Richard Dawkins: The provocative professor

by Diana Wichtel / 27 August, 2015
Dawkins studying reactions of crickets to mating calls in 1976. Photo/Getty Images

Plain-speaking atheist Richard Dawkins may be a pain to some but he can also be highly entertaining.

“I have never gone out of my way to seek enemies, but they sometimes seem to loom up out of the darkness on the straight road ahead.” – Brief Candle in the Dark

"I hope you won’t dwell much on this because it’s really beside the point,” sighs Richard Dawkins. We’ve barely begun and he’s telling me off down the phone from his home office in north Oxford. He has stately vowels and perfect Oxbridge manners, so it’s said beautifully and more in sorrow than in anger, with just an edge of impatience honed over any number of stoushes he gets himself into.

Dawkins is a scientist, a writer, a performer, a public intellectual, an atheist and, to some, a pain in the butt. “Well, I like to think of myself as most of the list that you just reeled off,” he says. “I don’t deliberately try to be a pain. I realise I’m a pain to some people, but I’m not deliberately trying to provoke.”

Provoke he does. I’ve asked him about a bit of bother on Twitter. He was responding to a woman tweeting about the hypothetical ethical dilemma of carrying a fetus with Down syndrome. “Abort it and try again,” tweeted Dawkins. “It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you had the choice.” He later apologised for phraseology that “may have been tactlessly vulnerable to misunderstanding”.

You hardly need to ask if he stands by what he originally said. “The main point about that is that if you’re in favour of abortion anyway under those circumstances, as most people are, then to say that I’m against abortion in the case of Down syndrome fetuses is just crazy.” But immoral? “My reason for saying it was immoral was that I was in that case thinking of the suffering of the child who would be growing up as an unusual child,” he continues remorselessly. “Admittedly I went on to say that many Down syndrome fetuses end up as very charming and sweet children and of course they’re all loved by their parents. The biggest mistake people were making was they were thinking that I was wanting to kill their beloved Down syndrome children, which of course I wasn’t.” Yes. No. Oh dear.

The brevity of Twitter was a problem. “And the fact that I thought I was communicating with an individual whom I know and I hadn’t realised that lots of other people would pick up on it.”

He can sound naive. As one of the famous Four Horsemen of the New Atheism Non-Apocalypse (along with Dan Dennett, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens), he has the British media pouncing on anything he says. This produces such headlines as “Richard Dawkins criticised for Twitter comment about Muslims”, “Is Richard Dawkins destroying his reputation?” and “Richard Dawkins clashes with neighbours over pigeons”. When he tweets about the small number of Muslim Nobel Prize-winners or the reliability of drunk women’s evidence in rape trials, he’s oh-my-god clickbait.

Twitter. He treats it like a virtual lecture theatre. “There’s a joke in the New Yorker … of a man at a computer,” he told the Guardian. “… his wife is begging him to come to bed. He’s saying, ‘I can’t come to bed. Somebody’s wrong on the internet.’”At time of writing, he has 1.23 million followers.

He takes a lot of punishment. Has this had a dampening effect? “Possibly, but I don’t … We’re talking too much about Twitter now. Sorry. It gives an unbalanced picture.” But that’s how a lot of people consume him these days. “Tell them to read the book,” he says. “I have to answer the questions that are put to me,” he enunciates pointedly, “but I brighten up when somebody asks me a scientific question.”

An Italian Renaissance painting of the Christian God. Photo/Getty Images

Tricky ideas

Fair enough. We’re here to talk about the second volume of his autobiographical memoir, Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science. The title can sound a little lacking in humility, as if he sees himself as a fleeting illumination in an otherwise empty, inky cosmos. Typically, he didn’t mean it like that. “You’ll have picked up the Shakespeare allusion: ‘Out, out brief candle …’ The other allusion is to Carl Sagan: ‘Science as a candle in the dark.’”

The story is bookended by Dawkins’ 70th birthday party, thrown by his third wife, Lalla Ward, who once played the Time Lady Romana in Doctor Who. A hundred guests. Along with scientists, he marvels modestly, were “novelists, playwrights, television personalities, musicians, comedians, historians, publishers, actors and multinational business tycoons”.

The book is free-ranging, instructive, highly entertaining. “Oh good. I hope it made you laugh.” It did, not always intentionally. There are so many digressions there’s a digression about digressions. Dawkins reminisces about everything from idiosyncratic colleagues to racist puddings – “Nègre en chemise” – at his beloved New College, Oxford (he’s an emeritus fellow). “I hope I didn’t come across as too eulogising of it.” Oxford comes across as a bit of a bubble. “Yes, indeed, and I conveyed that as well.”

He evokes a freedom to indulge in the play of ideas, however tricky. Perhaps that’s why, outside the Oxford bubble, he sometimes ends up in trouble. “I do suffer a little bit from being used to being surrounded by academics. You’re allowed to say ‘Let’s just propose’ or ‘What would it be like if …’ It’s become apparent to me that there are people who are so unaccustomed to that they actually find it quite frightening. An academic moral philosopher, for example, can say, ‘Let’s just examine what’s wrong with cannibalism or incest.’” Many people can imagine eating a tissue-cultured beefsteak, he says airily. “But when you say, ‘What about a tissue-cultured human steak?’, suddenly the shutters come down and that’s a horrible thought.” Indeed. Doggedly logical, he is constantly being reminded that outside the academy, logic has its limits.

Nostalgically dated Britishness

Dawkins could scarcely be a more modern man. He was an early, brilliant computer programmer. His books – The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype – have advanced evolutionary biology.

He’s also quite old-fashioned. “Dear Christchurch,” he writes, “Has your nostalgically dated Britishness survived the earthquakes?” His own nostalgically dated Britishness features in Brief Candle. The book is full of donnish asides – “Another idyll in the Cotswolds” – of a kind you imagine will have vanished a generation from now. He recalls the time he travelled as a young scientist to Barro Colorado, an island in the Panama Canal – something to do with wasps. “Some of the women scientists liked to sunbathe,” Dawkins writes, “and I couldn’t help wondering what the tanker crews thought about the undraped female pulchritude …”

He’s a good sport, expounding on discovering the downside of wearing very short shorts while reciting Shakespeare in a documentary about creationism: “They have been the subject of some ribaldry on the internet,” he reports.

He writes of being skewered on South Park: “… half of it was an accurately targeted satirical touché moment … the other half was not aimed at any target at all and could not be called satire in any sense (a cartoon of me buggering a bald transsexual).” Goodness.

You can’t help but warm to a man who is happy to be compared to a snail with a fluke parasite. The snails, he explains in Brief Candle, grow a thicker shell in response to parasites. He must have to do the same to withstand the savage attacks he comes in for, especially since his 2006 book, The God Delusion. “You’re going for a nice metaphor there: a thick skin, a thick shell. Well, I don’t know whether you’ve seen that I’ve done a couple of YouTube videos, reading out my hate mail.” I have. They’re hilarious: “I hope you are sodomised by Satan’s monkeyes [sic] in Hell”, “You are a gay-theist”, etc. Dawkins adores these misspelt missives. As he has said, “I don’t mind being disliked by complete idiots.”

He also enrages noted non-believers. Melvyn Bragg accused Dawkins of “atheist fundamentalism”. Brief Candle repeats a notorious passage from The God Delusion in which he called the God of the Old Testament a “vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist …” Don’t hold back, Richard. “I agree it does sound a bit polemical, although it can be justified in spades from the Bible,” he writes incorrigibly.

“I hope I’m not abusive and I hope I don’t use violent language,” he says. “I hope I’m always polite.” But doesn’t his ruthless, gleeful demolition of faith mean believers won’t hear him? “That’s true of some people, especially of people who identify with their beliefs as though they were somehow a part of their person. You are separate from your beliefs, and if you find your belief being criticised, the correct response would be to argue back and say, ‘What’s wrong with the criticism?’, rather than run screaming saying, ‘I’m offended; you’re horrible.’”

He ponders these matters in Brief Candle, recalling a lecture he heard called “Don’t be a dick”. The lecturer asked the audience whether, if somebody called you an idiot, you’d be more or less likely to be persuaded by them. “Needless to say, the vote was overwhelmingly negative.” Unchastened, Dawkins proceeds to rewrite the question: “If you were a third party, listening to an argument between two people … and one of them gave good reason to think the other was an idiot, would that bias you in favour of one or the other?” He reserves the right to be a dick.

Dawkins Ward

Known unknowns

Philosopher and unbeliever John Gray railed against Dawkins’ “unthinking certitude”. He certainly does sound certain. “Oh no!” he cries, horrified. “I think that’s a misconception. I do think it’s valuable to know what you can be certain of … There’s evidence that this planet orbits the sun. There’s evidence that evolution is a fact. There’s no evidence that God wants you to be good or you will go to Hell.” The whole point of science is to know what you don’t know.

On that note, I tell him I prefer “agnostic” to “atheist” because we can’t know everything. There are limits to even the finest scientific minds. “I do sympathise with what you’re saying. And I would agree with you that obviously we need to keep an open mind about things that we don’t yet know, don’t yet understand, maybe never can understand.” He famously doesn’t rule out aliens. “If there is something – I’m sure there is, many things – that we don’t understand, we need to expand science in order to understand it. Not take what I think is the rather cowardly way out and say, ‘Oh it’s beyond science, we can never understand it, let’s just give up.’ If there’s something we don’t understand, we’re working on it.”

On his own scale, he has said he’s 6.9 out of seven certain that God doesn’t exist. Does he speculate on what might yet be discovered? “If I had any conclusions then I would win a Nobel Prize. I don’t.”

Still, he’s done his bit. A reader of Brief Candle comes away knowing a lot more about what Dawkins sees as his crowning scientific achievement, the extended pheno­type, which concerns all the effects that a gene can have, even outside its vehicle. “Easy examples are things like birds’ nests, which are not part of the bird [but] which are nevertheless part of the phenotype because they are quite clearly organs that have been shaped by natural selection to do a job, in just the same kind of way as the tail or the beak of the bird,” Dawkins tells me.

He also coined the useful notion “meme”. It means not only genes can be self-replicating entities. It was not meant to mean endlessly replicating grumpy cats. “A fashion for wearing a baseball cap backwards is a meme. Think epidemic … Don’t get hooked on the idea of a meme as just a picture on the internet with some writing on it,” he instructs me.

“Nothing” ventured

If Dawkins is himself a sort of cerebral version of Grumpy Cat, he has himself to blame. He’s performed as a floating head in a sort of psychedelic rap performance at Cannes Film Festival. “Oh, you saw that!” Yes. Like so much Dawkins-related, it’s all over the internet. He’s worked on an album with a Finnish heavy metal band.

How do his colleagues take his high jinks? “They probably wouldn’t tell me if they were negative about it, would they? Mostly I think I get pretty positive reactions.” You believe him when he says, “I’m actually quite a shy person.”

But it seems like he’s up for … anything, really. “Just try me,” he drawls, throwing down the gauntlet. Okay, could he please answer a question about the cosmos that makes ordinary brains hurt: why anything, and not nothing? “Well, I suppose if there was nothing, we wouldn’t be asking the question,” he says cheerily. “Physicists such as Lawrence Krauss tell us that ‘nothing’ is unstable and that a quantum event could trigger the expanding universe. Once you’ve got that, then all of the rest of the story unfolds, culminating in biological evolution and us,” he sums up efficiently. “Nothing” is unstable – what an evocative notion. “That’s beyond my comprehension. I think it’s closer to the comprehension of physicists, which I’m not. It’s a difficult question. But I think because we are here asking it, it has to have been answered.”

Back on Earth, Dawkins is reticent about his private life. In Brief Candle, we learn he has a daughter, Juliet, a doctor. He met his third wife at a party, beneath an archway formed by Stephen Fry and the now late writer Douglas Adams, “as they exchanged lofty witticisms high above us”.

For the rest, it’s … reticent. “You mean it isn’t very personal? I don’t go into my sex life and that kind of thing.” Yes. And, considering this reminiscence of a scene that ended one of his television series on science – “… a quintessentially Oxford scene: Lalla reclining in a punt while I poled her romantically up the Cherwell” – his reserve is possibly a good thing.

The atheist enterprise

He can be quite emotional. There’s a clip on YouTube of Dawkins with Christopher Hitchens in what must have been one of Hitchens’ last appearances, at the 2011 Texas Freethought Convention. Dawkins presents his frail co-atheist with an award, then gives him a hug. There was obviously a bond. “That’s nice that you noticed that. Yes, he was a very admirable character in all sorts of ways. He was a pugnacious arguer but a gentleman and very friendly to all. And I … I miss him very much.” Long pause.

Dawkins has referred to “our movement”. Is that how he sees his atheist enterprise? “I suppose that I am part of a movement to try to spread scientific awareness, in particular my own subject of evolutionary biology, which is under threat, certainly in America. Much of my activity as an activist goes on in America, where it’s really needed.” It’s a matter of education. “There’s a need to make a non-believer respectable and electable.” His Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science works to that end. “[It’s] an attempt to get agnostics and atheists to come out and show they are just ordinary people like you and me. Not sort of demons but to be voted for as members of the US Congress, etc.”

Good luck with that. As I write, Dawkins has been emitting outraged tweets about evangelical Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee’s support for Paraguay’s denial of an abortion to an 11-year-old victim of sexual abuse. That sort of absolutism, said Dawkins when we spoke, is “really wicked”.

It’s not just God that gets put to dubious political use. Darwin’s theory of natural selection can be a model for a sink-or-swim society. “In a mild form it would be a kind of ultra-Thatcherism. In an extreme form it’s Hitler, isn’t it? Social Darwinism makes the fundamental error of saying that because nature is red in tooth and claw, that’s the way we should run our society. I’m a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics and constructing society.” Which means? “We have to sit down together and work out the kind of society in which we want to live.”

More lover than fighter

It’s a long game. With anti-science denialism and fundamentalist extremism seemingly on the rise, he must despair. “Well, yes. There’s almost a kind of moral obligation not to despair but to carry on trying to raise consciousness, rather than fighting. I prefer not to use the language of fighting.” It’s an interesting distinction for one often accused of verbal aggression. “Both plain speaking and clarity almost sound aggressive to some people. But I do think clarity is a virtue and plain speaking is a virtue. Let your yay be yay and your nay be nay.”

In the end, Dawkins is quite endearing – a man of as many inspiring yays as misfired nays – and plucky under fire. At 74, he speaks out bravely and with the consistency of a well-oiled automatic weapon in defence of what he believes in: science, reason, logic, Darwin and, when a neighbour put spikes and plastic owls in his trees to protect his cars from bird droppings, pigeons (“They are very unsightly,” he told the Telegraph. “Not the owls so much but the spikes.”).

He sees himself more as a lover than a fighter. Asked about his legacy, he doesn’t hesitate: “Someone who is passionate about the truth and has spent a lifetime loving the opportunity to discover the truth and to try to pass it on to others.” His enemies may loom in the dark on the road ahead, awaiting another skirmish. Dawkins is up for it. Just try him.

BRIEF CANDLE IN THE DARK: MY LIFE IN SCIENCE, by Richards Dawkins (Bantam, $38), is published in September.

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