richard dawkins profile
Richard Dawkins is a brilliant teacher and a beautiful writer. He is rich, handsome, and charming; his manners are exquisite, and his company sought out by almost everyone who knows him. It is a only small compensating misfortune that his most passionately held beliefs are ridiculous and wrong. His chair at Oxford in the public understanding of science, specially created for him by the Microsoft millionaire Charles Simonyi, is richly deserved. But title it seems he really craves, that of professor of the public understanding of religion — a position he would use with his customary lucidity and brilliance to explain that it is all rubbish — will forever escape him. He is the Calvin of the Darwinian reformation: a man with a vision like a laser beam — dazzling, unnaturally coherent, and ultimately too narrow to illuminate the world around us.
It is easy to underestimate the vehemence of his hatred of religion: he was written for this newspaper demanding that astrologers be prosecuted under the trades description act; he has proposed a theory that religions are "viruses of the mind"; his friend Nicholas Humphrey has suggested that is should be a criminal offence to teach children that the Bible is literally true. If nothing else, these proposals show that the attitudes which gave the Inquisition a bad name can survive and even flourish in the absence of religious belief. Yet they are not peripheral to his brilliance as a teacher of science, for that seems increasingly to be founded on a desire to ensure that science is not just the best, but the only source of wonder about the natural world. He is convinced, as he once wrote, that "an amplified and developed vision .. of Darwinism .. can make everything about life, fall into place, in the heart as well as the brain."
Science, in other words, must satisfy our emotional and spiritual needs, as well as our intellectual ones. He is certainly thorough-going in this aim. His second marriage, to Eve Barham, ended in bitterness which persists to this day, . He asked one recent interviewer not even to mention her name "Can't you just call her the mother of my daughter." But his devoted attempts to pass the vision to his daughter Juliet, now 14, form a constant theme in his writing: In Climbing Mount Improblable, he told an extraordinary story
"On a crisp starry night in 1986 I woke my two-year-old daughter and carried her, wrapped in blankets, out in into the garden where I pointed her sleepy face towards the published locaiton of Halley's Comet. She didn't take in what I was saying, but I stubbornly whispered into her ear the story of the comet and the certainty that I could never see it again but that she might when she was 78." Carefully he explained to her that he had woken her so that "perhaps she'd remember her father for his quixotic whim ion carrying her out into the night to show it to her (I may even have whispered to words 'quixotic' and 'whim' because small children like the sound of words they don't know, carefully articulated.)"
What makes the anecdote truly revealing is that neither of them could see the comet at all. "To be truthful I had a hard toime convincing myself that I could see the comet. Sometimes I seemed to conjure a faint, greyish smear art aproxiumately theright place. At other times it melted away. The problem was that the number of photons falling on our retinas was close to zero."
But the problem is nothing to do with photons. It is a man afraid of death, and of losing touch with the child he loves, reduced to a passionate, inarticulate stoicism. It's not about photons. It's about human beings, and the difficulties of being a boarding-school educated Englishman, a gentleman, and, perhaps, a nerd, who listed his recreation in Who's Who, as "The Apple Macintosh".
Dawkins was born in 1941, in Kenya, the son of a colonial administrator who later inherited a farm near Witney. He was educated at Oundle, and then at Balliol. He took his doctorate under Nico Tinbergen, who won a Nobel prize for his studies of birds; as a young post-doc he was head-hunted to Berkeley, where he developed his first metaphor of the immortal gene: in this instance they were leaing down the generations, discarding the bodies they use as hitchikers discard their rides. The fully developed viewpoint of the Selfish Gene appeared when he returned to Oxford, as a fellow of New College, in 1970. The book itself is, by accident, one of Edward Heath's great contributions to Western civilisaion, since he started it when Heath's confrontaiton with the miners forced Britain into a three day week and left Dawkins with nothing else to do. At the time, his enthusiasm for the subject was startling, and its combination with literary merit unprecedented.
That scientific knowledge can be a source of wonder and delight is no longer controversial in this country; and this is very largely the work of Dawkins himself. In the 22 years since the Selfish Gene was published in 1976, he has poured out an iridescent stream of wonderful descriptions of the way the world works. The chapter on the echolocation of bats in The Blind Watchmaker; his description of the engineering of spider webs in River out of Eden; or the struggles of fig wasps in the same book are marvellous and should be in any anthology of modern English prose. It's not just nature. He does the ideas with which he sympathises just as well.
When it was published, The Selfish Gene was not just pop science for the masses: it was pop science for a great many biologists, too, for whom the ideas presented had never been so coherently or lucidly synthesised. This applied even to some of the people whose work he was describing and extending. W.D Hamilton, the Oxford zoologist who first hit on the idea of analysing evolution from a gene's eye view, said in his review that he had himself been surprised by the and delighted by the uses to which Dawkins had put his insights. He must have been splendid pupil as well as a wonderful teacher. John Maynard Smith, the grand old man of Briths theotretical biologists, says that every single really brilliant student he had since the book came out had been turned to a study of biology by reading the Selfish Gene.
Certainly Dawkins' ambitions were huge: "Rather than propose a new theory or unearth a new fact, often the most important contribution a scientist can make is to discover a new way of seeing old theories or facts ... what we are talking about is not a slpi to an equivalent view, but, in extreme cases a transfiguration" he wrote in the oreface to the second edition of the Selfish Gene , before adding with typical Oxonian humility, which can seem to outsiders unbearably arrogant, simply beccause it is:"I hasten to disclaim any such status for my own modest contribution."
None the less, this passage stakes his claim to scientific greatness clearly enough: "Expounding ideas that have hitherto appeared only in the technical literature is a difficult art. It requires insightful new twists of languae and revealing metaphors. If you push novelty of languge and metaphor far enough, you can end up with a new way of seeing. And a new way of seeing, as I've just argued, can in its own right make an original contribution to science."
Not all biologists were similarly delighted. The figure of the "Selfish" gene seemed to them to attribute to a gene qualities it could not possibly posses: morality, perhaps, and certainly agency. Dawkins' rhetoric in the Selfish Gene contributed irresistibly to the idea that he saw genes as the puppet masters of our fate: in fact his German publishers issued the book with a cover showing marionettes dangling from a frame labelled "genes". He was horrified, and for some time lectured with that as an illustration of what he did not mean. His next book, The Extended Phenotype, his most technical, least-read, and possibly most profound, contains enough argument to convince any reader that genes cannot be our puppet masters. But this is not the conclusion that most people would reach from his most celebrated passages of rhetoric: "we are survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes."
In this and other books, Dawkins occasionally dazzled himself with the brilliance of his own metaphors. Selfishness, in the Selfish Gene, is sometimes used to mean that genes are what natural selecitons chooses to copy down the generations. Sometimes, it is used to suggest that genes may spread through a population weven when they cause their bearers suffering or death. And sometimes it is used in the normal, human sense. "We are born selfish" he says. It is easy to suppose that he thinks that selfishness, in a moral sense, is the fundamental stuff of human character; and in some moods this is what he cleaims. Yet the beauty and power of the biological theories in the Selfish Gene is that they show how genes for "altruism" might spread through a population even in a selfish world. The book is actually an explanaiotn of our genes for unselfishness.
The constant flickering between the two senses of the word has caused huge confusion to many readers and it is quite irrelevant to the underlying biology. Yet instead of moving away from it, his books since 1982 have moved steadily in the direction of merging science and philosophy into one seamless whole in which neither can flourish. Another anecdote about his daughter from Climbing Mount Improbable, gives a measure of this ambition. He takes her out for a car ride in the country, and they see a field of wonderful flowers. What are they for? he asks her: "She gave a rather thoughtful anser: 'To make the world pretty and to help the bees make honey for us.' I was touched by this, and sorry to tell her that it wasn't true."
So he explains to her that the flowers are not there to make the world beautiful, or to delight bees or anything else. They are in the world to copy their DNA. She was at the time six years old: not perhaps quite ready to be told that the entire universe is a purposeless, indifferent machine, in which everything happens for the benefit of invisible molecules. One is apt, at that age, to take such things personally. Dawkins himself, like most of his followers, skips lightly over the difficulties of finding meaning in a world he believes he knows to be morally meaningless. Yet this is to avoid the ultimate question that his style of explanation raises: why should science tell us what the world is for at all? As the philosopher Jerry Fodor wrote, reviewing Dawkins last book, science really tells us that "There's an awful lot of 'because' out there and very little 'for'." Dawkins has done more than any other living writer to illuminate the "because" of natural selection; but more than almost anyone else to muddy the question he really wants science to answer, which is "what for?"