Saturday, July 19, 2008

Dawkins on Darwin, Channel 4 from August 4th

Richard Dawkins slaps creationists into the primordial soup

by Kate Muir, Times Online

Reposted from:

His books sell in their millions, his TV programmes are rapturously received, and he's appeared in Doctor Who. Not bad for a 67-year-old academic. Now Richard Dawkins, scourge of creationists, is championing his Victorian hero


Listen to a podcast with Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is that rare specimen, a public intellectual, a knight of the mind who goes into battle against the ignorance and foolhardiness of the populace. Unlike the French, who worship their public intellectuals, giving them pet names such as les intellos, and airing them regularly on serious television and in print, the British like to shove academics into a musty corner, or laugh at them. This was not always the case: the Victorians, with their public lectures and royal societies, gloried in debate and celebrated the thrills of fresh knowledge. The nearest we get to this now is celebrating the thrill of Germaine Greer walking out of Celebrity Big Brother.

The marginalisation of academia is partly self-created by its pomp and obfuscatory language. Dawkins broke out of the ghetto long ago thanks not just to an extraordinary mind, but to a gift for elegant communication and controversy: the English-language version of his recent paean to atheism, The God Delusion, has sold 1.5million copies (it has been translated into 31 other languages). He is big in airport bookshops. In 1976, when his first book, The Selfish Gene, was published, The New York Times explained the mind-expanding pleasure of his science-lit as "the sort of popular science writing that makes the reader feel like a genius".

In these barren, thoughtless times, Dawkins gives people something substantial to chew on. 
His audience is surprisingly grateful, and also relieved to see someone slapping creationists about and tossing them into the primordial soup, as well as explaining atheism positively. 
Before I went to interview him about his new three-part television series, Dawkins on Darwin, various over-excited friends offered to accompany me and texted questions for me to ask him; signed copies were requested of The God Delusion, which one Iranian exile said he had recently found himself reading as his plane landed – everyone else was clutching the Koran.

The Darwin-Dawkins combo was of some fascination too; one acquaintance lent me her much-loved copy of On the Origin of Species. "The language is beautiful. I read it for a Victorian literature course, not science," she said. And that, perhaps, is one of the reasons for the strong connection between Dawkins and Darwin. "Every line of Darwin, you know he really wanted to be understood," says Dawkins. "There was no pretentious showing off about him."

When Dawkins set out long ago to bring science to the masses, he says he was not consciously imitating Darwin, but had the same aims as him: "To be understood, to inspire." His post at Oxford – the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science – is appropriate. The ethologist-philosopher has been appearing on television since Horizon in the Seventies; his last series for Channel 4 was The Enemies of Reason, an attack on the bandwagons of astrology, the tarot, psychics and homoeopathy.

He has also embraced new media: his website gets huge traffic and is linked to Facebook and MySpace: "67 – Male – Oxford – London". There are 40 Dawkins-related videos on YouTube, some of which have been viewed more than one million times. It's not the usual medium of communication for a man of his generation.

For final proof that Dawkins, rather than God, is everywhere, you need only to have seen the most recent series of Doctor Who, in which Dawkins played a cameo as himself. Russell T. Davies, the executive producer of the series, is a fan. "He has brought atheism proudly out of the closet," Davies says.

Dawkins has a real-life connection with Doctor Who: he is married to Lalla Ward, who was previously the wife of Tom Baker, having played the role of his assistant, Romana, in the series in the Seventies. Dawkins met her at a birthday party in 1992 for the late Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Lalla floats in and out of Dawkins's vast living room and kitchen in Oxford, smiling and bearing espressos in terracotta mugs.

The Dawkins on Darwin programme – note who gets the first namecheck – was commissioned to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the presentation to the Linnean Society in London of Darwin's paper on his theory of evolution, and the bicentennial of his birth next year. Dawkins says that natural selection is "the most important idea to occur to the human mind", the slow change of species over millions of ideas disproving the religious theory of intelligent design by God.

That we are still trying to sell evolution to a large part of the public bothers him. "It is weird in many ways that natural selection is still debated," he says. "But it is not debated by anyone who knows anything about it." Indeed, Dawkins refuses to share a stage with creationists. 
"I don't like giving them the oxygen of respectability, the feeling that if they're up on a platform debating with a scientist, there must be real disagreement. One side of the debate is wholly ignorant. It would be as though you knew nothing of physics and were passionately arguing against Einstein's theory of relativity."

In the programme, he worries that evolution takes up little more than two hours of a child's science education in school, against potentially a lifetime of religious indoctrination at home. He tries to persuade a class of secondary school children about evolution. He frowns, exasperated. "It is such a tragedy that children are being deprived of this extraordinary exciting knowledge, which is theirs for the taking. What a privilege that they live in the 21st century, when that knowledge is available, but how tragic that they're being educated as though it were two centuries earlier."

At his home, among the modular sofas, tribal masks, plaster skulls, and three huge, painted animals from an old fairground ride, Dawkins is smiling and persuasive, his arguments clipped and accurate, no breath wasted. He is no elbow-patched, tweedy academic; his spotted socks and shoes are rather cutting edge, and he looks much younger than his 67 years. By contrast, on television he becomes almost a messianic teacher, his statements framed in the language of his true religion – science. At times, in the winds of Chesil Beach unearthing fossils, his glasses glinting, he suddenly has the choleric look of a 19th-century vicar; almost Trollopian.

Dawkins has long been nicknamed "Darwin's Rottweiler", a reference to the Victorian biologist T.H. Huxley, who was known as "Darwin's Bulldog" for advocating natural selection and sensationally debated the cause, in 1860, against the Bishop of Oxford.

That was then and this is now, yet what has changed? "In a Gallup poll 44 per cent of the American people said that they believe the world is less than 10,000 years old," Dawkins says. "It's a massive error. I've likened it to believing that the width of America from New York to San Francisco is 7.8 yards – that's the equivalent error if you scale it up to the true age of the Earth, which is something like 4.6 billion years."

For Dawkins, there is a tree of life; not the one featuring Adam and Eve, but the one tantalisingly sketched by Darwin with the two words "I think" written above, showing how different species branch slowly off from each other over millions of years, until fish are on one branch, and apes on the opposite. If creationism falls, so, logically for Dawkins, does the rest of religion piled upon it.

"There is something very, very odd about American fundamentalism, and it's spreading to this country. I am frequently hearing of science teachers who have problems teaching evolution, mostly to Muslim students." At this point, Dawkins lapses into a "let's-not-go-there" silence. In The God Delusion, he mostly mauls Christianity. "I said something about Islam, but not as much. I regarded the book as attacking all religion, especially the three monotheistic religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity. There's no particular emphasis on any of them; I know more about Christianity, so I emphasised it."

He claims the television film is not about Christianity but Darwinism, and that he tried to steer clear of religion, which he covered in an earlier two-part series for Channel 4, The Root of All Evil?. There is much about Darwin's five-year journey on HMS Beagle and about the Galapagos Islands, and there are scenes shot in Kenya, where Dawkins was born in 1941. The savannah scenes amply demonstrate the survival of the fittest, and the suffering, starving, struggling and death of the natural world. There is also an oddly touching moment when Dawkins holds specimens of racing pigeons that Darwin used to study the domestic breeding of animals. The label on each bird is handwritten by the great man. How did Dawkins feel, holding these artefacts? "Quite tearful, really… It is sort of moving to see his own handwriting on these labels he must have handled and examined many times."

Again he lapses into silence, but I now know to sit out these Pinteresque moments rather than interrupt – while most interviewees are floundering, Dawkins is thinking. "There's a very important misunderstanding of the relationship between Hitler and Darwin, which is relevant to this," he resumes. "A lot of people think that Hitler sort of was a Darwinian, which he absolutely wasn't. What Hitler did was to take the principle of domestic breeding of animals and apply it to humans. What Darwin did was to take the principle of the domestic breeding of animals and apply it to nature. It's all done by nature, by who as a matter of fact survives."

In 2006 Dawkins used his book royalties – and some donations from Silicon Valley – to set up the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, a charity on both sides of the Atlantic that supports the teaching of science and evolution. His own website is labelled "a clear-thinking oasis". It contains articles, a chatroom, an online shop that sells "RDF" mugs for $10, and "A-for-Atheist" T-shirts for $20. There's even a hoodie.

Although Dawkins is facing mandatory retirement from his chair at Oxford University, he will remain active on the web and through his writing, lecturing (at the Edinburgh Book Festival next) and television programmes. His recent tours of America, speaking alongside co-thinkers such as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, have met with standing ovations from packed audiences. "I think that there is something happening in America. I think it is revulsion against Bush, and revulsion against militant Islam," Dawkins says.

He is also a member of the Brights, a group who out themselves as atheists. But he is not too keen on the name. "The word Brights gets a lot of ridicule. A lot of Americans think it's arrogant, that it's saying non-religious people are cleverer than religious people. On average they probably are, but you're not allowed to say that." He grins.

Television has proved a powerful part of his arsenal. When he was first asked to present a Horizon programme based on The Selfish Gene, he refused. "I was too shy." They found another presenter. But Dawkins does have one of those early posh BBC accents, and his slightly geeky enthusiasm and erudition works on screen. "Yes, I do quite enjoy doing it now. I don't like speaking rehearsed lines to camera – and it's quite trying when a plane goes over and we have to do a retake. I like it when it's spontaneous and natural."

I tell him it's a relief to learn something from the television in these dark times, especially when he shares a channel with Big Brother, surely the ultimate cultural meme of the moment. (A meme is an idea that replicates across society, the cultural equivalent of a gene, and another one of Dawkins's inventions.)

Dawkins becomes unusually agitated at the mention of the reality television show. "I find that very shocking. I utterly despise Big Brother and I'm really sorry to be associated with it on Channel 4. It really is demeaning." You might assume that he would find the programme fascinating, the studio equivalent of a wildlife show, with nature red in tooth and claw. But he has nothing but contempt for the survival of the fittest in the Big Brother house. "I have heard indications that the bullying style of some of the Big Brother characters is copied by schoolchildren. Schoolchildren doing copycat bullying because they learn about it from these vile people, the trailer trash who go on Big Brother."

Perhaps we must blame trailer-trash education for our television celebrities. Have you seen the Key Stage science course for 11-year-olds, I ask Dawkins. He hasn't, but I can tell him that it is dull, uninspiring, and so simplistic as to be almost inaccurate. Evolution doesn't get a look-in. "I should love to have everybody taught about evolution from a fairly early age, because it is so important, so exciting," he says. "It answers so many questions and mysteries; it solves so many problems. Until you know about it, you're wandering around on this Earth looking at trees and birds and flowers, not knowing why any of them is there. Evolution is the answer to that riddle, so you're not really a whole person if you don't know where you come from and why you exist. And it's not difficult. It's not like relativity, it's not like quantum theory – it's something teachable to fairly young children."

Dawkins was first taught about evolution by his parents, who are in their nineties now. His family moved from Kenya to Nyasaland, now Malawi, when he was two and then on to England when he was eight. You might expect that he had a Gerald Durrell type of childhood, collecting African beetles in matchboxes, but he says: "I didn't take much advantage of that. I must say I wasn't the real enthusiastic naturalist. My route to science and biology was almost more philosophical. I was interested in the questions of existence – why are we here?"

He did not fall in love with Darwin until he was an undergraduate, and now the culmination of their long affair of the mind is the television series and a book on evolution, which will also take in modern knowledge of genetics and DNA. Dawkins has also just edited The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, which contains essays by dozens of those scientists who manage to inspire ordinary people, including Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks and Steve Jones.

He does not see why literature and science should be enemies. "If you push novelty of language and metaphor enough, you can end up with a new way of seeing." His love of books began as a child, with Dr Dolittle – of course. "He was rather like Darwin in a way, a doctor who loved animals, with this top hat, who went on little ships roughly the same vintage as the Beagle."

Of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins says: "This book should be read almost as though it were science fiction… It is designed to appeal to the imagination. Cliché or not, 'stranger than fiction' expresses exactly how I feel about the truth." He likes science fiction – Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Fred Hoyle – but he adores P. G. Wodehouse. "I've read all of him. I know it almost by heart." As for influences on his writing style, he says: "Dare I suggest Evelyn Waugh? I admire the spare economy – not many adjectives except in certain purple passages when he's turning on the purple tap."

Best not to go into Waugh and religion here, although Dawkins does describe himself as a "cultural Christian". He says: "I admit to a sort of vague affection for Anglicanism inherited from my parents. I like the idea of the vicar turning up to the village cricket match."

He also admits to having a curious ambivalence towards Christians who accept the theory of evolution, because on the one hand they are natural allies. On the other hand, at least the people he refers to as "fundamentalist wingnuts" agree with him that the scientific world is incompatible with supernaturalism. "They dig their heels in on one side, and me on the other."

Yet there is almost a spiritual side to Dawkins, a childlike wonder and joy in the marvels of the universe. He talks about being moved almost to tears when he took his two-year-old daughter Juliet (his only child, from his marriage to Eve Barham), wrapped in blankets, out into the back garden in 1986 to see Halley's Comet in the night sky. Dawkins could barely see the comet, but, aware that he would never see it again in his lifetime, he whispered to Juliet that she might just see it when it passed again, when she was 78. He chokes up a little talking about it again, and it reminds me of the Ted Hughes poem Full Moon and Little Frieda, when Hughes's toddler daughter is in the garden in the evening and suddenly shouts "Moon, Moon" in the silence.

Dawkins is equally emotional when he talks about the ashes of the planetary scientist Eugene Shoemaker being taken to the Moon in a capsule aboard a space probe. "Shoemaker wanted to be an astronaut, but for reasons of health, he couldn't go. Instead, he spent his life training astronauts and conducting research on the specimens they brought back, and he gave the Shoemaker-Levy comet its name. When he died, people lobbied Nasa to send his ashes to the Moon, which they did, with a plaque [on the capsule] with a quote from Romeo and Juliet: 'And, when he shall die/ Take him and cut him out in little stars/ And he will make the face of heaven so fine/ That all the world will be in love with night/ And pay no worship to the garish sun.'"

It's not quite pagan worship, but "it's a fine example of secular spirituality", says Dawkins.

Dawkins on Darwin will be shown on Channel 4 from August 4. Dawkins on Darwin and The Richard Dawkins Collection (4DVD, £19.99 and £29.99) are released on August 25

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