Adam Ash

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Interview with atheist and evolution expert Richard Dawkins

The Problem with God: Interview with Richard Dawkins
The renowned biologist talks about intelligent design, dishonest Christians, and why God is no better than an imaginary friend.
Interview by Laura Sheahen

British biologist Richard Dawkins has made a name for himself defending evolution and fighting what he sees as religiously motivated attacks on science. Dr. Dawkins sat down with Beliefnet at the World Congress of Secular Humanism, where his keynote address focused on intelligent design.

You're concerned about the state of education, especially science education. If you were able to teach every person, what would you want people to believe?

I would want them to believe whatever evidence leads them to; I would want them to look at the evidence, judge it on its merits, not accept things because of internal revelation or faith, but purely on the basis of evidence.

Not everybody can evaluate all evidence; we can’t evaluate the evidence for quantum physics. So it does have to be a certain amount of taking things on trust. I have to take what physicists say on trust, for example, because I'm a biologist. But science [has] a system of appraisal, of peer review, so that I trust the physics community to get their act together in a way that I know from the inside. I wish people would put their trust in evidence, not in faith, revelation, tradition, or authority.

What do you wish people knew about evolution?

They need to understand what evolution is about. Many of them don’t. I was truly shocked to be told by two separate religious leaders in this country [the U.S.] a few weeks ago--they both said something to the effect that, ‘I’ll believe in evolution when I see a tailed monkey give birth to a human.’

That is staggering ignorance of what evolutionary science is about; if they think that’s what evolutionists believe, no wonder they’re skeptical of it. How can a civilized country have adult people in positions of leadership who know so stunningly little about the leading biological concept?

You said in a recent speech that design was not the only alternative to chance. A lot of people think that evolution is all about random chance.

That’s ludicrous. That’s ridiculous. Mutation is random in the sense that it’s not anticipatory of what’s needed. Natural selection is anything but random. Natural selection is a guided process, guided not by any higher power, but simply by which genes survive and which genes don’t survive. That’s a non-random process. The animals that are best at whatever they do -- hunting, flying, fishing, swimming, digging -- whatever the species does, the individuals that are best at it are the ones that pass on the genes. It’s because of this non-random process that lions are so good at hunting, antelopes so good at running away from lions, and fish are so good at swimming.

There are intelligent people who have been taught good science and evolution, and who may choose to believe in something religious that may seem to fly in the face of science. What do you make of that?

It’s certainly hard to know what to make of it. I think it’s a betrayal of science. I think they have a religious agenda which, for reasons best known to themselves, they elevate above science.

What are your thoughts about the despair some people feel when they ponder natural selection and random mutation? The idea of evolution and natural selection makes some people feel that everything is meaningless--people’s individual lives and life in general.

If it’s true that it causes people to feel despair, that’s tough. It’s still the truth. The universe doesn’t owe us condolence or consolation; it doesn’t owe us a nice warm feeling inside. If it’s true, it’s true, and you'd better live with it.

However, I don’t think it should make one feel depressed. I don’t feel depressed. I feel elated. My book, "Unweaving the Rainbow," is an attempt to elevate science to the level of poetry and to show how one can be -- in a funny sort of way -- rather spiritual about science. Not in a supernatural sense, but there are uplifting mysteries to be solved. The contemplation of the size and scale of the universe, of the depth of geological time, of the complexity of life--these all, to me, have an inspirational quality. It makes my life worthwhile to study them.

You criticize intelligent design, saying that "the theistic answer"--pointing to God as designer--"is deeply unsatisfying"--presumably you mean on a logical, scientific level.

Yes, because it doesn’t explain where the designer comes from. If they’re going to emphasize the statistical improbability of biological organs -- "these are so complicated, how could they have evolved?"--well, if they’re so complicated, how could they possibly have been designed? Because the designer would have to be even more complicated.

Obviously, a lot of people find the theistic answer satisfying on another level. What do you see as the problem with that level?

What other level?

At whatever level where people say the idea of God is very satisfying.

Well, of course it is. Wouldn’t it be lovely to believe in an imaginary friend who listens to your thoughts, listens to your prayers, comforts you, consoles you, gives you life after death, can give you advice? Of course it’s satisfying, if you can believe it. But who wants to believe a lie?

Is atheism the logical extension of believing in evolution?

They clearly can’t be irrevocably linked because a very large number of theologians believe in evolution. In fact, any respectable theologian of the Catholic or Anglican or any other sensible church believes in evolution. Similarly, a very large number of evolutionary scientists are also religious. My personal feeling is that understanding evolution led me to atheism.

How would you respond to people who say the most interesting or worthwhile aspect of human beings is behavior that natural selection would not promote? I'm thinking of behavior like adopting children who aren't family members, voluntary celibacy, or people deciding to spend their whole life praying.

Adopting children that are not your own or a close relative's is an interesting question. Why do not just humans, but other species, do what on the face of it is the wrong thing to do from a selfish gene point of view? Cuckoos play upon this and actually engineer it so that other species raise [baby cuckoos]. This is a mistake on the part of the foster parents, which have been "forced" to adopt the cuckoos.

So that’s sort of a wild analogy to adopting children, in this case ones who are not your own species.

By the way, I would hate this to be taken as any sort of suggestion that adoptive parents don’t love their adopted children; of course they do. But you could think of it as a kind of genetic mistake, in that human adults have strong parental instincts which make them long for a child. If they can’t have a child of their own, they can then satisfy those parental instincts by adopting a child.

In the same way, we have sexual instincts; we long for sex and it doesn’t matter that we use contraception. That’s, as it were, separating the natural function of sex, which is reproduction. But we still enjoy sex in the same way that we enjoy being a parent even if it is not our own child that we’re looking after.

You've said, "don’t name our present ignorance God"--which you said is what intelligent design proponents are doing. They’re taking an area where we’re ignorant and naming that God. Do you think science will eventually explain everything we wonder about now?

I don’t know the answer. I’m equally excited by both in a way. I rather like the idea of understanding everything and I also quite like the idea of science being a never-ending, open-ended quest.

If you had to name top sources for optimism and hope in a naturalistic or materialistic worldview, what would they be?

I think there is something glorious in the universe, in contemplating the Milky Way galaxy, in contemplating the fact that this is only one in billions of galaxies, contemplating the fact that at the beginning of the 21st century, humanity really has gone a very long way toward understanding the universe in which we live and the life form of which we are a part. I find that a truly inspirational thought.

Obviously, there are other things having nothing to do with science -- music, poetry, sex, love. These are all things that make life, to me, extremely worth living.

Then there's the added fact that it is the only life we’re ever going to get. Don’t kid yourself that you’re going to live again after you’re dead; you’re not. Make the most of the one life you’ve got. Live it to the full.

You've criticized the idea of the afterlife. What do you see as the problem with a terminally ill cancer patient believing in an afterlife?

Oh, no problem at all. I would never wish to disabuse or disillusion somebody who believed that. I care about what’s true for myself, but I don’t want to go around telling people who are afraid of dying that their hopes are unreal.

If I could have a word with a would-be suicide bomber or plane hijacker who thinks he’s going to paradise, I would like to disabuse him . I wouldn’t say to him, "Don’t you see what you’re doing is wrong?" I would say, "Don’t imagine for one second you’re going to paradise. You’re not. You’re going to rot in the ground."

How would you feel if your daughter became religious in the future?

Well, that would be her decision and obviously she’s her own person, she’s free to do whatever she likes. I think she’s much too intelligent to do that, but that’s her decision.

You talk about how your words have been twisted by religious people in the past. Which words of yours have been twisted?

Whenever I begin an argument by saying something that sounds as though it's creationist, something like "the Cambrian Explosion is a sudden explosion of fossils almost as though they had no history," I'm obviously saying that as a prelude to explaining why.

But these people quote selectively. It's a demonstration of their fundamental dishonesty. They’re not actually interested in truth, they’re interested in propaganda.

Are there one or two phrases you’ve heard repeatedly quoted out of context that you’d like to set the record straight about?

Well, that’s one of them, about the Cambrian Explosion. Another one is Darwin’s famous phrase, to suppose that "the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances" -- he goes on about the complications of the eye -- "could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree." He then goes on to explain it, and they never quote that. They just stop there. Dishonest.


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