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Richard Dawkins

When Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion in 2006, he was at the forefront of a movement some have retroactively dubbed “the new atheism,” which also includes bestselling authors Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) and Sam Harris (Letter To A Christian Nation). Though The God Delusion became the British scientist’s most famous work, Dawkins had already written more than half a dozen books about evolution and genetics, beginning with The Selfish Gene in 1976.

In his most recent book, The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution, Dawkins makes his case for evolutionary theory. With the increasing prominence of creationists claiming intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution in public schools, Dawkins realized that for years he had been writing about evolution, but always with the assumption that readers accepted it as fact. To coincide with the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species, Dawkins wrote the new book to get that point across. In a recent visit with The A.V. Club, Dawkins discussed the deception of Ben Stein, the “Sarah Palin constituency,” and why he will never participate in a formal debate with a creationist.

The A.V. Club: Some creationists are using the upcoming 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s book On The Origin Of Species to get their views heard, mostly in opposition to his theories that seem to threaten their religious beliefs. As a starting point, can you maybe summarize what it is about Darwin’s discovery that still causes such a rift between people?

Richard Dawkins: He showed how you can get things which look overwhelmingly as though they’ve been designed, because they are so complex and they work so well, they function so well at doing whatever it is that they do, like wings that fly, eyes that see, ears that hear… They work in a detailed, complicated way, and he showed that the illusion of design—that immensely powerful illusion of design—can be put together by the blind forces of physics working through this very special mechanism called “natural selection,” so that in the end, they almost precisely mimic what a designer might have produced. That is a staggering overthrow of what appeared to be common sense right up until the middle of the 19th century.

AVC: Creationists will often concede that they are not against having evolution taught in public school, they just think it should be “balanced” with a teaching of intelligent design. If evolution is a fact, how does intelligent design qualify as the only counterargument?

RD: Yeah, you’re right. On the one hand, there could be an infinite number of opposite views. It could be that it was all done by Zeus, or Mithras, or Wotan, but I suppose you could roll all that up into some sort of intelligent designer. The problem is, it’s not really a scientific idea at all, because they do not provide any positive scientific evidence for design. All they do is point to what they see as shortcomings in the evolutionary view, and say “Therefore God did it.” It’s a bit like saying we have two theories: Theory A and Theory B. Theory A, which is evolution, has masses of evidence going for it. Theory B has no evidence going for it at all. You find a little lacuna, a little gap in Theory A—which we would say is just temporary—and you say “Therefore, Theory B must be right.” You can immediately see, when you put it like that, how illogical that is. 

AVC: There was a lot of hostility directed at you with your last book, The God Delusion, because you were taking direct aim at beliefs people hold sacred. But with this book, you’re using scientific evidence to show that something is true, you’re not trying to debunk anything else.

RD: That is correct. And what’s more, not only is it not debunking, but also, I’d like to think, it’s kind of enthralling in its own right. It should be really exciting to see this evidence laid out. It is a very beautiful story. So you don’t have to think of it as debunking anything at all. The other thing is that it should give no problems to any churchman worth his salt. Any bishop or archbishop would have no trouble with the book, because they all accept evolution, they just think that maybe God started it off or something of that sort.

AVC: You were recently invited to debate Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, an advocate of intelligent design, and you turned him down—

RD: Well, yeah, and “doctor” is probably a bit exaggerated. [Laughs.] These people tend to have doctorates in odd subjects, like Marine Engineering. I don’t do formal debates, because formal debates where you have two people up on a stage in equal status, and each of them is given 20 minutes to give their point of view, and then 10 minutes for a rebuttal, or whatever, that creates the illusion that you really do have here two equal points of view of equal scientific standing. And so I took the advice of [evolutionary biologist] Stephen Jay Gould, when he was still alive, who would never debate creationists, for exactly that reason. I actually telephoned him and we talked about it for quite a while, and agreed that that should be the best policy.

AVC: So how did you end up in Ben Stein’s creationist documentary Expelled?

RD: Oh, that was pure deception! They deceived me, they deceived [biologist] P.Z. Myers, and they deceived [anthropologist] Eugenie Scott into thinking this was a balanced treatment of the issues. We had no idea that it was a creationist front.

AVC: You mention in the book that you were at least partially motivated by a poll of Americans taken in 2008 that revealed 44 percent of us believe that God created man in his present form 10,000 years ago. Did you have any sort of a social or ethical motivation in writing this book? What would American society look like if that percentage was drastically reduced?

RD: I don’t want to produce a sort of utilitarian thing saying, “If the United States is poorly educated scientifically, it will fall behind in technology” or something. That is of course true, and that would be the dominant motivation of many people, congressmen and so on. For me, the dominant motivation is that the truth is beautiful. And it’s tragic for children to grow up being actively deceived as to the real nature of their own existence and why they’re here, where they come from, and the history of the world. It is such an enthralling and exciting and elegant story that it is a cruel deprivation of children not to tell them the truth now that the truth is known. In former times, before Darwin came along, the truth was not known. Now it is, and it is such a beautiful truth that everybody ought to be allowed the opportunity to know it.

AVC: The closest you’ve probably ever felt to blasphemy is when some creationists go through Darwin’s writings to find evidence of his racism and misogyny, claiming his ideas are dangerous if misinterpreted.

RD: Oh, well, yes, that’s really appalling. It is of course true that any mid-Victorian writer like Darwin is going to appear racist by modern standards. Everybody was racist in Victorian times. [Laughs.] And Darwin was certainly no exception. But you cannot, in good conscience, use Darwinian theory to justify racism. It’s actually quite the contrary. What Darwinian theory shows us is that all human races are extremely close to each other, none of them is in any sense ancestral to any other, none of them is more primitive than any other. We are all modern races of exactly equal status, evolutionary speaking. 

AVC: So even if some people are capable of interpreting natural selection to justify their own bad actions, that doesn’t make the idea any less true.

RD: That’s exactly right. There are certain aspects of the Darwinian idea which are very unpleasant. Darwin himself recognized that there’s a kind of ruthless, callous cruelty about it, but that doesn’t make it any less true. 

AVC: People like to point to things like DNA or the complexity of the eyeball and argue that these things had to have been designed. How can you ever convince someone who has taken that leap and won’t even look at the science showing the exact opposite? Is there anything in nature that seems even remotely designed, that hasn’t been explained by this process?

RD: It’s never happened yet, but even if one came across something so complex that one felt it couldn’t have evolved by natural selection, to say it’s designed still doesn’t explain it, because you’ve then got to explain the existence of the designer. But in any case, no such organ, no such complexity has ever come to my notice. It usually turns out to be a failure of the imagination when somebody says, “Oh, this is too complicated to have evolved.” You just haven’t worked hard enough on it, you haven’t thought hard enough. I’ve called it “the argument from personal incredulity,” and it’s a lazy argument. 

AVC: Is it baffling to you that you even have to spend time in your book addressing attitudes like “I’ll believe in evolution when a monkey gives birth to a human baby”?

RD: Well, yes, because that just betrays such a misunderstanding, and it’s sad. What that shows is poor education, and this is not specifically an American problem—it’s just as true in Britain as well. We are not well educated on the whole in this subject, so people have this vague idea that evolution means that we’re descended from chimpanzees, or from monkeys. Of course it doesn’t. It means that chimpanzees, and thus all modern species, are descended from a common ancestor. In some cases, it is a very recent common ancestor. Like ourselves and chimpanzees, our common ancestor lived about 6 million years ago. In other cases, it’s a more distant common ancestor. A common ancestor with monkeys might have lived about 25 million years ago. But we all have a common ancestor—we are not descended from any other modern species. That should be so obvious, but unfortunately, our education has let us down. 

AVC: Do you think your education feeds some of the hostility you’ve received, that people feel you’re talking down to them, when really you just know about something they don’t know anything about?

RD: [Laughs.] I fear there is something of that. It is interesting—you find in the United States, there is a kind of anti-education hostility. It’s the sort of Sarah Palin constituency which does seem to actually be hostile to the New York, Boston, San Francisco educated elite. You know, “We good plain folks from the middle of the country are just as good as you pointy-headed intellectuals.” I’m afraid there is a certain amount of that.

AVC: You may not debate creationists, but you do spend a lot of time giving interviews and lectures and appearing on talk shows. Does it ever get tiresome roaming the world and having to make the same argument again and again?

RD: Well, it can, but it is also immensely rewarding. I do these big events, and I have large book-signing lines at the end, and people talk to me when I’m signing their book, and it’s really immensely gratifying, the sheer number of people who say, “You have changed my life.” Particularly with respect to The God Delusion, so many people have said that they were in effect trapped in a religious backwater, and they do really talk as though they’ve seen the light. You can imagine what a rewarding sensation that is, to hear somebody say that, and I hear it over and over again.