[EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGIST, ETHOLOGIST]
Few contemporary scientists have as large a public profile as does Richard Dawkins. Through his best-selling books, his frequent public appearances, and his conceptual contributions to intellectual discourse, he has changed the way scientists and the educated public think about evolution and the nature of life. His books on evolutionary biology, from The Selfish Gene (1976) to The Ancestor’s Tale (2004), are brilliant examples of how to write about sophisticated scientific ideas for an intelligent and curious general readership. This achievement is reflected in the title of his current position: the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.
Dawkins has achieved not only recognition but considerable notoriety—the result, it sometimes seems, of having proposed or defended one controversial idea after another. Over the course of his career he has become associated with, and at times served as a spokesperson for, views and positions including sociobiology, biological reductionism, the gene-centered view of evolution, memetics, atheism, and secular humanism. While he is a prominent Darwinist, Dawkins entirely eschews so-called “Social Darwinism.” He is deeply committed to a progressive agenda that aims to decrease violence and oppression and improve the quality of people’s lives, not only by employing the means of science but by encouraging a better understanding of science.
In 1986’s The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins took on the “argument from design,” the most influential argument for creationism, which holds that living beings are so intricately put together that only the existence of an intelligent, purposeful being could possibly explain their existence. Dawkins wrote that in undermining the argument from design he wanted “to persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence.”
Much of his work since The Blind Watchmaker has addressed related themes, culminating in the 2006 best-seller The God Delusion. The book, in which Dawkins argues that belief in a theistic god is intellectually unjustifiable and, on the whole, socially and ethically harmful, stirred a lively debate; responses were numerous and, in many cases, vitriolic. Some commentators complained that the book would further widen the chasm between believers and nonbelievers. Others praised it—some, indeed, for precisely the same reason.
On March 8, 2008, Dawkins spoke about The God Delusion to a packed lecture hall at the University of California, Berkeley. Earlier that day I was able to speak with him for an hour in his room at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco.
THE BELIEVER: Why do you think it is that in the United States in particular, the level of ignorance about, and resistance to, Darwinian evolution is so high?
RICHARD DAWKINS: A big question, that. One school of thought says that it’s exaggerated, that the difference between, say, the United States and Europe has been exaggerated. I think Christopher Hitchens is of that view. And, without having any public-opinion poll data to back us up, I share his intuitive feeling: traveling around the U.S., I don’t get the feeling talking to people that it’s any more religious than other countries in the Western world that I’ve visited. Politicians, the language of politicians, certainly say something opposite. I mean, no politician in Britain would invoke the name of God, I think, ever, actually, let alone in every single speech, which is what I think American politicians do.
BLVR: Absolutely. You have to.
RD: They think they have to. And I’m beginning to wonder whether they really do have to, or whether perhaps it’s all a great big myth. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that turned out to be true? But I guess we’ve got to be pessimistic and assume that there is a pretty large constituency out there to whom they really are appealing. So assuming that that is true: Why? Where does it come from? I’m not American. I’ve heard various theories. One interesting theory is that it is because of the constitutional separation of church and state, which America has deeply built into its constitutional DNA. In Britain we don’t have that, we have an established church—the queen is the head of the Church of England—in all the Scandinavian countries historically there’s been an established church, etc. But in America, because religion is not part of the establishment, it’s become free enterprise. And all the tricks of salesmanship, of Madison Avenue, are used to sell my church as opposed to your church. And it becomes a kind of exercise in big-money high-pressure salesmanship. Maybe that’s why. Another suggestion I’ve heard, from a colleague, is that it’s due to America being a country of immigrants. Immigrants, when they arrive from, say, central Europe, leave behind a whole support system, a kinship support system of grandmothers and aunts and things. They arrive with nothing, in a big and daunting country. And so they look for a fictive family, they look for fictive kin. And the church provides that.
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