March 25, 2021
Richard Dawkins is one of my intellectual heroes. I was thrilled to be invited to his 80th birthday party, on zoom, with about twenty others; hosted by Robyn Blumner (head of the Dawkins Foundation and allied Center for Inquiry, home of Secular Rescue, which I support, a kind of underground railroad for atheists persecuted in mostly Muslim countries).
Dawkins has authored numerous landmark books, including The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion, and The Blind Watchmaker (which I’ve reviewed). He spoke of two imminent new ones: Books Do Furnish a Life: Reading and Writing Science, a collection of pieces about other books, and Flights of Fancy: Defying Gravity by Design and Evolution, about how both nature and humans have solved the problem of getting airborne.
I got a chance to tell him how important some of his books have been to me, particularly The Selfish Gene — saying that if you really understand that book, you understand evolution. In response, Dawkins remarked that he’s often asked whether he’d retract the book (published in 1976), but he still feels confident it’s right. Its take on evolution might seem extreme. In a nutshell: Life must have begun (no alternative is conceivable) with a molecule having the capability to replicate. As copies proliferated, variations crept in. Effectively putting them in competition. Variants proving better at staying in existence and replicating would become more numerous. In that competition they’d develop “survival machines.” Those molecules are genes; the survival machines are organisms. Just devices for getting more genes into the next generation. That, indeed, is what humans are, in the big scheme of things. (And a chicken is just an egg’s way to make another egg.)
This doesn’t trivialize our lives. Indeed, having no cosmic purpose frees us to set our own agenda.
I also got to submit a (cheeky) question — in what year do you predict the last remaining believers in conventional religions will be generally regarded as crazy crackpots? Dawkins started by noting that many past religions have fallen by the wayside, only to be supplanted by others no better. He fears that today’s religions will be replaced by “dopey woo-woo new age superstition.” Yet directly answering my question, he said a pessimistic estimate would be a hundred years! (That actually seems optimistic to me.)
Asked how people can be dissuaded from false beliefs (a question he must get daily), Dawkins avowed that evidence, alas, doesn’t do the trick, because people’s beliefs actually have little to do with evidence, being more a function of tribal affiliation. Frustration at this led him to suggest telling religious people, “This is science. If you don’t agree with it, fuck off.”
But one thing he did seriously urge was to stop calling evolution a “theory.” Yes, yes, scientists use that word differently from its everyday sense, but creationists exploit this by labeling evolution “just a theory.” It’s as much a fact, said Dawkins, as Earth going around the Sun.
Also on the subject of labeling, he said we should stop automatically calling the children of Christians “Christians,” and so forth. It’s something unique to the religious realm; the offspring of Marxists aren’t called Marxist children. Small kids are too young to know their minds on these matters. Eliminating such labeling would help free them to find their own paths, breaking the perpetuation of false beliefs down the generations. Now if only religious parents would comply.
Doubt toward science right now is manifesting in widespread resistance to covid vaccination. Dawkins, discussing this, observed that development of these vaccines is actually a bigger scientific breakthrough than most of us realize. Not just another typical set of vaccines, but using a different paradigm, employing Messenger-RNA — which should enable researchers to readily tweak them to fit other emerging ailments.
Interestingly, some scientists now think the primordial molecule that started life was something like RNA.