Richard Dawkins: The X-Press Interview

World-renowned evolutionary biologist, author, and public intellectual, Richard Dawkins, hits Riverside Theatre on Tuesday, February 21 as part of a six-city tour of Australia and New Zealand. Every venue will feature a different speaker paired with Dr Dawkins and for Perth, it will be an open conversation with Tom Nash. Dr Dawkins is the author of nearly 20 books and numerous articles on science, religion and culture. The most famous – or infamous – are The Selfish Gene (1977) and The God Delusion (2006). Whereas the former championed a genetic perspective to unravel life’s diversity, the latter was a no-holds-barred takedown of theistic religions. PAUL DOUGHTY caught up with Richard Dawkins to get his thoughts on the Gaia hypothesis, the future of the world, and the EWI.

When Stephen J. Gould and others were arguing for a more “holistic” evolutionary view of life in the past, they labelled you and other proponents of the “gene’s eye” view of nature the unflattering title of “Ultra-Darwinists.” One of our mutual evolutionary biology heroes, George Williams at the time simply adopted the name and kept arguing for the primacy of the gene’s-eye view.  Over the decades you’ve been involved in arguing for sometimes unpopular ideas in a public space. What changes have you seen from the 70s up through the present day?

Well, I don’t mind at all the expression “Ultra-Darwinist.” I sort of feel that, like George Williams, I stand by it. And I think to think clearly enough about it: natural selection actually changes gene frequencies in populations and that’s all that we mean by it. And I still mean by it…so I stand by that.

Yes, and I know at the time when Salman Rushdie received the fatwa you were very vocal at the time about keeping the players involved in the debates about our society, sort of protected from personal harm.

Well, I feel very strongly in favour of freedom of speech and I hate the current tendency to try to shut down free speech. I think we need to discuss. If you have an argument with somebody, then you should argue the case. You shouldn’t just shut it down, saying – that’s off limits. And I think there is a tendency nowadays to – when you come across somebody you disagree with – to say “he mustn’t be allowed to speak, mustn’t be allowed to give his opinion…mustn’t be allowed to say anything.” And I believe in freedom of speech, to a very large extent, to a very high extent.

I recently had some audio-visual friends create some public artwork that was loosely based on James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. The artwork was certainly beautiful and captivating and very popular. However, I did advise my friends that the Gaia hypothesis had some serious problems, pointed out by yourself and George Williams, among others. As an evolutionary scholar, how much slack do you cut fans of the Gaia hypothesis in that this “analogy” (if you will) promotes environmental and nature awareness, even though there are these problems with the idea as originally proposed?

I think James Lovelock was a lovely man. He died quite recently, aged over 100. I think the idea of Gaia is a poetic image which possibly has some value in creating a sense of the importance of being in the world. However, the idea that the world is a single living organism – the one in which he originally presented – it doesn’t stand up to rigorous Darwinian scrutiny because an organism evolves in competition with rival organisms. So, if the world is a single living organism it’s not competing with anything else, it’s on its own. So, it’s actually quite misleading to say, as Lovelock himself seemed to be saying originally and some of the more vocal enthusiasts say: it is a living organism. It’s not a living organism. That is misleading.

But in the case of my friends’ artwork, it seemed to get people to appreciate the natural world…

Yes, I think it can have that value. I mean one anecdote that I was told by [evolutionary biologist] John Maynard Smith when he was talking to one of these pop ecologists at a conference…and they were talking about the theory – as it was at the time, it was not so established then – that the dinosaurs went extinct when a large comet or asteroid collided with the Earth. And this pop ecologist said “Impossible! Gaia would never have permitted it!” And that’s an example of the kind of ridiculous point you can get to if you take too seriously the idea of Gaia as a single living organism.

In normal conversation, people tend to shy away from religion and politics. Say, in the office or even with friends at a barbecue. However, if you are writing about religion, you are bound to step on some toes and upset people. How do you attempt to balance upsetting someone with your arguments, for example – a critique of the concept of “faith” – with ultimately trying to convince them?

I don’t understand why religion is regarded as off-limits to any ordinary discourse. We are perfectly happy to criticise somebody’s political opinions or their aesthetic opinions. If we disagree with them about something, we say so and we have a reasonable argument. But in the case of religion, you’re expected to adopt this kind of “hands-off” position as though religion ought to be protected from any kind of criticism. There’s no reason for that. It shouldn’t happen.

As a follower of your work over the years, one criticism of your writing I’ve encountered is your style. I think “pushy” and “arrogant” come to mind, with people almost using your style as a reason not to even follow your arguments. Would you like to speak to how people perceive your “style”?

Yes, I’m afraid I don’t really get that. I don’t think it’s pushy or arrogant. It’s simply to be clear. I think that may be a tendency if you try to write clearly and try to say exactly what you mean and lead the reader in the direction you’re trying to persuade them on…to demonstrate something, then it may sound pushy and arrogant. But – it shouldn’t really.

I notice sometimes – I don’t think it applies to me – that sometimes people with a very clear voice, who suddenly, say at the back of a room at a meeting, will stand up and start articulating something with clarity and force and articulateness…it can sound arrogant just because it’s clear. Well, I try to do that in my writing, I’m sure I don’t do it when I’m speaking. I try to do that in my writing: I try to be clear. And I think that the main group of people who confuse clarity with arrogance…they may actually prefer a kind of muddled, wishy-washy style of writing, to one which is striving to be clear, and that’s all I really try to do.

Even casual doom-scrolling can paint a picture of the world that society is on the brink of collapse. And if not next year, then surely in the next 50 or 100 years. As an advocate for Darwinism and reason throughout your life through your books and public talks, and as a father as well, do you have hope about how the world will be in 50 or 100 years?

I think we have to have hope, it’s the only way to live really. And while being realistic about pessimistic prognostications, I think it’s kind of healthy to have hope. I rather gravitate towards those authors and scientists who say “yes, the world is in peril, there are problems on the horizon.” But science does have the capacity to solve the problems. The problem I think is then going to be a political one. If scientists have identified how to solve the problems, we then have to have the political will as a democracy to put that wisdom into practice, and that may be where the stumbling block comes.

Right. So, there’s work to do there with our political systems: that’s a big one.

Yes, it’s a big one.

For this month’s speaking tour, you’re in conversation with a different person for each of your appearances for an “unscripted conversation.” What was the inspiration for this arrangement and what can people expect to hear on the night?

I don’t know what they can expect to hear because that depends upon the questions that I’m asked. There really are genuinely unscripted. And I look forward to having interesting conversations in all the different venues. So, it’ll be different in every place and I hope it will be stimulating – I expect to be stimulated by it myself. But we’ll see.

And there will be opportunities for audience members to get the mic and put questions to the speakers?

Oh yes! Yes.

Lastly, because X-Press Magazine has a lot of coverage of music – here’s a music question. Charles Darwin in his autobiographical writings said near the end of his life that he somewhat regretted not listening to music more, and that his faculties for appreciating music seemed to fade over the decades. In other words – he neglected his “music muscle.”  So, have you had time to exercise your “music muscles” throughout your busy academic career?

I love music! I love music and – Darwin was tone-deaf. He had to be nudged when God Save the Queen was being played. I love listening to music and in my amateurish way I love trying to play music. So, it is a very important part of my life, always has been.

What’s your preferred axe? What do you play?

Oh well, I used to play the clarinet as a boy. And just recently I’ve taken up the electronic wind instrument EWI, which sort of looks like a clarinet and you play it like a clarinet but the sound that comes out, being electronic, is under software control so it can sound like a tuba or a trumpet or a violin or whatever you like. And I have great fun. You finger it pretty much like an oboe or a clarinet or a flute, a kind of woodwind instrument.