I keep a wary eye peeled for religious fanatics and rabid atheists as I lead Dr. Richard Dawkins through the Governor’s Mansion in Galle. Both would only try to hijack my subject, (albeit for very different reasons) and I am intent on shepherding my charge through to where a modest verandah abuts a small garden. There two white chairs and a few minutes of quiet are waiting for us. As the 2012 Galle Literary Festival party gets into full swing on the crescent of lawn out front, Dawkins says he’s considering a trip to Matara.
It’s where his mother, Jean Ladner spent the first three years of her life. “Though she was very young, my mother remembers the elephants going by, each holding the tail of the one in front,” he says. “She was born in Colombo, her father, my grandfather, A.W. Ladner was in the Navy in the First World War and he was a radio engineer. He was employed to build a radio station in Matara where my mother lived as a small child. I know she would very much like it if I could go there and take some photographs.”
If you didn’t know him, the company he was in would decide whether you thought Dawkins was a celebrity or a pariah. For many, the world’s most famous atheist and evolutionary biologist is fighting the good fight – championing the cause of rationality and science, he is a vocal opponent of religious bigotry and fundamentalism. Alarmed and outraged, others see the most infamous member of the ‘Four Horsemen’ as propagating a brand of new atheism that verges on the militant. Even some fellow scientists and moderate believers have gone on record to protest what they consider his intellectual arrogance and dangerously polarising stance.
|Dr. Richard Dawkins|
Whichever side you’re on, it is impossible to contest how influential he has become. As science and religion clash, most notably over the subject of our children’s education, he has chosen to blithely risk hellfire as a prominent prosecutor of all that is holy. The British scientist is known particularly for his fierce defence of the theory of evolution – not for nothing was he once dubbed “Darwin’s Rottweiler”.
He appears to have an endless enthusiasm for debate and his style could be described as gladiatorial – conceding nothing, he seems to relish the spectacle as he draws his opponent’s blood. So I am surprised to find that when we meet, my primary impression is actually one of, well, niceness. Silver-haired, his glasses glinting under the lights, he looks like a kindly grandfather.
He appears to have the same opinion of himself – “Well, I think I’m quite a nice person,” he says, smiling. The trait itself is a kind of ‘Darwinian misfiring,’ he concedes. “It is true that it requires explanation. Human niceness goes beyond what would be prescribed in a naïve Darwinian sense – that would be niceness to close kin, and niceness in the expectation of getting it paid back and I think probably that’s the way we’re nice to perfect strangers who we’re never going to meet again, it’s a kind of misfiring. A blessed misfiring of the built in tendency to be nice to close relatives and to be nice to potential reciprocators.”
That Jesus subverted the angry God of the Old Testament to preach kindness is the reason that Dawkins has a t-shirt that bears the cheeky legend ‘Atheists for Jesus,’ but on a more serious note, he says it’s something he admired in Charles Darwin as well. “The thing you get from studying Darwin is what a nice man he was, so very intelligent and knowledgeable.” Having once considered a life as a clergyman, Darwin gradually shed his faith. In his lifetime, however, out of consideration for his wife who was an ardent believer and for the dictates of a much more unforgiving society, he always described himself as an agnostic rather than an atheist. “He lived in a different time when it was much more unacceptable to be a non-believer…He used to accompany his wife and children to church and he would leave them at the church and go for a walk while they were in there,” says Dawkins.
Darwin’s modern heirs rebel against such constraints. And as the first to hold the Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, Dawkins has done more to popularise the cause of evolutionary biology than most of his contemporaries. The titles of his books – ‘The Selfish Gene’ and ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ – belong now as much in the English vernacular as they do in the scientific lexicon. Considering his current standing, one would imagine he would have displayed a predilection for science early on, but despite every advantage (including having spent an inspiring day traipsing about with a young Sir David Attenborough) Dawkins says he was never a boy naturalist.
“I was sent to Christian schools but I didn’t have it rammed down my throat because the schools I went to were Anglican not Catholic and so I was given a weakened strain of the virus, if you could put it that way,” he says explaining that he remembers that jolt when he discovered, as a nine-year-old, that there was more than one religion – and they could not all be right. Later as a teenager, the sheer elegance of Darwin’s theory of evolution won him over completely. This was all the explanation he needed to understand life on earth.But he wasn’t quite the Christian child either. His father, Clinton John Dawkins, studied botany at Oxford and went on to serve as an agricultural officer in the British Colonial service. Dawkins was born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1941 and lived in Nyasaland (now Malawi) till he was about eight years old. Then his family returned to England, to claim a farm 20 miles northwest of Oxford, left to them unexpectedly by a distant cousin. Growing up, he remembers that his parents were both ardent naturalists, who knew the names of every English wildflower.
“I think children should study comparative religion and that would probably be one of the strongest weapons against religion if children realized the religion they were brought up in was only one of many and that it was purely an accident that this was the one they were brought up in.” Interestingly he sees the poetry in religious stories (The book of Genesis itself is one of his favourites) and he says now that children should also read the Bible – if for no other reason than they would be better equipped to spot the allusions in English literature.
Eventually, Dawkins followed his father into Balliol College in Oxford. It was by no means a certain thing, but having managed to get in, Dawkins found himself fascinated by his studies. “I think it wasn’t till I got to Oxford that I became a really enthusiastic biologist and that was a bit late,” he says ruefully, crediting the university’s tutorial system with nurturing his intellect. After graduation, he taught at Berkeley from 1967 to 1969 and then returned to Oxford to do graduate research with Nikolaas Tinbergen, the Dutch ethologist whose pioneering studies of animal behaviour won him a Nobel Prize in 1973.
Dawkins would use Tinbergen’s ideas as a springboard, and find a brilliant turn of phrase – ‘the selfish gene’ – to articulate his own theories. He chose to emphasise the gene’s-eye-view, talking about an individual’s survival primarily in its role as ensuring the survival of the gene. I ask him if it took courage for him to present his idea for the first time. “It did, actually. It was a bit of a departure from the set script which I was expected to give in that course of lectures. These days it would be a major part of that set script but in those days it wasn’t,” he says.
The publication of The Selfish Gene in 1976 catapulted Dawkins into the ranks of celebrity scientists. With its beautiful exploration of Darwinian evolution, it remains one of his most famous books. He has since published several others (he believes his most underrated is ‘Climbing Mount Improbable’), but it was perhaps The God Delusion (2006) that really defined him in the public eye.
He wrote the book not for the true believers, but the undecided, hoping that his arguments would convince them to climb off the fence. In his preface, he also comes across as particularly intolerant of tolerant atheists. He doesn’t shy away from antagonizing the moderates in this debate – the atheists that would live and let live along with the believers that do embrace evolution. “It’s saying, ‘You and I are too intelligent to need religion, but it’s ok for the hoi polloi out there. It’s patronizing and condescending.” He then adds that moderate believers make it possible for extremists to exist by making a virtue of blind faith. So in that vein, chapter by chapter he marches relentlessly on, arguing in essence that religion is the root of all evil. If you listen carefully, you can almost hear the silences in between Dawkins’ sentences fill with the sound of millions of believers across the world gasping in outrage.
For those who find fault with how he expresses himself, he says: “I don’t think we want to use offensive language. We don’t want to use violent language. We want to win arguments by cogency. I think ridicule is a weapon, but it must be witty ridicule and not just abuse,” he says. Is he strident? “I just don’t think it’s true. I don’t think they’ve read what I’ve written. I think they’ve read what other people say about it. So I think I just deny that.”Unsurprisingly, it’s the book that most often gets him accused of being fundamentalist and offensive. The first charge he denies outright, the second he denies a few sentences later. Unlike a religious fundamentalist, he has said he’s willing to change his mind should you present him with evidence that God exists.
On the other hand, he says: “If you want to hear some real stridency you should listen to some of the Christians and Muslims even more, they can be strident to the point of using some real vicious language and I think that’s an indicator of how desperate they are. I think they know they’re losing the battle. So I’m not pessimistic.” Doesn’t all the hate mail upset him? “I don’t get much of it and the hate mail I do get is so comical it doesn’t bother me.” Would the world be a better place without religion in it?” “Yes. Definitely”.
We move on to a less explosive subject when I pull out a copy of his new book ‘The Magic of Reality’. His face lights up with pleasure. If you’ve read his collection of essays in The Devil’s Chaplain, the book reads like an extension of his letter to his daughter, Juliet, who was then just 10 years old. In it he entreated her to consider the evidence before she believed anything she was told. Though he has fought for greater emphasis on science in the school curriculum, Dawkins insists that he “shrinks away from indoctrinating children. But I do think it’s good to teach children to think critically,” he says, “to ask for evidence, to doubt. To accept as true only things for which there is evidence. So while I don’t want to indoctrinate them I do want to imbue them with critical faculties.”
The ‘Magic of Reality’ made several ‘Best Science Books of the Year’ lists in 2011 and tackles some of the subjects that Dawkins has spent a lifetime writing about. This time, however, he has a much younger audience in mind. Prefacing each chapter with a question, he presents scientific answers to questions like ‘Who was the first person?’ and ‘What is a rainbow?’ and even ‘Why do bad things happen?’ In a surprisingly beautiful pairing, he also explores human cultural history, presenting the religious stories and myths that were meant to explain the same phenomenon. (The book itself is simply wonderful to look at thanks to the gorgeous artwork of illustrator Dave Mckean, best known for his work with Neil Gaiman.)
Of course, Dawkins’ intention is to demonstrate that science does a much better job than myth of explaining ‘What is the Sun, really?’ and ‘What is an earthquake?’ and most of the time he does succeed. The Q&A covers topics from the different sciences, and Dawkins takes care to explain how the scientific method – of observation and experimentation – can show us what’s really happening. He doesn’t hesitate to take a few pot shots at religion, though these are tame by his usual standards. Instead he focuses on inspiring the ‘awed wonder that science can give us’ – an emotion he’s previously described as ‘one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable’ and a ‘deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver’.”
In fact, Dawkins is at his most appealing when he is writing like this. The opening chapter from ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’ (which he would like read at his own funeral) is another beautiful example: ‘Here is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than 100 million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, ‘the present century.’ The present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century’s being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. You are lucky to be alive and so am I.’
This naturally leads into a conversation about how religions offer comfort on questions of death, grief and the afterlife. “I think that if one considers the fear of death – I suspect that what’s frightening is not the fear of death itself but the prospect of eternity. And eternity, the idea of time going on for millions and billions of years is equally frightening, whether you’re there or you’re not. Actually it’s more frightening if you are there. If you were having your appendix out, you’d want to be under a general anaesthetic, wouldn’t you? If you have to bear the torment of eternity then being under a general anaesthetic is how you would wish to be. Luckily, that’s what’s going to happen to us. So that’s rather a good thought,” he says, going on to quote Mark Twain. “He said, ‘I have been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and have not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.’
But when Dawkins talks of the ‘blind, pitiless indifference of the universe,’ it is still somewhat disquieting. Is it a depressing thought to see the world without the buffer of religion? How do we interpret suffering, find an anchor and hope in such a world? For Dawkins the truth has always been compensation enough. “It doesn’t mean that our lives in blind, pitiless indifference – we live on a beautiful planet, we are surrounded by human love, by wonderful sunsets, and jungles and animals. It shouldn’t be seen as something that needs courage.”
Our conversation has been punctuated by distant bursts of applause, and Dawkins, jet lagged and obviously exhausted, will be much in demand. However, with that last sentence he reveals the key to understanding what drives him. “For me it all stems from the love of truth. Consider Christopher Hitchens. People could say they had seen contradictions in his positions but you could have reconciled them if you realized he hated tyranny – whether it was the tyranny of Hitler, or Stalin or Saddam Hussein or God. He hated tyrants. For me, I hate tyrants too, but my driving force is a love of truth and the belief that there is an objective truth in the world. It is beautiful and elegant and we are in this century very well equipped to understand it. We shouldn’t lose that privilege.”
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 22 January, 2012. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Indika Handuwala.