Richard Dawkins

Honorary doctor from the University of Valencia

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© Miguel Lorenzo

[The following text is only a summary of the full interview published in Spanish and Catalan]

Richard Dawkins’ investiture as honorary doctor by the University of Valencia was one of the most remarkable events of the Year of Darwin (2009). Richard Dawkins is one of the most influential intellectuals of the last decades. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature. He has been awarded with an honorary doctorate by ten different universities. The one awarded by the University of Valencia was the first one from a non English speaking university.

Dawkins is the author of almost a hundred titles combining chapters in books and articles, most of which deal with evolution and animal behaviour. However, he is better known by his eleven published books. The selfish gene (1976), his first book, is a wonderful account of natural selection mechanisms and is considered one of the best popular science books ever written.

Jacques Monod used to say that something curious about the theory of evolution is that everyone claims to understand it. Why do you think evolution is so difficult to understand? Has it to do with our difficulties to assimilate the immensity of geological time? 
I used to think it was so, but now I think there is something else. I think the main obstacle is religion, but in a special kind of way. Many people think that if they believed in evolution they would be betraying their religion, or that one cannot be religious and an evolutionist at the same time. I think it is also difficult to understand how the laws of Physics produced something as complex as ourselves, taking no designer into account. For many it is absolutely obvious that something as complex as a heart or a kidney or an eye have to have a designer. It takes a lot of time to assume the idea that evolution by natural selection is strong enough to do precisely that. But that leads to a comment on time —evolution needs a lot of time and we are not used to deal with such amounts.

What kind of big advances can we expect in coming decades?
Advances in molecular technology are extremely fast and they make the study of evolution advance. I expect important advances in taxonomy, and especially in the explanation of the tree of life. 

What five books would you recommend to someone who wants to learn about evolution?
On the Origin of Species, obviously, The genetical theory of natural selection by R. A. Fisher, Adaptation and Natural Selection by G.C. Williams… and maybe something by J. Maynard Smith.

 His book on transitions in evolution? 
That one, or maybe the book he wrote on sex [The evolution of sex (1978)]. If I am allowed to include one of my books… The extended phenotype.

Is there any area of human nature that can’t be explained by evolutionary theory?
Maybe consciousness…if there really is something that can’t be explained by science, then it can’t be explained by any other theory. I expect the mystery of consciousness will be solved, but I think the solution will be given from the field of neurobiology or maybe computer science, not from evolutionary biology.

What do you think of animal consciousness? Are animals self-aware? 
 
I assume consciousness has evolved like everything else, and, therefore, other species may probably have some kind of primitive consciousness.

You said once that you were first interested in biology due to your interest in deep philosophical issues, like «who are we» or «what are we doing here». Do you think that this is the main motivation for most biology students? 
I spent many years interviewing Oxford applicants and, naturally, one of the questions I used  to ask was «Why do you want to study biology?». Most of them were ornithologists, bug collectors… they were naturalists. And I think that is the main reason why people study biology —because they are naturalists. These were not my motivations, so mine were different from most people’s motivations. But I think it is a pity, because biology has a lot to contribute to these deeper questions.

Why are you interested in the global understanding of science?
I think that the scientific understanding of the world, the universe —and in my case, especially life — is so extremely exciting, poetic and wonderful that it would be a pity if someone died without appreciating it. That is why I want to show people how wonderful science is. If they don not want to listen is up to them, but I think it is tragic to leave them unexposed to science.

Is a good science communication enough to mitigate the mistrust scientific and technological advances cause? 
Well, I don’t know what else can we do. I don’t know if that is enough, but I like to think it is. I don’t know what else can we do beyond communicating what we know and encouraging people to think by themselves. It is not about telling people what is true; what we want to tell them is how we discovered this or that, how to solve problems by themselves, how to think like a scientist, how to be sceptic, how to assess evidence, how not to be discouraged by the fear of making mistakes…

But there are many popular science books on evolution, good books, and even so…
Maybe people don’t read them. There are many people who buy books, but there are many more who don’t. The best we can do is to keep on writing and encourage people to discuss among them. There is nothing else we can do.

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© M. Lorenzo

Probably there are many people who agree with you regarding the relationship between science and religion, but choose to keep their opinions for themselves. How and when did you decide to come out? 
I am worried about the truth, I don’t like deliberate fraud, I don’t like hypocrisy, I think we have to call things by their names, but in a polite way. I think it is unfair to me when some people say that I am really aggressive. I have always been polite. But I also think that we always should speak our minds instead of pretending.

Is creationism gaining ground in Europe? 
Well, there are indicators that it may be so…in Great Britain or Holland. I don’t know about the situation in Spain.

One last question that my Etology students usually ask — «selfish gene» or «selfish allele»? 
Right, it should be «selfish allele»… that is how language should be used. But I think «selfish allele» would not sound very good for a non-expert audience.

«Many people think that if they believed in evolution they would be betraying their religion, or that one cannot be religious and an evolutionist at the same time»

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 © M. Lorenzo

«The scientific understanding of the world, the universe and life is so extremely exciting, that it would be a pity if someone died without appreciating it»

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 © M. Lorenzo

«I don’t know if communicating science is enough to mitigate the mistrust science causes, but I don’t know what else can we do»

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 © M. Lorenzo

© Mètode 2009 - 63. Feared Science - Issue 63. Autumn 2009

Cavanilles Institute for Biodiversity and Evolutionary Biology, University of Valencia.