Interview with Richard DawkinsPosted by Goodreads on September 1, 2015
Richard Dawkins: My memoir is in two volumes. Volume one, An Appetite for Wonder, is chronological, and for that I suppose a model for that was Bertrand Russell's autobiography. For volume two, Brief Candle in the Dark, I wanted to depart from chronology, and for that I suppose my model was Kingsley Amis, the English novelist, who wrote his memoir in thematic form. He had chapters on various people he'd known, chapters on his education, chapters on drink, which he was famous for, one on jazz. I think I should probably say Kingsley Amis was my model for Brief Candle in the Dark.
Originally the whole thing was going to be one big memoir. However, when I got halfway through my life chronologically, I decided that I wanted to divide it into half. I could see that chronology was working for the first part of my life, but I wanted to depart from chronology for the second part, mainly because I wanted it to become less personal stylistically and more professional. If I had done it chronologically, that forces me into what happened next. I didn't want to do "what happened next."
RD: Poetry is very important in my life. I don't think I've learned much new poetry—I think most of the poetry I know dates from the time when I was a young man, and I love it still. I have difficulty reading it aloud without choking up [chuckles], I'm sorry to say. I'm a bit sentimental about it. But I don't tend to read much new poetry—I tend to stick to the favorites from my childhood.
GR: Moving into the religion debate, do you think that the human race would be better—do you think that people would be more compassionate and more productive—if religion didn't exist?
RD: Yes, is the short answer. There's not a lot of that in the book, is there? But I do think that the world would be a better place without religion.
GR: I know you've praised The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert's book about human kind's impact on the planet. Do you think that religion keeps us from solving some of these global problems?
The Sixth Extinction would be one example—a very important one—but I think that science is held back by religion. That's not to deny that many great scientists of the past have been religious. It might even be true that in some cases in historical times the Christian religion, for example, the Jewish religion, has actually been a positive influence in science, but it no longer is, and I would like to see it become history.
GR: Some critics have said that you can be dismissive of people who are critical of you—and you touch upon this in this book. Do you think that it's valuable to be sensitive to the views of other people even when you know they're wrong?
RD: I hope I'm always polite, always courteous, but I like to tell it like it is, and I simply like to argue for what is supported by evidence. And if a point of view is not supported by evidence, I don't respect it, though I do respect the person as a person, but I don't respect their view if it has no evidential support.
GR: Technology is part of the problem in climate change—do you think that we will ever be able to use technology to save ourselves?
RD: Well, technology is part of the problem, ever since the Industrial Revolution, when people were using coal and then oil. This is a major problem, and I would like to think that technology of the future will solve the problem by discovering practical economically viable usages of cleaner fuels.
GR: Goodreads member Tom Horton asks, "Steven Pinker stunned many skeptics and humanists with his well-supported thesis that violence in the human race is on a long-term decline. Similarly, is it possible that over the long span of history, science is actually winning the battle against superstition and ignorance?"
The Better Angels of Our Nature. I enormously admire Steven Pinker, I think he's a truly great writer and he's hugely versatile, it's amazing the number of subjects he's able to master in his different books. The Better Angels of Our Nature has this rather surprising thesis that we're getting nicer, we're getting better. And over the broad sweep of history we're getting less sadistic. I found myself very convinced by his thesis, but of course it's not an absolutely monotonic change, it's a kind of zigzag sawtooth, but the overall trend is toward improvement, but in any one decade you can see the reversal of that trend. And I suppose that's also going to be true with the progress of science education, that on the whole in general over the long sweep of history we're winning, but in the short term you might see something more like a sawtooth.
GR: Another Goodreads member, Jacques, asks, "What example of evolution could I use to convince a friend that evolution occurs? It ideally would be something a layman would be familiar with, not something only an expert can relate to."
RD: Yes, there's so much, of course. The evidence is so overwhelming, and it comes from so many different sources. Possibly the most convincing evidence is from molecular—it may be that the questioner would regard that as not suitable for the layman, but it's really just a modern version of what Darwin himself used in comparable anatomy. Darwin looked at, for example, the vertebrate skeleton, comparing vertebrate skeletons in different species, showing that all the same bones are there but they just have different proportions, so it's very easy to see how they are descended from a common ancestor. The hand of a human, the wing of a bat, the flipper of a dolphin, all have the same bones, but they're obviously very differently proportioned to do different jobs.
GR: Goodreads member Matt asks, "Since The Selfish Gene, your work and public persona have grown increasingly political. What do you think is the appropriate political role of public intellectuals such as yourself? What would you like your legacy to be?"
RD: I suppose it's important for people since we do live in a world, we live in a society, we can't ignore politics, we can't ignore the political situation in which we live, and so I have done so; however, it does have a certain ephemerality. And if you ask about my legacy, I would hope that my longer-term legacy, if I aspire to have one, would be more scientific, and what I may possibly have achieved in changing people's minds about science and educating people about my particular type of science, evolutionary biology.
GR: In this book you speak about your methods of doing entrance interviews for undergraduates. What kind of a mind would you like people to have when they are entering an intellectual community? How would you like to see young people thinking, or what kinds of minds would you like them to have if they are going to solve these huge problems that face us now and in the future?
RD: I'm a great believer in what's become almost a cliché—you teach how to think and not what to think. Teach curiosity; teach skepticism. I do very strongly subscribe to that. Obviously there are many facts to learn, learning poetry, learning things that we already know to be true, and so we mustn't neglect that. One of the things that I suggested in the book, semi-tongue in cheek, is that testing general knowledge is a good way of assessing whether this student's mind is receptive. If this school child knows a lot about a lot of different things, it's not so much the knowledge itself that matters, it's an indicator, a kind of litmus test, that this child is likely to be good at learning, likely to be good at finding things out, likely to be good at curiosity-driven learning, so I think you have to combine testing of knowledge and testing of intelligence. I've heard of students who, at 18, couldn't find Africa on a map of the world. That suggests not only plain ignorance, that suggests a lack of curiosity. The two might be able to go together—testing knowledge may be a way of testing curiosity.
RD: Helen Fisher—The Anatomy of Love. She is a colleague, she is an anthropologist, and this is a second edition of her book The Anatomy of Love. She studies not just sex but love, sexual love, in a way that is different. She does bring biological knowledge to bear, but it's a different take.
Matt Ridley, who is a great writer of science. His latest book, which is not actually yet published, is called The Evolution of Everything.
GR: What is your next project?
RD: I'm discussing the possibility of a collection of essays.
Interview by Sara Scribner for Goodreads. Sara writes about books and culture from Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Salon, MOJO, the Los Angeles Times, and The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock: Trouble Girls.
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