Life, The Universe & Everything: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

Evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins talks to Tom Ireland about science, religion and how he wants to clear misconceptions about his work.

The Biologist Vol 60(1) p16-20

The Selfish Gene, published in 1976, established Professor Richard Dawkins as a leading figure in evolutionary theory and popularised the idea that replicating genes are the central force behind evolution, not individual organisms or species. Now perhaps best known for his criticism of creationism and religion, his 2006 bestseller The God Delusion sold over two million copies in English alone. Dawkins' campaigning work since has made him religious groups' number one adversary.

When we meet at his Oxford home, the man some see as the devil incarnate is padding round in his socks, searching for his shoes and calling out for his fluffy white dog, Tycho.

How did you become interested in science?

I rather drifted into it. My father was educated in science and had a scientific point of view which I think inspired me. I drifted into the biology stream at school and it wasn't until I got to university that I became deeply, passionately interested. I was always interested in the more philosophical aspects – I was never a boy naturalist to my regret.

Which do you enjoy more – discussing science and researching evolutionary theory or debating religion and campaigning?

I see them as aspects of the same thing. I do get a bit bored being cast as a controversialist all the time and yes, I do rather relish the opportunity to talk about science and uncontroversial things.

How did you move from working as an evolutionary biologist to become a spokesperson for atheism across the world?

I think it's part of the same thing, the exercise of reason. The question of the existence of supernatural gods can be seen as a scientific question. There's also the fact that in my own field, educators are under attack from religious propagandists who wish to replace the theory of evolution with creationism. Not all religious propagandists do, of course, but in America an alarming number of people do.

Do you think any decent scientist should be an atheist?

Clearly there are some decent scientists who are not atheists, and I find that hard to understand. To some extent many come clean about it and compartmentalise it – they don't allow themselves to think about the contradiction, which I'm sure they must feel. For many of them, they are not really religious at all anyway. Einstein, for example, was thought to be religious but he used the word as a sort of poetic allusion for that which we don't understand.

Why do you feel that your 1982 book, The Extended Phenotype (which introduced the idea that a gene's phenotype can influence far more than just the body and cells of an organism), is your most significant work as a biologist?

I suppose it's the nearest to an original contribution that I've made. As it says at the beginning, it's not research, as in finding out new things about animals. It was a new way of looking at a familiar subject. I think it's revealing and helpful, and clarifies things. It is still science, but it's something close to what philosophers do – slightly turning things on their head and looking at things in a different way.

In the extended phenotype theory (EP) you use animal artefacts, like the caddis fly larva's case or termite mounds, to illustrate that genes can influence things far outside the individual and still be a phenotype. What is the most 'long-distance', i.e. most extended, phenotype found in nature?

As an artefact, a beaver dam. That is an extended phenotype of beaver genes – and the lakes it creates can be acres across. It is a phenotype, in that it varies genetically and is useful to the beaver. I later developed the idea that much of animal communication – where one animal influences the behaviour of another – can be seen as a phenotype. So in that way the entire singing territory of a bird could be considered as a much less obvious idea of a phenotype.

Do you consider the technology and infrastructure that has built up around humans to be extended phenotypes of our genes?

Not really, no. It's tempting to do that, to regard buildings as extended phenotypes, for example. But in order to make that plausible, you'd have to say that there are genetic differences which affect those phenotypic differences. So you'd have to find genetic differences between architects of different buildings, for example. In a way that destroys the concept I think by making it too wildly and implausibly ambitious. But I have no doubt at all that there are genetic differences between beavers that manifest themselves as different sizes and types of dams and therefore lakes.

How is human technology influencing evolution?

It is exerting a huge effect on the ecology of the world. Humans dominate the world to such an extent now that those species of animal equipped to exploit that – gulls and pigeons, for example – are increasing in number over those that can't, but also surely are evolving themselves within that niche. Life-saving medicine obviously must change selection pressures acting on humans which must influence our evolution. But I wouldn't go on to say that is a bad thing. I am in favour of life-saving medicine!

[Our increasing use of computers] can be seen as evolutionary in a very broad sense, but it will make very little difference genetically and physically – it is more of a dramatic cultural shift. You could see the internet as a kind of embryonic super-brain of the future, I suppose, rather like the origin of complex nervous systems way back.

Will we discover that human behaviour is influenced in more ways than we realise by parasitic and viral genes operating within us?

Probably, yes. I think you'd have to expect that, knowing how powerful parasites like viruses are in influencing the behaviour of other species.

In the time since it was published, has there been any work that has confirmed or strengthened your thoughts on EP as a theory?

It's not the kind of work that needs confirming, it's more about work that has been inspired by it. I went to a very good conference in Copenhagen in 2008 (the European Science Foundation) organised by the excellent David Hughes, and he convened a range of distinguished, clever people from various disciplines – genetics, ecology, animal behaviour – who discussed the applications of EP in these various fields.

We are losing species at an ever-increasing rate because of human activity. Is this a tragedy that must be stopped or is it another phase of the evolution/extinction cycle that has played out for millions of years?

It is both. But I'll give you an emotional answer now: I think it is a tragedy. So I'm not giving a scientific judgement, that's an emotional judgement for which I'm not ashamed. Of course I want species like the black rhino and elephants and whales and other creatures that are going extinct to be saved.

You were credited with the use of the term 'meme' as a way of explaining how units of our culture can survive and spread among humans in a Darwinian way. Do you think 'memetics' is a valid scientific field?

I haven't done new research on it myself, but I'm pleased that others have taken it on – Susan Blackmore and Daniel Dennett, for example; there are quite a few books on memes now. I am interested in the arguments about whether it is a decent analogy to genes, and I think some of the objections to it are easy enough to dispel.

But I never really visualised it as a way to understand human culture. It was originally just to drive home the point that anything could be subject to Darwinian selection, not just genes – anything where you have self-replicating information. I think it's clear that memes are self-replicating information in a way that genes are. But whether that gives rise to interesting evolution [of culture], I'm not sure.

How do you feel about the way you are seen by the public? Would you rather be known for your scientific books than as a sort of pantomime villain who hates religious faith?

I'm irritated by what I see as a misperception of the way I am. People who clearly haven't read anything I've written have cast me as a sort of snarling attack dog, which I'm not. It's partly down to being put into that sort of situation [arguing with religious ideologues], but also being incessantly asked about it by journalists. It's also because the religious lobby haven't really got any arguments and the best they can do is to misrepresent those on the other side.

Do you ever think there'll be a fully secular world where religion has no influence over science teaching?

Yes. I am encouraged by countries in Scandinavia and, to some extent, this country – religion does seem to wither on the vine when education is thorough and good, and also when there's less poverty and greater provision of social welfare. There is a demonstrated correlation where the more a country looks after its citizens – healthcare, care for the elderly, welfare – the less religion you get. That works across countries and across states in the US.

Was 9/11 a factor in strengthening your resolve to try and dissuade people of religion?

Yes, I think there was a sense that the gloves are off now. Of course I'm not suggesting that all religion does terrible things, but it proved it can provide a licence for decent people to do terrible things and think they are doing good, in a way that bank robbers, for example, don't. The 9/11 conspirators actually thought they were righteous and doing a good thing.

Do you think the public understands evolution better than when you started out in your career? (Dawkins was Oxford's Professor for Public understanding of Science from 1995 to 2008.)

Those who have read my books do tell me they do. I have done TV and radio too, so people who have been exposed to my work – I would like to think – understand evolution better than they did. I don't know about the country as a whole. People write to me in quite large numbers about my books, and Tweet about it, but I couldn't put a figure on it.

What areas excite you in terms of future breakthroughs in evolutionary theory?

The origin of life. The origin of the first self-replicating information is key to the whole process. It's a somewhat baffling question and is a problem of chemistry rather than the biology I am used to. I would like to see that solved – perhaps it won't be with total certainty, but I would hope to see a theory so beautifully plausible that it kind of has to be true. One would hope for a chemical model that makes us say "yes!". That would be wonderful.

Richard Dawkins' life and times

Born Nairobi, Kenya

Studies zoology at Balliol College, Oxford

Made a fellow of New College, Oxford

Dawkins' first book The Selfish Gene is published, establishing him as a leading force in evolutionary theory

The Extended Phenotype is published. Dawkins considers it his most significant contribution to science

The Blind Watchmaker, a strong critique of the theory of intelligent design, is published

Appointed as the first Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford

Dawkins' critique of organised religion The God Delusion is published

Founds the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS)

Presents Channel 4's Sex, Death and The Meaning of Life