’s Republic by P.B. Medawar. A brilliant (Nobel Prize-winning) scientist’s collected essays, loftily, scathingly witty.

Red Strangers by Eslpeth Huxley. Epic saga of Kikuyu life, starting in the 19th century before the arrival of the British. She succeeds in transplanting the reader’s mind into the world of the Kikuyu, so successfully that, when the British arrive, we see their ways as alien, as if they were invading Martians. Even her descriptive imagery, when describing landscapes, is Kikuyu.

Sword of Honor by Evelyn Waugh. Three-volume novel of the British army in the Second World War. Matchless English style, very funny in parts, wonderfully sardonic, yet sympathetic observation of the chaos of war.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?

Let it flow, although I am not proud of that.

What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?

Never mystify the reader. Make everything as clear as you can, from the very start.

Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.

Write fast, then revise, revise, and revise again. Often read aloud, or ask my wife to read aloud to me so I hear my own words through another, and recognize if it doesn’t flow.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite work space?

My desk is a mess. Again, not proud of it. The view from my computer desk is the garden.

What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

P.G. Wodehouse.

What is guaranteed to make you cry?

Trying to read loved poetry aloud.

Do you have any superstitions?

None that I would confess to.

If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

Charles Darwin. Isn’t it obvious why?

What is your favorite snack?

Salted cashew nuts or Bendick’s Bittermint chocolates.

What phrase do you over-use?

Awe and wonder. But I never used “awesome,” which has been ruined by over-use, to the point where it now means nothing more than OK.

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?

When The Selfish Gene received a rave review from Sir Peter Medawar, Nobel laureate and one of the world’s great scientists/prose stylists.

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

3,000 words.

Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.

First questioner stood up and said he felt cheated because he had come to hear a physicist in a wheelchair. At another book festival, Stephen Hawking himself spoke immediately after me and I stayed to hear him. His speech was pre-recorded and so were all the answers to questions except the last one. The chairman said that, as a special concession, Professor Hawking would take one question spontaneously from the floor. A man stood up and delivered a long, wordy speech about “spirituality” and “the religious dimension” etc. etc. and didn’t Professor Hawking agree that there was more to the universe than just science? Hawking took 10 minutes to build up the answer on his computer and the audience waited with bated breath. Finally it came. Just one word. “No!”

Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

I’d love to be a poet.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Always put yourself in the position of the reader and strive to impress the reader with your content, not with how clever you are.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

He struggled to understand. And to help others to do so.

What is your next project?

The second volume of my autobiography covering the period after publication of my first book. I am trying to decide whether to write it chronologically like the first volume, or thematically.