Richard Dawkins is emeritus professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Oxford and the author of several books, including The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. His most recent is An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, part one of a two-part memoir. He has inspired millions with his popular science books, yet also drawn fire for controversial remarks—particularly on religion. Rowan Hooper wanted to know how he feels about his public image and if, at 72, he worries his role as the world's most famous atheist will eclipse his scientific legacy.
Rowan Hooper: You have just published part one of your memoir. Is it intended as a humanizing exercise, to show you're not a mean, nasty baddie?
Richard Dawkins: I don't know how many people think I'm mean. I'm certainly not and I didn't consciously set out to do any image-cleaning or anything. I like to think it's an honest portrayal of how I really am. And I hope it is human, yes.
RH: Nevertheless, there's a gulf between the real you and the caricature Richard Dawkins. How has that come about?
RD: I have two theories which are not mutually exclusive. One is the religion business. People really, really hate their religion being criticized. It's as though you've said they had an ugly face, they seem to identify personally with it. There is a historical attitude that religion is off-limits to criticism.
Also, some people find clarity threatening. They like muddle, confusion, obscurity. So when somebody does no more than speak clearly it sounds threatening.
RH: You definitely polarize people. How do you feel about the hate mail you get?
RD: I did a film that's on YouTube of me reading hate mail with a woman playing the cello in the background. Sweet strains to contrast with this awful, "you fucking wanker Dawkins" and so on. Making comedy of it is a pretty good way of absorbing it.
RH: Do you still get fan mail too?
RD: Yes. The hate mail is illiterate, but the opposite is actually very moving and I get very, very gratifying responses. I just got back from a tour of the United States promoting this book, and I noticed even more forcibly than before the enormous numbers of people who come into the book-signing queue, and they nearly always say something like “I became a scientist because of you, you've changed my life.”
RH: Has what drives you changed over the years?
RD: It hasn't changed: a love of truth, a love of clarity, a love of the poetry of science. Insofar as I show hostility to alternatives, superstition, and so on, it's because they are sapping education and depriving young people of the true glory of the scientific worldview—I care especially about children in this case. It's tragic to see children being led into dark, pokey little corners of medieval superstition.
RH: Would you rather be remembered for explaining science or taking on religion?
RD: To me they amount to the same thing—they are different sides of the same coin. But I suppose I'd rather be remembered for explaining science. I would be upset if people dismissed my science because of the religion.
RH: You have turned your attention to Islam recently. Why is that?
RD: I think my love of truth and honesty forces me to notice that the liberal intelligentsia of Western countries is betraying itself where Islam is concerned. It's stymied by the conflict between being against misogyny and discrimination against women on the one hand, and on the other by the terror of being thought racist—driven by misunderstanding Islam as though it were a race. So people who would normally speak out against the maltreatment of women don't do it. I do fret about what I see as a betrayal by my own people, the nice liberals.
RH: Another battle of yours has been against group selection—the idea that evolution works by selecting traits that benefit groups, not genes. You destroyed that paradigm, but then it came back again.
RD: Something else came back under the same name. If you look carefully, it turns out to be things like kin selection rebranded as group selection. That irritates me because I think it is wantonly obscuring something that was actually rather clear.
I think part of why it came back is political. Sociologists love group selection, I think because they are more influenced by emotive evaluations of human impulses. I think people want altruism to be a kind of driving force; there's no such thing as a driving force. They want altruism to be fundamental whereas I want it to be explained. Selfish genes actually explain altruistic individuals, and to me that's crystal-clear.
RH: What subjects currently interest you in evolutionary biology?
RD: I'm fascinated by the way molecular genetics has become a branch of information technology. I wonder with hindsight whether it had to be that way, whether natural selection couldn't really work unless genetics was digital, high-fidelity, a kind of computer science. In other words, can we predict that, if there's life elsewhere in the universe, it will have the same kind of high-fidelity digital genetics as we do?
RH: When we are able to muck around with our own genes more, where do you think it will take us?
RD: The funny thing is that if you take the two parts of the Darwinian formula, mutation and selection, we've been messing around with the selection part with just about every species—except our own. We have been distorting wolves to Pekingeses and wild cabbages to cauliflowers, and making huge revolutions in agricultural science. And yet with a few exceptions, there have been no attempts to breed human Pekingeses or human greyhounds.
Now the mutation half of the Darwinian algorithm is becoming amenable to human manipulation, people have jumped to asking questions—what's going to happen when we start tinkering with genes?—while sort of forgetting that we could have been tinkering with selection for thousands of years and haven't done it. Maybe whatever has inhibited us from doing it with selection will do the same with mutation.
RH: Do you believe there is a genetic basis to irrationality?
RD: It would be very surprising if there wasn't a genetic basis to the psychological predispositions which make people vulnerable to religion.
One idea about irrationality that I and various other people have put forward is that the risks we faced in our natural state often came from evolved agents like leopards and snakes. So with a natural phenomenon like a storm, the prudent thing might have been to attribute it to an agent rather than to forces of physics. It's the proverbial rustle in the long grass: It's probably not a leopard, but if it is, you're for it. So a bias towards seeing agency rather than boring old natural forces may have been built into us.
That may take quite a lot of overcoming. Even though we no longer need to fear leopards, we inherit the instincts of those who did. Seeing agency where there isn't any is something that may have been programmed into our brains.
RH: If we are irrational, perhaps one of the reasons people bristle at you is they feel their nature is under attack.
RD: We accept that people are irrational for good Darwinian reasons. But I don't think we should be so pessimistic as to think that therefore we're forever condemned to be irrational.
This article originally appeared in New Scientist.