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Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and the former Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He is the author of several of modern science's[…]

Big Think sits down with the former Oxford professor and author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion.

Big Think Interview With Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins: Yes. I'm Richard Dawkins, former Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, author of The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, The God Delusion and The Greatest Show on Earth, among others.

Question: How would you correct the understanding that evolution is a theory?

Richard Dawkins: The word “theory” can be used to mean something speculative and tentative. In everyday speech it probably usually is used in that sense. Scientists very often use it in a much more positive sense. I think the easiest way is to use the ordinary language word “fact”. In the ordinary language sense of the word fact, evolution is a fact.

Question: What is the evidence that evolution is a fact?

Richard Dawkins: The evidence that makes it a fact is partly fossil evidence, partly comparative evidence, looking at modern species and comparing their bones, their organs, their structures generally, and especially their molecules, their genes, at a molecular level. This is extremely persuasive and powerful evidence. You compare the genes of animals and plants. You find that the pattern of resemblance is a tree, a branching tree. And that branching tree could only be a family tree. Other very persuasive evidence is the geographical distribution of animals and plants on islands and continents: they're exactly where we should expect them to be if evolution were a fact.

Question: What is the central tenet of your book, The Selfish Gene?

Richard Dawkins: Natural selection chooses among self-replicating entities. Those self-replicating entities have some kind of power over their probability of being copied, of being replicated, of being passed on. In practice that almost always means choosing between alternative DNA genes. So it's about the natural selection, the disproportionate -- it's about the unequal survival of genes through generations. That is natural selection. We see it in the form of changes of phenotypes; that's to say changes in bodies, because it's through the changes in the bodies that the genes induce, that they insure their survival or fail to survive. The ones that are good at surviving are the ones that are good at building bodies that are good at surviving and reproducing.


Question: What does it mean that we’re gene machines?

Richard Dawkins: We’re gene machines in the sense that a body is constructed by genes that have been successful in surviving in the past; they're good at surviving because they're good at constructing machines in which they survive. So a body is a machine for the propagation of the genes that built it. 

Question: What are some of the remaining mysteries of evolution?

Richard Dawkins: One important active area is the origin of sex and why we have sex at all. It's controversial and interesting and unsolved. Another one I think would be the evolution of consciousness, especially human consciousness. Another one would be the embryological roots by which genes influence bodies. 

Question: What is the main mystery of sex?

Richard Dawkins: Well, the mystery there is that, on the view the selfish gene, every animal is trying to maximize the number of genes that it passes on. And so mixing half your genes with those of a sexual partner seems like an odd thing to do, and on the face of it it's throwing away half your genes with every child you have. So it needs an explanation, and various explanations have been suggested.

Question: What is the most popular explanation for the act?

Richard Dawkins: I supposed the most fashionable one now is the one that's associated with the name of W. D. Hamilton, my former Oxford colleague. He took the view that parasites are the most important selection pressure bearing on creatures, and that parasites, because they are -- especially bacteria -- evolving so incredibly rapidly, the genes that any one individual needs in order to survive in the present generation of parasites may not be the genes that are needed in future generations. So there needs to be an extremely rapid turnover, extremely rapid changing, of gene pools. And sex may be -- well, sex certainly will do that. And the only question is whether the pressure from parasites is sufficiently great to compensate the so-called twofold cost of sex, the fact that sexual reproduction does throw away half the genes in each generation.

Question: Why can’t we understand the basis of consciousness?

Richard Dawkins: Well, both what it is -- it clearly has something to do with brains, and it's something that emerges from brains. When brains get sufficiently big, presumably, as human brains have, consciousness seems to emerge. As to what it is, that's a philosophically very difficult question, which biologists are no more equipped to deal with than anybody else. 

Question: Is there a certain brain capacity necessary for the development of consciousness?

Richard Dawkins: Oh, nobody knows, because we don't know which animals are conscious. We don't actually, technically, even know that any other human being is conscious. We just each of us know that we ourselves are conscious. We infer on pretty good grounds that other people are conscious, and it's the same sort of grounds that lead us to infer that probably chimpanzees are conscious and probably dogs are conscious. But when we come to something like earthworms and snails, it's anybody's guess.

Question: How can science have a unique insight into cognizance?

Richard Dawkins: Well, that's a very difficult question since we can't actually measure whether creatures are conscious. So I guess science has as much insight as any other subject, but I don't think I can answer that question directly. Maybe computer science has as much insight into it as any other science. 

Question: When did you first realize you were an atheist?

Richard Dawkins: I think first the realization that there are lots of different religions, and they can't all be right. And the Christian one in which I was brought up was clearly only one of many. But that didn't finally make me into an atheist. What finally made me into an atheist was the realization that there was no scientific reason to believe in any sort of supernatural creator. And that came with the understanding of Darwinian evolution. 

Question: Do scientists ever need faith?

Richard Dawkins: Not in the sense of faith as meaning belief in something for which there is no evidence. There are various senses of faith in which we do -- scientists do participate. There's branches of science which I don't understand; for example, physics. It could be said, I suppose, that I have faith that physicists understand it better than I do. And so when I say something that physicists tell me, such as that there was nothing before the big bang -- they're not allowed to talk about the word "before" in the context of the big bang -- I sort of have faith that physicists understand enough to be allowed to say that, even though I don't understand why they're allowed to say that. But it's not blind faith; it's not faith in the absence of evidence. It's faith that's based upon confidence in the scientific method, in the scientific peer review process, the fact that I know that there are other physicists who can test, verify, criticize the views of any one physicist. So it's not the same as religious faith, which is based upon no evidence at all.

Question: Why do so many people on earth have religious faith?

Richard Dawkins: Well, it's certainly true that so many people do have religious faith, not just individual people. Not all individual people do, but all cultures -- I think I'm right in saying that all peoples -- in the plural -- have had faith, religious faith of some kind. They believe in some kind of supernatural gods or goddesses or leprechauns or whatever it might be. Why do they have it? Well, I think it's very tempting -- when you don't really understand what's going on, when you're ignorant of the world, when you find yourself surrounded by a wonderful world, a puzzling world, a mysterious world, a frightening world -- it must be quite tempting to put your faith into a supernatural being of some kind.  

Question: Did you know that you were going to be a scientist from a young age?

Richard Dawkins: No, I didn't know I was going to be a scientist from a young age. I suppose I was interested in science. I can remember at the age of about six being fascinated by the planets and learning all about Mars and Venus and things. I wasn't much of a biologist as a child. My father had been and gave me all the right influences, and my mother too. I went into the biological stream at school, pretty much drifted in. I suppose it was about my best subject, but it wasn't an obsession with me like it is with many birdwatchers and bug hunters, people like that.

Question: When did you decide you would devote your life to science?

Richard Dawkins: I never really decided that until I was at Oxford, at the age of about twenty, I suppose. So it wasn't at school. At school I kind of drifted into the biology sixth form, and then I knew I was always going to try to get into Oxford. And I did get into Oxford to read zoology, but I didn't really become fired up and realize that this is how I want to spend my life until about my second year at Oxford; I must have been about 19. 

Question: What was your first scientific discovery?

Richard Dawkins: My doctorate, my D.Phil. at Oxford, was about decision-making in animals. And I happened to work with baby chicks, but it could have been anything. And I suppose my first discovery was of a mechanism that plausibly could be going on inside the head of a chick or any other animal when making a choice between two alternatives. It was not a piece of neurological research, which it might well have been. I mean, one could have been looking at cells in the brain and looking for mechanisms of decision-making there. But my method was more the black box method, where you don't open up the animal at all; you watch its behavior and you develop theoretical models, deduce mathematically predictions from your theoretical models, and then test those predictions against the facts -- do experiments to see whether they're true. And that's a sort of classic scientific method, the black box technique. And I used that and really rather successfully. I developed a model, used some simple algebra to deduce predictions from the model, and then did experiments which extremely accurately fulfilled those predictions.

Question: What is your favorite research project you’ve done? 

Richard Dawkins: Well, my original doctoral research -- oh no, I'll talk about something else. With my first wife, Dr. Marian Stamp Dawkins, we worked on what it means to say that an animal has made a decision. If you watch the muscular movements of an animal -- we were working again on chicks, particularly drinking behavior in chicks. When a chick -- indeed, when any bird, pretty much -- drinks, it puts its bill into the water, and then it kind of scoops the water up in the bill in a rather graceful curve, and then the water kind of trickles down the gullet. And that's a very stereotyped movement. We filmed it; we filmed chicks doing this. And then we analyzed the movement frame by frame. Our definition of a decision was based upon the idea that decisions occur at the beginning of fixed action patterns, which are sequences of movements which are very stereotyped and which don't vary.

So something like that drinking movement -- down into the water and then curve up -- is a fixed action pattern. Once it starts, we conjectured, it won't stop. So a decision is the beginning of a fixed action pattern, which determines the next however many it is frames of film on our frame-by-frame analysis. So if you looked at the frames of film, you could actually measure -- and we did this -- the predictability of each frame as a function of the preceding frames. We plotted a graph of the predictability measured in information theory, measured in bits of information -- the predictability of each frame as a function of the preceding frames. And we found that when the chick began a fixed action pattern such as drinking, the predictability shot up and stayed up during the duration of the fixed action pattern. And then it shot down again, and the behavior became unpredictable; you couldn't tell what was going to happen next for a while, until it entered another fixed action pattern, when the predictability again shot up. This was a quantitative measure -- obviously, drinking itself is not of great interest -- but what is of interest is that you can quantitatively measure and express what you mean by a decision in a continuous stream of animal behavior.

Question: Have you ever started any projects that were did not complete?

Richard Dawkins: Yes. I have begun several projects which were never completed, not necessarily because they failed, but because I got interested in other things. And some of them were looking quite promising. For example, I began a project on the song of crickets; this was when I was still working in a department of animal behavior. Crickets sing by vibrating their wings against each other, and different species of crickets have a different pattern of song, which they control by the movement of the wings. And I was working on South Pacific crickets -- not in the South Pacific; I had a colony of them in Oxford. And this particular cricket, Teleogryllus oceanicus, has a rather complicated song. It says PRR-prr-prr-prr-prr-prr-prr, PRR-prr-prr-prr-prr-prr-prr, PRR-prr-prr-prr-prr-prr. And that just goes on and on and on. And I wanted to know how important the details of that song were. Did it really have to have that particular pattern? And the answer was probably yes, because it was unique to that species. Related species have a different kind of song. For example, Teleogryllus commodus, a related species, said PRR-prr, PRR-prr, PRR-prr. And presumably the difference between those two crickets was significant. What I did was to write a computer program to make a computer sing like a cricket, and in which you could easily program in, using a simple sort of language which I devised, for making any cricket song you like.

So, I was able to program quickly the song of Teleogryllus oceanicus, Teleogryllus commodus, various species of gryllus and so on. And then I devised a method for measuring the attractiveness of these songs, and it was a very light seesaw made of sort of balsa wood, very light balsa wood, and at each end of the seesaw was a loudspeaker which could be made to play artificial cricket song. And you put a cricket inside the seesaw. As the cricket walked along the seesaw towards the song, the seesaw tilted and made an electrical contact, which was counted as one approach to that loudspeaker. At that point or shortly afterwards, the computer would change to making the song come out of the other loudspeaker, whereupon the cricket would turn around and walk the other way, and then the seesaw would tilt the other way. So the number of tilts of the seesaw was a measure of the attractiveness of the song. So I had it all set up to measure the rival attractiveness of different kinds of song. But then I can't remember what happened, and I switched to some other piece of research. So that piece of research was never actually done. But the apparatus that I developed and the computer program that I wrote to sing like a cricket was all working. Now it's lost for ever because it was done on now-outdated computers. You can't get that kind of computer any more. And so that's gone. 

Question: Can science shed light on any moral issues?

Richard Dawkins: Science is not in the business of shedding light on moral debates, but I think it can do sometimes -- the whole subject of moral philosophy, of examining moral questions in a logical way to expose inconsistencies, for example. When you're looking at moral questions, so-called moral questions, like abortion or euthanasia, you can show that people who take a very strong absolutist line may be being inconsistent with themselves because they are taking a strong line on one thing while at the same time inconsistently not taking a similarly strong line on another. So that would be a scientific way of thinking; it's not science per se. It's moral philosophy, but it's a kind of scientific way of thinking. But also I think scientific facts can illuminate moral debate. In the case of abortion again, for example, a scientist might contribute to the debate information about at what point during the development of an embryo the nervous system comes into being. And presumably, before the nervous system comes into existence there is no ability to feel pain or to suffer. And so maybe something important happens at the moment when the nervous system comes into being.

On the other hand, you might say, well, even when a human embryo develops a nervous system and develops the capacity to perhaps suffer, it's still a much smaller nervous system than the nervous system of an adult cow. And so what about balancing the suffering of a human embryo against the suffering of an adult cow when it's being slaughtered for meat. An absolutist moralist would say, well, humans are just plain special, and cows are not humans, so they don't deserve the same moral consideration. But a scientist might come along and say, well, what do you mean by that? I mean we are, after all, all evolved; we're all cousins.

At what point in the evolution -- since we know evolution is a fact -- at what point in the evolution of humans would you suddenly draw the line and say, all right, from now on they're all human and before that they're not? In the evolutionary progression from the common ancestors with chimpanzees, who lived about six or seven million years ago, to modern humans, going through creatures which might have looked a bit like Lucy, might have looked a bit like the newly discovered fossil Ardi, would you have given special human moral ethical consideration to Lucy? Or would you count Lucy as though she was a chimpanzee? Does this perhaps suggest to you that we shouldn't be in the business of drawing lines between species in this kind of way, and maybe these lines should be regarded as more fuzzy and less clear cut. Our absolutist moralities that do draw hard and fast lines between humans and all other species -- even taking a human fetus and calling that human, whereas an adult chimpanzee is not and doesn't deserve the same moral consideration -- is that consistent with science? These are ways that science can at least inform moral discussions. 

Question: Is there ever a point where scientific reasoning can harm society?

Richard Dawkins: You can, I suppose, make a utilitarian justification for obnoxious practices. You could make a utilitarian justification for torture. Moral philosophers sometimes pose the hypothetical case where the world is about to be blown up. Only one person knows the secret password to stop the doomsday bomb going off. This one person is a suicide bomber who refuses to give up the password. Are you right to torture him? And most people, I think, say you are. I mean, it's a horrible thing to torture somebody, but under those extreme conditions, to save the world you would torture somebody. And that would be a utilitarian justification for an otherwise obnoxious practice such as torture. 

Question: Are our debates over ‘big’ issues effective?

Richard Dawkins: Well, some of them are. I mean, if they're debates between two intelligent and educated people, they are conducted effectively. But if they're conducted between an intelligent, educated person on the one hand and Bill O'Reilly on the other, they're probably not, no. 

Question: How could we better our public discussions?

Richard Dawkins: Perhaps have more intelligent people as television interviewers, rather than people like Bill O'Reilly, for a start. That might not be great for ratings, I suppose, but perhaps we should become less influenced by ratings. [

Question: How would our public discourse change in a world without religion?

Richard Dawkins: Well, in the moral sphere I think they would be based upon criteria such as suffering, instead of absolutist criteria like all killing of humans is wrong, for example, including killing of early human embryos. We would instead say, well, who's suffering? At what point in the balance does the suffering switch over to the other side, when there's a choice? If we got rid of absolutist moral criteria, we might stop saying human life is absolutely sacred, and you can't put a monetary value on it. And you actually do put a monetary value on it all the time, because you know, whenever you make a decision like shall we have another kidney machine, or shall we -- to what safety standards shall we build airliners, one could always make airliners a little bit safer, but it would cost a lot more money. And so we do already take decisions about that. Military aircraft are built to a less risk-averse standard than civilian aircraft. We already do make judgments of this kind. So that would be the moral -- that kind of thing would change in the moral sphere. In the scientific sphere we'd be able to get on with our science as science, and not have to worry about whether we are giving offense to people who get their beliefs from holy books rather than from evidence, which we at present have to worry about. In the field of education, we could go in for science education free to actually teach children the best science we know and teach children to use the scientific method of thinking. And once again not have to pay lip service to, or respect, the dopey beliefs of their parents who try to interfere with their scientific education.


Question: Why do humans engage in so many impractical activities?

Richard Dawkins: There are many things that humans do that have nothing to do with contributing to the survival of the individual, at least nothing obvious to do with it. So when we do mathematics and when we do poetry and when we do ballet dancing and all the things that make life worth living, it's very hard to make the case that this contributes to individual survival; it clearly doesn't. What you can make a case for is that the possession of the kind of brain that's capable of doing those things contributed to individual survival in our ancestral past. So it's not the mathematics itself; it's not that doing algebra helps anybody to survive. But having the kind of big brain that incidentally proves itself capable of doing algebra -- having that kind of big brain probably did improve our survival, whether because it literally made us better at -- I don't know -- catching prey or finding nuts or something of that sort. Or whether, in accordance with the sexual selection theory you just mentioned, it's attractive to the opposite sex. 

Question: Can you elaborate on the theory of sexual selection?

Richard Dawkins: This is a theory of a man called Geoffrey Miller, who is a very interesting evolutionary psychologist. And he -- we do have a bit of a puzzle as to why the human brain did get so big, really rather suddenly; it's actually one of the more rapid pieces of evolution that we know. Over the last three million years or so the human brain has swelled up enormously. And there are various theories as to why this should be. Geoffrey Miller's theory is that, as you say, the mind is a kind of human peacock's tail, and "being clever is sexy" would be one way to put it. But it would manifest itself in the ability to -- I don't know -- remember epic poetry or something of that sort. I mean, there are all sorts of different ways in which, in particular cultures, it might manifest itself

Question: How do you feel about recent attempts to end aging?

Richard Dawkins: It's easy to see why people might wish to prolong their own lives. It's a rather selfish pursuit unless you recognize and do something about the fact that birth rates are not declining in the world as a whole, and the population is rising rapidly. There may be more people alive today than there are dead people, so to speak. I mean, it may be -- if you add up the total number of people alive and then say, how far back would you have to go in time if you integrated all dead people backwards until you reach the same number as are now alive, it would be an astonishingly long time ago. So to prolong human life in an irresponsible, profligate way would be indeed irresponsible unless you at the same time reduced birth rates. If everybody lived for ever, then we'd better stop any new people being born. Otherwise we're going to be hideously overcrowded. And it's a rather presumptuous, arrogant thing to do, some might say, to say, right, well, the present generation are the last ones to reproduce. We'd better all just sit here and enjoy our lives for thousands of years. We're obviously a long way away from that now, but I know there are some people who see that as a kind of ideal, and they certainly need to think seriously about what to do about population size.

Question: What excites you most in science today?

Richard Dawkins: I suppose in my own field of biology it would be molecular genetics. It has enormous potential. It's advancing at an extremely rapid rate, coupled with computer science, which is also advancing at an extremely rapid rate. And the two are genuinely coupled; that's no accident. Moore's Law in the world of computer science states that computer power measured in various ways increases exponentially, and its doubling time is something like eighteen months.

There's another law which I've coined Hodgkin's Law, which says that sequencing genomes, the power to read genomes, increases exponentially, and the doubling time is not quite as fast as that; it's more like twenty seven months. But Hodgkin's Law and Moore's Law are related because genetic sequencing is -- the technology is very dependent upon computers. And so part of what has fed into the increase in the rate of -- in the increase in the power to sequence genomes has been the increase in computer power, which is Moore's Law.

So the two together are rendering our world ever stranger ever faster. And the Internet as we now know it would have totally astounded me if -- when I first started using computers in the 1960s, I dimly thought that something like the Internet, mass communication, might come about. But I never thought it would be anything like as powerful as it is. I would have been just blown over backwards if somebody had suddenly plunked me in front of a modern -- pushed me forward in time to 2009 and showed me a modern computer and the modern Internet connection. The same thing is happening and is going to happen to biology with respect to genome sequencing. And it's going to become possible to sequence the genome of an individual of any species for very little money, very fast. And that's going to open up enormous vistas for biological research.

And for medicine, because it means that, for example, doctors, instead of prescribing a sort of generic treatment for the disease you've got, for an average person, will prescribe the particular treatment that you as an individual need because of the particular fingerprint of genes that you've got. And that's going to be a radical change in medicine. In biological research it means that we can just sequence the genome of any species we like very quickly. Biologists of the future may be able to catch an animal or plant in the wild, stick a probe into it and immediately read out off a sort of iPhone dial its genome. This would be an astonishing leap in research power 

Question: How close do you think we are to this ability?

Richard Dawkins: Well, it's becoming -- it's coming closer all the time. It's already possible to sequence a genome for a few -- I forget how -- I forget what it is -- but I mean it's a manageable number of dollars. It's still a lot, but by 2050 it'll be possible to sequence the genome of an individual for probably tens of dollars. And that would be quite an extraordinary state of affairs.

Question: What keeps you up at night?

Richard Dawkins: I can't claim it's the state of the world. I think -- know that does keep some people up, keep them awake. With me it's more personal. It's not -- it's things like I've just founded a couple of charitable foundations, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, both in Britain and America, and sort of the future of those foundations, how to run them, how to manage them. Things like that keep me awake at nights. A book that I've got to finish may keep me awake. I mean, I'm not making sufficiently fast progress in the work that I'm supposed to be doing -- that's the kind of thing that troubles me at night.

Question: Who are your heroes?

Richard Dawkins: Darwin obviously. Wallace, who's the unsung hero who independently thought of the idea. Many great scientists of the past. Peter Medawar -- I admire his writing style very much. Carl Sagan. Yes, many -- I mean, I admire great poets as well. I'm not sure that I'd call them exactly heroes. I mean, Shakespeare affects me when I read his extraordinary command of language; I admire it hugely. Yeah I suppose he is -- so he is a hero, yes, whoever he was.

Question: What makes a good scientist?

Richard Dawkins: Well, that's very interesting. You asked me who my heroes were, and I said Darwin. Darwin, I think, misdiagnosed his own character traits rather. He said, I've become nothing more than a machine for grinding theories out of facts. I don't think Darwin was that at all. Darwin was a great hypothesis-former. Darwin thought of ideas; he dreamed up ideas, which is the way scientists ordinarily do work. So I think you need to be imaginative. You need to have the imagination to put together ideas which other people haven't had. You do need to be able to work hard. Sir Hans Krebs, who discovered the Krebs Cycle, once in my presence was asked, how do you get a Nobel prize -- which he had. And he said, it's easy: you come into the lab at nine o'clock in the morning, and you leave at six o'clock in the evening every day for thirty five years, or words to that effect. I don't think that's how you do it either. No doubt that's part of it. But you need a combination of that and genuine inspiration, which is akin to poetry; it's akin to great art; it's the inventive, creative leap which great scientists have.

Recorded on: October 21, 2009. Interviewed by Paul Hoffman.