Talking about Evolution with Richard Dawkins

host Ben Wattenberg interviews Richard Dawkins

Think Tank,


MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. Most Americans believe that Charles Darwin basically had it right, that human beings evolved from the so-called primordial soup. But most Americans arealso religious and likely believe that God created the soup.

We will explore these ideas and others with an outstanding scientist and one of the world's leading scientific popularizers. The topic before this house: Richard Dawkins on evolution and religion. This week on 'Think Tank.'

Richard Dawkins is a professor at OxfordUniversity, where he holds the Charles Simone chair of public understanding of science. Dawkins has written many books on thetopic of evolution, including 'The Selfish Gene,' 'River Out of Eden,' 'The Blind Watchmaker,' and most recently, 'Climbing MountImprobable.'

Dawkins' writings champion one man -- Charles Darwin. In 1831,Darwin set out on a five-year journey around the world on the H.M.S.Beagle. His travels took him to the Galapagos Islands off the coastof Ecuador, where he catalogued a startling variety of plant andanimal life. Darwin saw in such diversity the key to the origins ofall life on earth.

Today naturalists estimate that there are 30 million species of plants and animals. According to Darwin's theory, all creatures large and small are the end result of millions of years of natural selection.

The reaction to Darwin's theory was explosive. Critics declared that Darwin had replaced Adam with an ape. Atheists applauded. Benjamin Disraeli, the prime minister of England, summed up the debate at the time. He said, 'The question is, is man an ape or an angel? Many laugh. Now I am on the side of the angels.'

Today the controversy persists. Evolution is generally accepted, religion endures, begging the question, is there a conflict?

Professor Dawkins, welcome. Perhaps we could begin with that fascinating title, 'Climbing Mount Improbable.' What are you talking about?

MR. DAWKINS: Living organisms are supremely improbable. They look as if they have been designed. They are very, very complicated. They are very good at doing whatever it is they do, whether it's flying or digging or swimming. This is not the kind of thing that matter just spontaneously does. It doesn't fall into position where it's good at doing anything. So the fact that living things are demands an explanation, the fact that it's improbably demands an explanation.

Mount Improbable is a metaphorical mountain. The height of that mountain stands for that very improbability. So on the top of the mountain, you can imagine perched the most complicated organ you can think of. It might be the human eye. And one side of the mountain has a steep cliff, a steep vertical precipice. And you stand at the foot of the mountain and you gaze up at this complicated thing at the heights, and you say, that couldn't have come about by chance, that's too improbable. And that's what is the meaning of the vertical slope. You could no more get that by sheer chance than you could leap from the bottom of the cliff to the top of the cliff in one fell swoop.

But if you go around the other side of the mountain, you find that there's not a steep cliff at all. There's a slow, gentle gradient, a slow, gentle slope, and getting from the bottom of the mountain to the top is an easy walk. You just saunter up it putting one step in front of the other, one foot in front of the other.

MR. WATTENBERG: Provided you have a billion years to do it.

MR. DAWKINS: You've got to have a long time. That, of course corresponds to Darwinian natural selection. There is an element of chance in it, but it's not mostly chance. There's a whole series of small chance steps. Each eye along the slope is a little bit better than the one before, but it's not so much that it's unbelievable that it could have come about by chance. But at the end of a long period of non-random natural selection, you've accumulated lots and lots of these steps, and the end product is far too improbable to have come about in a single step of chance.

MR. WATTENBERG: One of your earlier books, a very well known book, is 'The Selfish Gene.' What does that mean? You call human beings 'selfish gene machines.' Is that...

MR. DAWKINS: Yes. It's a way of trying to explain why individual organisms like human beings are actually not selfish. So I'm saying that selfishness resides at the level of the gene. Genes that work for their own short-term survival, genes that have effects upon the world which lead to their own short-term survival are the genes that survive, the genes that come through the generations. The world is full of genes that look after their own selfish interest.

MR. WATTENBERG: And the prime aspect of that is reproduction?


MR. WATTENBERG: And so that's what drives all organisms, including human beings, is the drive to reproduce their own genetic makeup?

MR. DAWKINS: That's pretty standard Darwinism.



MR. DAWKINS: We are in any era - the organisms that live - contain the genes of an unbroken line of successful ancestors. I thas to be true. Plenty of the ancestors' competitors were not successful. They all died. But not a single one of your ancestors died young, or not a single one of your ancestors failed to copulate not a single one of your ancestors failed to rear at least one child.

MR. WATTENBERG: By definition.

MR. DAWKINS: By definition. And so -- but what's not by definition, which is genuinely interesting, is that you have therefore inherited the genes which are a non-random sample of the genes in every generation, non-random in the direction of being good at surviving.

MR. WATTENBERG: What is motivating great musicians, greatwriters, great political leaders, great scientists? I mean, what are you doing now? You're obviously passionate about what you write and what you think and what you're doing. That is absorbing your life. That does not involve, I don't think, the replication of your genetic makeup.

MR. DAWKINS: That's certainly right, and because we are humans, we tend to be rather obsessed with humans. There are 30 million other species of animal where that question wouldn't have occurred to you.

MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah, but most of our viewers are humans. Now, how does that work out for -- are humans different?

MR. DAWKINS: Humans, like any other species of animal, have been programmed -- have evolved by genetic selection. And we havethe bodies and the brains that are good for passing on our genes. That's step one. So that's where we get our brains from. That's why they're big.

But once you get a big brain, then the big brain can be used for other things, in the same sort of way as computers were originally designed as calculating machines, and then without any change, without any alteration of that general structure, it turnsout that they're good -- they can be used as word processors as well. So there's something about human brains which makes them more versatile than they were originally intended for.

Now, you talked about the fact that I'm passionate about what Ido and that I work hard at writing my books and so on. Now, the way I would interpret that as a Darwinian is to say certainly writing books doesn't increase your Darwinian fitness. Writing books --there are no genes for writing books, and certainly I don't pass on any of my genes as a consequence of writing a book.

But there are mechanisms, such as persistence, perseverance, setting up goals which you then work hard to achieve, driving yourself to achieve those goals by whatever means are available.


MR. WATTENBERG: And you believe that is in our genetic makeup?

MR. DAWKINS: That's what I believe is indicated.

MR. WATTENBERG: Some people have more of it, some people have less of it.

MR. DAWKINS: That's right. Now, in the modern world, which is now so different from the world in which our ancestors lived, what we actually strive for, the goals we set up, are very different. The goal-seeking mechanisms in our brains were originally put there to try to achieve goals such as finding a herd of bison to hunt. And we would have set out to find a herd of bison, and we'd have used all sorts of flexible goal-seeking mechanisms and we'd have persisted and we'd have gone on and on and on for days and days and days trying to achieve that goal.

Natural selection favored persistence in seeking goals. Nowadays we no longer hunt bisons. Nowadays we hunt money or a nice new house or we try to finish a novel or whatever it is that we do.

MR. WATTENBERG: In this town, political victory.

MR. DAWKINS: Yes, right.

MR. WATTENBERG: Why is this so important? I mean, you obviously feel that this idea of evolution of primary importance. I mean, this is what makes the world goes round. Is it, in your view at least, the mother science?

MR. DAWKINS: Well, what could be more important than an understanding of why you're here, why you're the shape you are, why you have the brain that you do, why your body is the way it is. Not just you, but all the other 30 million species of living thing, each of which carries with it this superb illusion of having been designed to do something supremely well. A swift flies supremely well. A mole digs supremely well. A shark or a dolphin swims supremely well. And a human thinks supremely well.

What could be a more fascinating, tantalizing question than why all that has come about? And we have the answer. Since the middle of the 19th century, we have known in principle the answer to that question, and we're still working out the details.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, I read that, and a long time ago I read some of Darwin. Darwin doesn't really answer the question why we are here. He answers the question of how we are here. I mean, why in a-- when you normally say, well, why are we here, you expect a theological answer or a religious answer. Does Darwin really talk about why we are here in that sense?

MR. DAWKINS: Darwin, if I may say so, had better things to do than talk about why we are here in that sense. It's not a sensible sense in which to ask the question. There is no reason why, just because it's possible to ask the question, it's necessarily a sensible question to ask.


MR. WATTENBERG: But you had mentioned, you said that Darwina fter all these years has told us why we're here.

MR. DAWKINS: I was using 'why' in another sense. I was using 'why' in the sense of the explanation, and that's the only sense which I think is actually a legitimate one. I don't think the question of ultimate purpose, the question of what is the fundamental purpose for which the universe came into existence -- I believe there isn't one. If you asked me what --

MR. WATTENBERG: You believe there is not one?

MR. DAWKINS: Yes. On the other hand, if you ask me, what is the purpose of a bird's wing, then I'm quite happy to say, well, in the special Darwinian sense, the purpose of a bird's wing is to help it fly, therefore to survive and therefore to reproduce the genes that gave it those wings that make it fly.

Now, I'm happy with that meaning of the word 'why'.


MR. DAWKINS: But the ultimate meaning of the word 'why' I do not regard as a legitimate question. And the mere fact that it's possible to ask the question doesn't make it legitimate. There are plenty of questions I could imagine somebody asking me and I wouldn't attempt to answer it. I would just say, That's a silly question, don't ask it.

MR. WATTENBERG: So you are not only saying that religious people are coming to a wrong conclusion. You are saying they're asking a silly question.


MR. WATTENBERG: There is a scientist in the United States named Michael Beahy -- I'm sure you're involved in this argument --who is making the case -- he is not a creationist, he is not a creation scientist, or at least he says he's --

MR. DAWKINS: Well, I'm sorry, he is a creationist.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, he says he's not.

MR. DAWKINS: He says he's not, but he is.

MR. WATTENBERG: He says he's not. But his theory is that of a hidden designer, that there is something driving this process. And could you explain how you and he differ on this?

MR. DAWKINS: Yes. Like I said, he's a creationist. 'A hidden designer,' that's a creator.


MR. WATTENBERG: You say he's a hidden creationist.

MR. DAWKINS: Well, he's not even hidden. He's a straightforward creationist. What he has done is to take a standard argument which dates back to the 19th century, the argument of irreducible complexity, the argument that there are certain organs, certain systems in which all the bits have to be there together or the whole system won't work.

MR. WATTENBERG: Like the eye.

MR. DAWKINS: Like the eye, right. The whole thing collapses if they're not all there.

Now, Darwin considered that argument for the eye and he dismissed it, correctly, by showing that actually the eye could hav eevolved by gradual stages. Bits of an eye -- half an eye is better than no eye, a quarter of an eye is better than no eye, half an eye is better than a quarter of an eye.

MR. WATTENBERG: I mean if it has some sight, but if you just created the windshield wiper, it doesn't --

MR. DAWKINS: Exactly. So I mean, there are things which youc ould imagine which are irreducibly complex, but the eye is not one of them.

Now, Beahy is saying, well, maybe the eye isn't one of them, but at the molecular level, there are certain things which he says are. Now, he takes certain molecular examples. For example, bacteria have a flagellum, which is a little kind of whip-like tail by which they swim. And the flagellum is a remarkable thing because, uniquely in all the living kingdoms, it's a true wheel. It actually rotates freely in a bearing; it has an axle which freely rotates. That's a remarkable thing and is well understood and well known about.

And Beahy asserts: this is irreducibly complex, therefore God made it. Now --

MR. WATTENBERG: Therefore there was a design to it. I don't think --

MR. DAWKINS: What's the difference? Okay.


MR. DAWKINS: Therefore there was a design to it.


MR. DAWKINS: Now -- (audio gap) -- too complex. The eye is reducibly complex, therefore God made it. Darwin answered them point by point, piece by piece. But maybe he shouldn't have bothered. Maybe what he should have said is, well, maybe you can't think of --maybe you're too thick to think of a reason why the eye could have come about by gradual steps, but perhaps you should go away and think a bit harder.

Now, I've done it for the eye; I've done it for various other things. I haven't yet done it for the bacterial flagellum. I've only just read Beahy's book. It's an interesting point. I'd like to think about it.

But I'm not the best person equipped to think about it because I'm not a biochemist. You've got to have the equivalent biochemical knowledge to the knowledge that Darwin had about lenses and bits ofeyes. Now, I don't have that biochemical knowledge. Beahy has.

Beahy should stop being lazy and should get up and think for himself about how the flagellum evolved instead of this cowardly, lazy copping out by simply saying, oh, I can't think of how it came about, therefore it must have been designed.

MR. WATTENBERG: You have written that being an atheist allows you to become intellectually fulfilled.

MR. DAWKINS: No, I haven't quite written that. What I have written is that before Darwin, it was difficult to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist and that Darwin made it easy to become an intellectually -- and it's more. It's more. If you wanted to be an atheist, it would have been hard to be an atheist before Darwin came along. But once Darwin came along, the argument from design, which has always been to me the only powerful argument --even that isn't a very powerful argument, but I used to think it was the only powerful argument for the existence of a creator.

Darwin destroyed the argument from design, at least as far as biology is concerned, which has always been the happiest hunting ground for argument from design. Thereafter -- whereas before Darwin came along, you could have been an atheist, but you'd have been a bit worried, after Darwin you can be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. You can feel, really, now I understand how living things have acquired the illusion of design, I understand why they look as though they've been designed, whereas before Darwin came along, you'd have said, well, I can see that the theory of a divine creator isn't a good theory, but I'm damned if I can think of a better one. After Darwin, you can think of a better one.

MR. WATTENBERG: I mean, isn't the standard rebuttal to that that God created Darwin and He could have created this whole evolutionary illusion that you are talking about? And I mean, getting back to first causes that you sort of --

MR. DAWKINS: Yes. Yeah. Not that God created Darwin, but you mean God created the conditions in which evolution happened.


MR. DAWKINS: Well, ultimately Darwin, too.

MR. WATTENBERG: I mean ultimately.

MR. DAWKINS: Yes, it's not a very satisfying explanation. It's a very unparsimonious, very uneconomical explanation. The beauty of the Darwinian explanation itself is that it's exceedingly powerful. It's a very simple principle, and using this one simple principle, you can bootstrap your way up from essentially nothing to the world of complexity and diversity we have today. Now, that's apowerful explanation.

MR. WATTENBERG: It's not any simpler. In fact, it's morecomplex than the -- than Genesis. I mean, 'And God created the heavens and the earth.' That --

MR. DAWKINS: You have to be joking.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, I mean, 'God created the heavens and the earth' -- I can say that pretty quickly. I mean --

MR. DAWKINS: You can say it, but think what lies behind it. What lies behind it is a complicated, intelligent being -- God, who must have come from somewhere. You have simply smuggled in at the beginning of your book the very thing that we're trying to explain. What we're trying to explain is where organized complexity and intelligence came from. We have now got an explanation. You start from nothing and you work up gradually in easily explainable steps.

MR. WATTENBERG: But then I can ask you the same question: where does the nothing come from? I mean, this is a -- I mean, I don't want this to degenerate into a sophomore beer brawl, but I mean, you know, that is -- isn't that the ultimate --

MR. DAWKINS: You can ask that. That's the ultimate question.


MR. DAWKINS: That's the important question. But all I would say to that is that it's a helluva lot easier to say where nothing came from than it is to say where 30 million species of highly complicated organisms plus a superintelligent God came from, and that's the alternative.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, now, you wrote in 'The Selfish Gene' this. 'Living organisms had existed on earth without ever knowing why for 3,000 million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin.'

That sounds to me like a religious statement. That is a --that is near messianic language. And you are making the case that these other people have this virus of the mind. That tonality says, I found my God.

MR. DAWKINS: You can call it that if you like. It's not religious in any sense in which I would recognize the term. Certainly I look up to Charles Darwin. I would look up to anybody who had the insight that he did. But I wasn't really meaning to make a particularly messianic statement about Darwin.

I was rather saying that not just Darwin, but this species, homo sapiens -- or for the -- the time that has elapsed between the origin of humanity and Darwin is negligible compared to the time that elapsed from the origin of life and the origin of humanity. And so let's modify that statement and make it a bit more universal and say, life has been going on this planet for 3,000 million years without any animals knowing why they were there until the truth finally dawned upon homo sapiens. It's just happened to be Charles Darwin, it could have been somebody else.

Our species is unique. We are all members of a unique species which is privileged to understand for the first time in that 3,000-million-year history why we are here.

MR. WATTENBERG: I see. There was a study recently reported, I believe, in that great scientific journal 'USA Today,' but it's one that had a certain resonance with me and I think other people. It said that people who are religious live longer and healthier lives. And it seems to me on its face, perhaps to you as well, that that makes some sense. I mean, people who do have a firm belief system and don't worry about a whole lot of things are healthier. We've seen this in all the mind-body sorts of explorations that have beengoing on.

But does that perhaps put a Darwinian bonus on believing in religion?

MR. DAWKINS: It could well do, yes. It's perfectly plausible to me. I've read the same study and I think it might well be true. It could be analogous to the placebo effect, you know, that many diseases -- obviously they're cured by real medicines even better, but nevertheless if you give people a pill which doesn't contain anything medicinal at all, but the patient believes it does, then the patient gets better, for some diseases.

Well, I suppose that religious belief can be one big placebo and it could indeed have highly beneficial effects upon health, particularly where stress-related diseases are concerned.

MR. WATTENBERG: So if I want to advise my viewers, I could say, for example, what Professor Dawkins says is true, but harmful; I would like you to believe something that's false, and healthy.

MR. DAWKINS: Yeah, you could say that. I mean, it depends whether you value health or truth better, more.

MR. WATTENBERG: Which would you value?


MR. DAWKINS: For myself, I would rather live a little bit less long and know the truth about why I live rather than live a few -- it probably isn't very much longer, actually, which is -- let's be very...

MR. WATTENBERG: Suppose it was substantially longer and we were talking about your children rather than you.

MR. DAWKINS: Yeah, okay. I mean, these are fascinating hypothetical questions and I suppose there would come a trade-off point. I mean, there'd probably come a point when -- but I do think it's important, since this is a very academic discussion we're having, I think it would be positively irresponsible to let listeners to this program go away with the idea that this is a major effect. If it's an effect at all, it's an elusive statistical effect.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, thank you very much, Professor Richard Dawkins.

MR. DAWKINS: Thank you.

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