archive: SETI Richard Dawkins Interview

SETI Richard Dawkins Interview

Larry Klaes ( )
Tue, 18 May 1999 10:56:55 -0400

See also the World of Richard Dawkins Web site:

"Richard Dawkins on Evolution and Religion"


Richard Dawkins

Airdate: November 8, 1996

ANNOUNCER: "Think Tank" is made possible by Amgen, recipient of the
Presidential National Medal of
Technology. Amgen, helping cancer patients through cellular and molecular
biology, improving lives today and
bringing hope for tomorrow.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Lynde
and Harry Bradley Foundation.

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. Most Americans believe that
Charles Darwin basically had it
right, that human beings evolved from the so-called primordial soup. But
most Americans are also religious
and likely believe that God created the soup.

We will explore these ideas and others with an outstanding scientist and
one of the world's leading scientific
popularizers. The topic before this house: Richard Dawkins on evolution and
religion. This week on "Think

MR. WATTENBERG: Richard Dawkins is a professor at Oxford University, where
he holds the Charles Simone
chair of public understanding of science. Dawkins has written many books on
the topic of evolution, including
"The Selfish Gene," "River Out of Eden," "The Blind Watchmaker," and most
recently, "Climbing Mount

Dawkins' writings champion one man -- Charles Darwin. In 1831, Darwin set
out on a five-year journey around
the world on the H.M.S. Beagle. His travels took him to the Galapagos
Islands off the coast of Ecuador, where
he catalogued a startling variety of plant and animal life. Darwin saw in
such diversity the key to the origins of all
life on earth.

Today naturalists estimate that there are 30 million species of plants and
animals. According to Darwin's
theory, all creatures large and small are the end result of millions of
years of natural selection.

The reaction to Darwin's theory was explosive. Critics declared that Darwin
had replaced Adam with an ape.
Atheists applauded. Benjamin Disraeli, the prime minister of England,
summed up the debate at the time. He
said, "The question is, is man an ape or an angel? Many laugh. Now I am on
the side of the angels."

Today the controversy persists. Evolution is generally accepted, religion
endures, begging the question, is
there a conflict?

Professor Dawkins, welcome. Perhaps we could begin with that fascinating
title, "Climbing Mount Improbable."
What are you talking about?

MR. DAWKINS: Living organisms are supremely improbable. They look as if
they have been designed. They
are very, very complicated. They are very good at doing whatever it is they
do, whether it's flying or digging or
swimming. This is not the kind of thing that matter just spontaneously
does. It doesn't fall into position where it's
good at doing anything. So the fact that living things are demands an
explanation, the fact that it's improbably
demands an explanation.

Mount Improbable is a metaphorical mountain. The height of that mountain
stands for that very improbability.
So on the top of the mountain, you can imagine perched the most complicated
organ you can think of. It might
be the human eye. And one side of the mountain has a steep cliff, a steep
vertical precipice. And you stand at
the foot of the mountain and you gaze up at this complicated thing at the
heights, and you say, that couldn't have
come about by chance, that's too improbable. And that's what is the meaning
of the vertical slope. You could no
more get that by sheer chance than you could leap from the bottom of the
cliff to the top of the cliff in one fell

But if you go around the other side of the mountain, you find that there's
not a steep cliff at all. There's a slow,
gentle gradient, a slow, gentle slope, and getting from the bottom of the
mountain to the top is an easy walk.
You just saunter up it putting one step in front of the other, one foot in
front of the other.

MR. WATTENBERG: Provided you have a billion years to do it.

MR. DAWKINS: You've got to have a long time. That, of course, corresponds
to Darwinian natural selection.
There is an element of chance in it, but it's not mostly chance. There's a
whole series of small chance steps.
Each eye along the slope is a little bit better than the one before, but
it's not so much that it's unbelievable that it
could have come about by chance. But at the end of a long period of
non-random natural selection, you've
accumulated lots and lots of these steps, and the end product is far too
improbable to have come about in a
single step of chance.

MR. WATTENBERG: One of your earlier books, a very well known book, is "The
Selfish Gene." What does that
mean? You call human beings "selfish gene machines." Is that --

MR. DAWKINS: Yes. It's a way of trying to explain why individual organisms
like human beings are actually not
selfish. So I'm saying that selfishness resides at the level of the gene.
Genes that work for their own short-term
survival, genes that have effects upon the world which lead to their own
short-term survival are the genes that
survive, the genes that come through the generations. The world is full of
genes that look after their own selfish

MR. WATTENBERG: And the prime aspect of that is reproduction?


MR. WATTENBERG: And so that's what drives all organisms, including human
beings, is the drive to
reproduce their own genetic makeup?

MR. DAWKINS: That's pretty standard Darwinism.


MR. DAWKINS: We are -- in any era, the organisms that live contain the
genes of an unbroken line of
successful ancestors. It has to be true. Plenty of the ancestors'
competitors were not successful. They all died.
But not a single one of your ancestors died young, or not a single one of
your ancestors failed to copulate, not a
single one of your ancestors failed to rear at least one child.

MR. WATTENBERG: By definition.

MR. DAWKINS: By definition. And so -- but what's not by definition, which
is genuinely interesting, is that you
have therefore inherited the genes which are a non-random sample of the
genes in every generation,
non-random in the direction of being good at surviving.

MR. WATTENBERG: What is motivating great musicians, great writers, great
political leaders, great
scientists? I mean, what are you doing now? You're obviously passionate
about what you write and what you
think and what you're doing. That is absorbing your life. That does not
involve, I don't think, the replication of
your genetic makeup.

MR. DAWKINS: That's certainly right, and because we are humans, we tend to
be rather obsessed with
humans. There are 30 million other species of animal where that question
wouldn't have occurred to you.

MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah, but most of our viewers are humans. Now, how does
that work out for -- are
humans different?

MR. DAWKINS: Humans, like any other species of animal, have been programmed
-- have evolved by genetic
selection. And we have the bodies and the brains that are good for passing
on our genes. That's step one. So
that's where we get our brains from. That's why they're big.

But once you get a big brain, then the big brain can be used for other
things, in the same sort of way as
computers were originally designed as calculating machines, and then
without any change, without any
alteration of that general structure, it turns out that they're good --
they can be used as word processors as well.
So there's something about human brains which makes them more versatile
than they were originally intended

Now, you talked about the fact that I'm passionate about what I do and that
I work hard at writing my books and
so on. Now, the way I would interpret that as a Darwinian is to say
certainly writing books doesn't increase your
Darwinian fitness. Writing books -- there are no genes for writing books,
and certainly I don't pass on any of my
genes as a consequence of writing a book.

But there are mechanisms, such as persistence, perseverance, setting up
goals which you then work hard to
achieve, driving yourself to achieve those goals by whatever means are

MR. WATTENBERG: And you believe that is in our genetic makeup?

MR. DAWKINS: That's what I believe is indicated.

MR. WATTENBERG: Some people have more of it, some people have less of it.

MR. DAWKINS: That's right. Now, in the modern world, which is now so
different from the world in which our
ancestors lived, what we actually strive for, the goals we set up, are very
different. The goal-seeking
mechanisms in our brains were originally put there to try to achieve goals
such as finding a herd of bison to
hunt. And we would have set out to find a herd of bison, and we'd have used
all sorts of flexible goal-seeking
mechanisms and we'd have persisted and we'd have gone on and on and on for
days and days and days trying
to achieve that goal.

Natural selection favored persistence in seeking goals. Nowadays we no
longer hunt bisons. Nowadays we
hunt money or a nice new house or we try to finish a novel or whatever it
is that we do.

MR. WATTENBERG: In this town, political victory.

MR. DAWKINS: Yes, right.

MR. WATTENBERG: Why is this so important? I mean, you obviously feel that
this idea of evolution of primary
importance. I mean, this is what makes the world goes round. Is it, in your
view at least, the mother science?

MR. DAWKINS: Well, what could be more important than an understanding of
why you're here, why you're the
shape you are, why you have the brain that you do, why your body is the way
it is. Not just you, but all the other
30 million species of living thing, each of which carries with it this
superb illusion of having been designed to do
something supremely well. A swift flies supremely well. A mole digs
supremely well. A shark or a dolphin swims
supremely well. And a human thinks supremely well.

What could be a more fascinating, tantalizing question than why all that
has come about? And we have the
answer. Since the middle of the 19th century, we have known in principle
the answer to that question, and we're
still working out the details.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, I read that, and a long time ago I read some of
Darwin. Darwin doesn't really
answer the question why we are here. He answers the question of how we are
here. I mean, why in a -- when
you normally say, well, why are we here, you expect a theological answer or
a religious answer. Does Darwin
really talk about why we are here in that sense?

MR. DAWKINS: Darwin, if I may say so, had better things to do than talk
about why we are here in that sense.
It's not a sensible sense in which to ask the question. There is no reason
why, just because it's possible to ask
the question, it's necessarily a sensible question to ask.

MR. WATTENBERG: But you had mentioned, you said that Darwin after all these
years has told us why we're

MR. DAWKINS: I was using "why" in another sense. I was using "why" in the
sense of the explanation, and
that's the only sense which I think is actually a legitimate one. I don't
think the question of ultimate purpose, the
question of what is the fundamental purpose for which the universe came
into existence -- I believe there isn't
one. If you asked me what --

MR. WATTENBERG: You believe there is not one?

MR. DAWKINS: Yes. On the other hand, if you ask me, what is the purpose of
a bird's wing, then I'm quite
happy to say, well, in the special Darwinian sense, the purpose of a bird's
wing is to help it fly, therefore to
survive and therefore to reproduce the genes that gave it those wings that
make it fly.

Now, I'm happy with that meaning of the word "why".


MR. DAWKINS: But the ultimate meaning of the word "why" I do not regard as
a legitimate question. And the
mere fact that it's possible to ask the question doesn't make it
legitimate. There are plenty of questions I could
imagine somebody asking me and I wouldn't attempt to answer it. I would
just say, That's a silly question, don't
ask it.

MR. WATTENBERG: So you are not only saying that religious people are coming
to a wrong conclusion. You
are saying they're asking a silly question.


MR. WATTENBERG: There is a scientist in the United States named Michael
Beahy -- I'm sure you're involved
in this argument -- who is making the case -- he is not a creationist, he
is not a creation scientist, or at least he
says he's --

MR. DAWKINS: Well, I'm sorry, he is a creationist.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, he says he's not.

MR. DAWKINS: He says he's not, but he is.

MR. WATTENBERG: He says he's not. But his theory is that of a hidden
designer, that there is something
driving this process. And could you explain how you and he differ on this?

MR. DAWKINS: Yes. Like I said, he's a creationist. "A hidden designer,"
that's a creator.

MR. WATTENBERG: You say he's a hidden creationist.

MR. DAWKINS: Well, he's not even hidden. He's a straightforward
creationist. What he has done is to take a
standard argument which dates back to the 19th century, the argument of
irreducible complexity, the argument
that there are certain organs, certain systems in which all the bits have
to be there together or the whole system
won't work.

MR. WATTENBERG: Like the eye.

MR. DAWKINS: Like the eye, right. The whole thing collapses if they're not
all there.

Now, Darwin considered that argument for the eye and he dismissed it,
correctly, by showing that actually the
eye could have evolved by gradual stages. Bits of an eye -- half an eye is
better than no eye, a quarter of an
eye is better than no eye, half an eye is better than a quarter of an eye.

MR. WATTENBERG: I mean if it has some sight, but if you just created the
windshield wiper, it doesn't --

MR. DAWKINS: Exactly. So I mean, there are things which you could imagine
which are irreducibly complex,
but the eye is not one of them.

Now, Beahy is saying, well, maybe the eye isn't one of them, but at the
molecular level, there are certain things
which he says are. Now, he takes certain molecular examples. For example,
bacteria have a flagellum, which is
a little kind of whip-like tail by which they swim. And the flagellum is a
remarkable thing because, uniquely in all
the living kingdoms, it's a true wheel. It actually rotates freely in a
bearing; it has an axle which freely rotates.
That's a remarkable thing and is well understood and well known about.

And Beahy asserts: this is irreducibly complex, therefore God made it. Now --

MR. WATTENBERG: Therefore there was a design to it. I don't think --

MR. DAWKINS: What's the difference? Okay.


MR. DAWKINS: Therefore there was a design to it.


MR. DAWKINS: Now -- (audio gap) -- too complex. The eye is reducibly
complex, therefore God made it.
Darwin answered them point by point, piece by piece. But maybe he shouldn't
have bothered. Maybe what he
should have said is, well, maybe you can't think of -- maybe you're too
thick to think of a reason why the eye
could have come about by gradual steps, but perhaps you should go away and
think a bit harder.

Now, I've done it for the eye; I've done it for various other things. I
haven't yet done it for the bacterial flagellum.
I've only just read Beahy's book. It's an interesting point. I'd like to
think about it.

But I'm not the best person equipped to think about it because I'm not a
biochemist. You've got to have the
equivalent biochemical knowledge to the knowledge that Darwin had about
lenses and bits of eyes. Now, I
don't have that biochemical knowledge. Beahy has.

Beahy should stop being lazy and should get up and think for himself about
how the flagellum evolved instead
of this cowardly, lazy copping out by simply saying, oh, I can't think of
how it came about, therefore it must have
been designed.

MR. WATTENBERG: You have written that being an atheist allows you to become
intellectually fulfilled.

MR. DAWKINS: No, I haven't quite written that. What I have written is that
before Darwin, it was difficult to be an
intellectually fulfilled atheist and that Darwin made it easy to become an
intellectually -- and it's more. It's more.
If you wanted to be an atheist, it would have been hard to be an atheist
before Darwin came along. But once
Darwin came along, the argument from design, which has always been to me
the only powerful argument --
even that isn't a very powerful argument, but I used to think it was the
only powerful argument for the existence
of a creator.

Darwin destroyed the argument from design, at least as far as biology is
concerned, which has always been
the happiest hunting ground for argument from design. Thereafter -- whereas
before Darwin came along, you
could have been an atheist, but you'd have been a bit worried, after Darwin
you can be an intellectually fulfilled
atheist. You can feel, really, now I understand how living things have
acquired the illusion of design, I understand
why they look as though they've been designed, whereas before Darwin came
along, you'd have said, well, I
can see that the theory of a divine creator isn't a good theory, but I'm
damned if I can think of a better one. After
Darwin, you can think of a better one.

MR. WATTENBERG: I mean, isn't the standard rebuttal to that that God
created Darwin and He could have
created this whole evolutionary illusion that you are talking about? And I
mean, getting back to first causes that
you sort of --

MR. DAWKINS: Yes. Yeah. Not that God created Darwin, but you mean God
created the conditions in which
evolution happened.


MR. DAWKINS: Well, ultimately Darwin, too.

MR. WATTENBERG: I mean ultimately.

MR. DAWKINS: Yes, it's not a very satisfying explanation. It's a very
unparsimonious, very uneconomical
explanation. The beauty of the Darwinian explanation itself is that it's
exceedingly powerful. It's a very simple
principle, and using this one simple principle, you can bootstrap your way
up from essentially nothing to the
world of complexity and diversity we have today. Now, that's a powerful

MR. WATTENBERG: It's not any simpler. In fact, it's more complex than the
-- than Genesis. I mean, "And God
created the heavens and the earth." That --

MR. DAWKINS: You have to be joking.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, I mean, "God created the heavens and the earth" -- I
can say that pretty quickly. I
mean --

MR. DAWKINS: You can say it, but think what lies behind it. What lies
behind it is a complicated, intelligent
being -- God, who must have come from somewhere. You have simply smuggled
in at the beginning of your
book the very thing that we're trying to explain. What we're trying to
explain is where organized complexity and
intelligence came from. We have now got an explanation. You start from
nothing and you work up gradually in
easily explainable steps.

MR. WATTENBERG: But then I can ask you the same question: where does the
nothing come from? I mean,
this is a -- I mean, I don't want this to degenerate into a sophomore beer
brawl, but I mean, you know, that is --
isn't that the ultimate --

MR. DAWKINS: You can ask that. That's the ultimate question.


MR. DAWKINS: That's the important question. But all I would say to that is
that it's a helluva lot easier to say
where nothing came from than it is to say where 30 million species of
highly complicated organisms plus a
superintelligent God came from, and that's the alternative.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, now, you wrote in "The Selfish Gene" this. "Living
organisms had existed on earth
without ever knowing why for 3,000 million years before the truth finally
dawned on one of them. His name was
Charles Darwin."

That sounds to me like a religious statement. That is a -- that is near
messianic language. And you are making
the case that these other people have this virus of the mind. That tonality
says, I found my God.

MR. DAWKINS: You can call it that if you like. It's not religious in any
sense in which I would recognize the term.
Certainly I look up to Charles Darwin. I would look up to anybody who had
the insight that he did. But I wasn't
really meaning to make a particularly messianic statement about Darwin.

I was rather saying that not just Darwin, but this species, homo sapiens --
or for the -- the time that has elapsed
between the origin of humanity and Darwin is negligible compared to the
time that elapsed from the origin of
life and the origin of humanity. And so let's modify that statement and
make it a bit more universal and say, life
has been going on this planet for 3,000 million years without any animals
knowing why they were there until the
truth finally dawned upon homo sapiens. It's just happened to be Charles
Darwin, it could have been somebody

Our species is unique. We are all members of a unique species which is
privileged to understand for the first
time in that 3,000- million-year history why we are here.

MR. WATTENBERG: I see. There was a study recently reported, I believe, in
that great scientific journal "USA
Today," but it's one that had a certain resonance with me and I think other
people. It said that people who are
religious live longer and healthier lives. And it seems to me on its face,
perhaps to you as well, that that makes
some sense. I mean, people who do have a firm belief system and don't worry
about a whole lot of things are
healthier. We've seen this in all the mind-body sorts of explorations that
have been going on.

But does that perhaps put a Darwinian bonus on believing in religion?

MR. DAWKINS: It could well do, yes. It's perfectly plausible to me. I've
read the same study and I think it might
well be true. It could be analogous to the placebo effect, you know, that
many diseases -- obviously they're
cured by real medicines even better, but nevertheless if you give people a
pill which doesn't contain anything
medicinal at all, but the patient believes it does, then the patient gets
better, for some diseases.

Well, I suppose that religious belief can be one big placebo and it could
indeed have highly beneficial effects
upon health, particularly where stress-related diseases are concerned.

MR. WATTENBERG: So if I want to advise my viewers, I could say, for
example, what Professor Dawkins says
is true, but harmful; I would like you to believe something that's false,
and healthy.

MR. DAWKINS: Yeah, you could say that. I mean, it depends whether you value
health or truth better, more.

MR. WATTENBERG: Which would you value?

MR. DAWKINS: For myself, I would rather live a little bit less long and
know the truth about why I live rather than
live a few -- it probably isn't very much longer, actually, which is --
let's be very --

MR. WATTENBERG: Suppose it was substantially longer and we were talking
about your children rather than

MR. DAWKINS: Yeah, okay. I mean, these are fascinating hypothetical
questions and I suppose there would
come a trade-off point. I mean, there'd probably come a point when -- but I
do think it's important, since this is a
very academic discussion we're having, I think it would be positively
irresponsible to let listeners to this
program go away with the idea that this is a major effect. If it's an
effect at all, it's an elusive statistical effect.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, thank you very much, Professor Richard Dawkins.

MR. DAWKINS: Thank you.

MR. WATTENBERG: For "Think Tank," I'm Ben Wattenberg.

A note of interest to our viewers. Pope John Paul II recently made
headlines on the subject of evolution. On
October 24, 1996, the Pontiff declared that evolutionary theory and faith
in God are not at odds. He decreed
that even if humans are the product of evolution, their spiritual soul is
created by God.

We enjoy hearing from our viewers very much. Please send us comments and
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"Think Tank" is made possible by Amgen, recipient of the Presidential
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lives today and bringing hope for

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Lynde
and Harry Bradley Foundation.