Richard Dawkins interview (2000)

by ob

[Richard Dawkins is the author of “The Selfish Gene”, “The Extended Phenotype”, “The Blind Watchmaker”, “The Ancestor’s Tale” and “The God Delusion”, among others. This interview followed the publication of “Unweaving the Rainbow”.]

OB: Your main argument in “Unweaving the Rainbow”, and in your recent lecture with Dr Steven Pinker, was that far from ‘killing the soul’, you believe that science ‘awakens the imagination’. Are you encouraged, then, by the popularity of your works and of science writing in general? Do you think there’s been a general change in the way science is perceived in the last few years?

RD: I’d like to think so, and people are constantly telling me so. I certainly get very encouraged at lecture meetings – like the one you refer to – and my book sales are certainly encouraging. What’s less encouraging is when you actually go into bookshops and try to find science books. We are told in the papers that people are buying science books like hot cakes, but where are they? I never see any in the shops! I see political biographies, I see cookery books, I see gardening books, I see astrology books, I see religion books… but science books you really have to dig for. So it may be that the book buying public has got the message but the book selling trade hasn’t!

OB: During the lecture you briefly criticized Brian Appleyard, whose book “Brave New Worlds” was an attack on what he sees as the dangers of genetic research. Do you think this public appetite for science writing is encouraging too many non-scientists to join the fray?

RD: That’s one aspect of it. I’m not too worried about that – I rather like the idea that people are interested in science and want to talk about it. As for the sort of pessimism – is science going too far? – I think that’s a real loser. You can’t stop people trying to get knowledge. What you can do is to warn about misuses of the consequences of it. I think that’s the right way to aim your misgivings, not at science itself but at the possible misuses of it, which amount to technology. And science of course is essential to technology, but science is not the same thing as technology, and technology can be used for both good and bad purposes. It’s up to society as a whole to makes sure it’s used for good purposes.

OB: So you wouldn’t subscribe to Appleyard’s point about there being ‘good’ and ‘bad’ knowledge?

RD: No. I think any knowledge – pure knowledge, the getting of knowledge – is good. But even if it wasn’t, you couldn’t stop it.

OB: It might be an example of what you attack as “bad poetry” in science writing, the sort of science writing that’s very readable and accessible, but that isn’t entirely rigorous or well thought out.

RD: I suppose so, yes. I mean I’m all for poetry in science, and I suppose I try and do it myself, but it is a double edged sword, and you can become seduced and “over-hyped up” by the language that’s used. So you just have to watch out for bad poetry, check out that the language that’s seducing you really is based upon good science. It’s not an easy thing to do, of course, and I do suspect that the quite a lot of the “pseudo-science” that beguiles people – astrology and similar things – is playing on the same thing. What I call ‘the appetite for wonder’ is an appetite for the poetry of science and it can be misused and abused.

OB: Is that a temptation you feel when you’re writing?

RD: Well… yes, it is! And if I ever get anything wrong, then I suppose it’s likely that I will be using the sort of language that I use to mislead people. I hope I don’t get things wrong, and I think very hard about it. I believe that usually I get things right, but obviously I would believe that!

OB: The chief target of your attack on ‘bad poetry’ is Stephen Jay Gould’s book “Wonderful Life”, in which he claims that the ‘Pre-Cambrian Explosion’ of life 530 million years ago tells us something new about evolution. Are you happy that the debate between yourself and the Gould ‘camp’, has been the subject of so many column inches? Andrew Brown, in “The Darwin Wars”, even goes so far as to divide a number of prominent scientists into ‘Dawkinsians’ and ‘Gouldians’…

RD: Well, I think anybody who is deeply involved in a subject is uncomfortable with the idea of camps, but to people coming in from outside like Andrew Brown I suppose it’s a legitimate thing for them to attempt to do a bit of taxonomy on scientists and to try and classify them into one camp or another. I suppose there are broad divisions which you can distinguish. There are those of us who are particularly interested in Darwinian adaptation, although it isn’t – as has been alleged – that we think that everything is a Darwinian adaptation, it’s just that we’re interested in it, and so we tend to focus our attention on that. So we don’t say that all evolution is propelled by nothing but Darwinian selection, but that the bits that aren’t don’t lead anywhere very interesting! That’s all that that difference is. But the bad poetry that I was complaining of is to do with lumping together at least three kinds of discontinuity in evolution. Namely: extinction, especially mass-extinction; punctuated equilibrium; and macro-mutation; which have nothing in common with one and other, other than a very superficial poetic resemblance. Yet many people, I suspect misled by Gould, have come to treat them as though they were somehow different aspects of the same thing. And that’s very misleading. It leads me for example to be challenged – when I do talks – with the phenomena of mass-extinction, as though mass extinction was somehow an embarrassment to me! As though I should be worried about the phenomenon of mass-extinction, because at a superficial, poetic level it sounds like a discontinuity. Whereas I have always said that the evolution of Darwinian adaptation has to come about through gradual change. It doesn’t come about through mass-extinction, it comes about in between extinctions. Extinction has nothing to do with the production of adaptation.

OB: So extinction isn’t a part of the process, it’s an interruption of the process?

RD: Exactly.

OB: But mass-extinctions can, perhaps, ‘clear the decks’?

RD: Absolutely. That I’m very keen on, and I’ve often expounded that idea. From our point of view as scientists, if we could do the experiment of clearing the decks once every few millions years, it would be fascinating to do so. It would be very drastic, and I wouldn’t wish to do it, but nature does do it from time to time, and so we can see what happens when you clear the decks of, for example, dinosaurs. And what happens – what happened in fact – is that you get a similar radiation of mammals. And since you get different mammals in different parts of the world, it means that the experiment is run once in Australia, once in South America, once in another part of the world, and so you can see it happening three times over. So, certainly, ‘clearing the decks’ is a very important and interesting phenomenon, but it’s not a selective event in the Darwinian sense.

OB: Speaking of misunderstandings, your first book, “The Selfish Gene” inspired a great deal of controversy, and still seems widely misunderstood…

RD: I think it’s certainly misunderstood by people who haven’t read it. And it’s all too easy to do so if you only read the title. But if you read the whole book then I don’t see how you can misunderstand it. There are many cautions put in. For example many people think that the book is somehow saying that we are controlled and determined by our genes, when it’s really not about the effects of genes on determining our behaviour at all. It’s a Darwinian book, it’s about natural selection. You can’t think about selection or ‘do’ Darwinism unless you postulate genetic variation, correlated with phenotypic variation, so there has to be statistical correlation between possession of genes and possession of behaviour, otherwise behaviour wouldn’t evolve. But that’s a very different matter from determinism, which is one of the main misunderstandings.

OB: Perhaps this misconception is widespread because it’s – to use your expression – a successful ‘meme’, an idea that spreads by reproducing itself, much like a gene?

RD: I think that’s right. I tried to analyze that a little bit in the second chapter of “The Extended Phenotype”, where I point out that there is a powerful gene myth, which I inadvertently played into the hands of.

OB: There’s also the argument about the gene being the focus of natural selection, rather than the organism in which the gene is carried…

RD: It’s a different way of putting the same thing. If you ask the question ‘ what actually is selected, what actually survives or doesn’t survive, what actually goes through to future generations?’ then the answer has to be software, accurately copied software, and that means DNA. Anything else that answers to the description of accurately copied software would do. On other planets it probably isn’t DNA, but it will be another form of accurately copied software. ‘Memes’, if they exist, are also accurately copied software, and that’s what makes them interesting. Organisms aren’t software. They’re playing a different role in the process. They’re an aspect of what the software is producing. They’re a manifestation of the software, and when we study evolution what we actually study is not the software but the manifestations of it, the productions of those programs. These productions are phenotypes, and phenotypes are commonly bundled up into organisms, and so it’s convenient to think of the organism as a unit which works for its own survival, but that’s a kind of secondary convenience, it’s not fundamentally what’s going on. That I think is a perfectly clear analysis of what’s going on in Darwinism.

OB: Do you miss doing ‘hard science’, or do you prefer your role as an educator now?

RD: I don’t think I really miss the sort of white coat and Wellington boot research. It’s a fine thing to do and I’m not disparaging it, obviously. But I don’t think that what I do is only publicizing research, it’s rather more a case of thinking about ways of seeing and trying to influence the way people see. People who do field research in animal behaviour, evolution or ecology, think about the animals and plants that they’re working on and the ecosystems in which they live in a different way because of the books they’ve read. So you don’t actually have to do specific research on specific animals in order to contribute to scholarship. You can contribute by writing books that other scholars or researchers will read, and which will change the way they see. What I’d like to believe is that all those field workers out in the Serengeti or diving in the Red Sea, studying various animals, see them through different eyes as a consequence of having read, say, “The Selfish Gene”.

OB: Finally, what scientific developments outside of your own field interest you at the moment?

RD: The possibility of understanding not just behaviour, but what goes on inside when we have subjective awareness – and probably not just us, but other species too. I think that’s a deeply baffling problem, and it’s one that may be finally solved in the coming century. But I wouldn’t understand how to research it myself, because I don’t really understand exactly what the problem is!