I met Professor Richard Dawkins at his home in Oxford. An interview with him, even at the age of 81, felt very much like a tutorial with a charismatic and formidable don of the old school. He talked to me about genetics, memes, religion, the scientific method, recent political controversies, his love of music, and more.
On his sitting room wall, I spotted two paintings that seemed somehow familiar. They turned out to be by Desmond Morris, the zoologist and surrealist painter; the larger one was The Expectant Valley, which served as the cover for the first edition of The Selfish Gene (1976). Dawkins later acquired them from the artist.
‘Please focus on the science in your write-up rather than the politics,’ he said as I was leaving, ‘it’s more interesting.’ But that is the risk of being a public intellectual with a Twitter account: humans are an odd species, and with all the scientific insight in the world, it is hard to predict which ideas will do best in the meme pool. We leave readers to judge for themselves.
Freethinker: The Selfish Gene was the work that first brought you fame outside academia. If you were to bring out a new edition in 2022, how much of it would need updating?
Dawkins: In terms of the science, surprisingly little. It is true that a lot more is known about genomes and how they work in embryology, but The Selfish Gene is about the role of genes in evolution, the role of genes in changing gene frequencies as generations go by. From that point of view, the fundamental thesis of the book is the same. There would probably be a lot more animal examples just to make it more colourful.
Freethinker: In a nutshell, how would you sum up the book’s thesis?
Dawkins: Natural selection is the differential survival of genes in gene pools. Individual organisms can be seen as survival machines for the genes that ride inside them. When an individual dies, its genes die with it. If it dies before it reproduces, they really do die. Individuals are descended from an unbroken line of successful ancestors, where ‘successful’ means that they reproduced and their descendants therefore inherit the genes that made them successful. That is what makes living creatures such good survival machines for the genes inside them.
So when you look at an animal and ask why it does what it does, the answer is, for the good of its genes. Genes are ‘selfish’ in the sense that they look after their own self-preservation. Individuals do not – they are not selfish, or not necessarily. They may be driven to be selfish by the selfish genes, but the selfish genes may equally well drive them to be altruistic. The ways in which individuals work for the survival of their genes is dependent upon their ecology, and they may do it up trees or underground, or in water or in deserts. They may be predators or prey, parasites or hosts. But it is all fundamentally about the same thing, which is preserving the genes into the distant future.
Freethinker: Do scientists have any idea when or how the very first genes emerged?
Dawkins: No. In a way, that is tantamount to asking when life itself arose. What I mean by that is that the origin of life must have been the origin of a self-replicating entity – a molecule, presumably, which probably was not DNA. So if you mean by ‘the first gene’, the first DNA, that would be much later than the origin of life itself. There would have been a forerunner of DNA, which was also a replicator, but a much less efficient one. DNA should be regarded as the usurper of the replicator role. And we do not know when that was.
Freethinker: How does your theory compare with any competing theories about genes and evolution?
Dawkins: I do not think there is a competing theory in the sense that all modern biologists subscribe to neo-Darwinism – the idea that evolution is the differential survival of genes in gene pools (it is ‘neo’ because Darwin did not know about genes). The ‘selfish gene’ theory is really just a way of expressing neo-Darwinism. Not everybody likes that way of expressing it, but I believe it is logically entailed by neo-Darwinism. Therefore the only competing theory would be one that rejects neo-Darwinism – some form of Lamarkism, perhaps, which to say the least is not fashionable and has no evidence in its favour.
Freethinker: At the end of The Selfish Gene, you posited the idea of the meme. Would it be fair to say that this idea has itself become a meme?
Freethinker: How would you define a meme?
Dawkins: A meme is the cultural analogue of a gene. It is that which is replicated in the social milieu – words are memes, for example, but so also are clothes fashions, hairstyle fashions, that sort of thing, to the extent that they are imitated. The internet is a fertile ecology for the spread of memes. But memes are only interesting in an evolutionary sense if they are subject to a form of natural selection, giving rise to a form of evolution. Whether they are doing that is less clear. It is definitely clear that memes exist in a sort of trivial sense. But what is non-trivial is whether they get naturally selected – not naturally selected in the biological sense but in a cultural sense.
Do some ideas, fashions, tunes, words or ways of pronouncing words have a greater survival value in the meme pool? You could probably say that they do. A fashion for using a word like ‘awesome’ when you just mean ‘kind of OK’ is spreading through the meme pool. That is a trivial example. What would be less trivial would be the idea of a meme-plex, which is like a gene complex – a group, a coalition, a syndicate of mutually supportive genes. A religion might be an example of that.
Freethinker: The idea of the analogy as a form of argument goes right back to the Presocratic philosophers: they are always arguing by analogy, say, from visible things to invisible things – with greater success in some cases than others. How far is the analogy between the biological phenomenon of genes and the cultural phenomenon of memes really valid?
Dawkins: I think it is probably more valid than some other people do. One way in which it is under suspicion of not being valid is this: we know what genes are, they are DNA, and memes are a much more wishy-washy idea than that. It is not clear that there is any particular entity which you could identify as a physical counterpart of a meme. Furthermore, memes are not so watertight. They merge into each other. Words, for instance, are pronounced in different ways. If you have a Scottish accent, it is different from a Somerset accent. But nevertheless, because words do have a certain self-normalising quality, a word that is pronounced in a Scottish accent is still recognisable as the same word as one that is pronounced in a Cornish accent. So self-normalising does, in a way, concretise the meme in the way that the gene automatically is concretised.
Freethinker: Would the involvement of human agency in the production of memes be a difference from genes?
Dawkins: It is a big difference, but you can ignore it for this purpose. Genes too need a supportive environment of cellular chemistry in order to replicate – they do not replicate on their own. In the same way, memes need a supportive infrastructure of brains, radios, telephones and smartphones.
Freethinker: Would you say that religious beliefs might be considered in terms of memes, analogously to genes, or to viruses?
Dawkins: It is the same thing, really. I coined the phrase ‘virus of the mind’ as a way of describing certain types of memes. The word ‘virus’ has a negative connotation, because viruses tend to give us diseases – I half-intended that negative connotation. Religious beliefs are like viruses and they do have the same pernicious quality. They can spread horizontally like an epidemic of viruses. An epidemic can be as harmless as a craze at a school for a particular kind of toy – but it does spread like an epidemic. It even has the same time-course as an epidemic: rising and then dying away, and it may jump from place to place, say when somebody’s sister goes to another school and starts the epidemic there.
Religious ideas spread horizontally when a charismatic preacher goes around and propagandises for a particular religious idea, or they spread vertically – that is very important – from parent to child to grandchild. And they have a huge advantage in that, because children are a captive audience for their parents and grandparents and the schools that their parents send them to. Genetic natural selection probably builds into children a sensible propensity to believe what they are told by their parents. That would be a safety device in a dangerous world: do what your parents tell you without questioning them. But that safety device is open to parasitism by viruses because the child brain, by definition, has no way of distinguishing between sensible advice and viral advice.
Freethinker: Presumably other ideas could also spread in a similar way, such as political affiliations, cultural traditions?
Dawkins: That is right – they can all be viruses. But religious ones probably have a particular advantage in the longitudinal direction from parent to child. For example, our society, whether we are atheist or not, buys into the convention that we call a child by the religion of its parents. We talk about a Catholic child without actually asking the child what its opinions are. Because the child is born of Catholic parents, we say it is a Catholic child. If parents are conservative or socialist, we do not say it is a conservative or socialist child. So that gives a religion a head start.
Freethinker: Looking back on the New Atheist movement in the 2000s, what was the high point of that for you?
Dawkins: I don’t do movements. I suppose when four books came out within a couple of years of each other: The God Delusion, Sam Harris’ End of Faith, Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great. By coincidence – there was not a conspiracy or anything. That might have been a high point.
Freethinker: As a writer who has done a lot to popularise many areas of science, your style has been compelling and vivid, but often polemical. Why did you choose to write in this way?
Dawkins: I am not sure I see it as polemical. It is certainly read as polemical by religious readers. I think that is largely because they become so feather-bedded, so accustomed to religion being treated with exaggerated respect, that just ordinary criticism, which would not be seen as polemical if it was criticism of a play or a concert, is heard by them as polemical. If you read theatre criticism, it can be horrendously polemical in some respects, but it is not treated as such – that is the way theatre critics are, and we all accept it. But if you say something even mildly critical of religion, it is heard not only by religious people but by society in general as polemical, because for centuries we have not been used to it.
Freethinker: Many branches of science can be obscure, technical or simply difficult to understand. How far can popular science writing succeed in communicating such ideas?
Dawkins: As a biologist I have the easier task. It is not totally easy to get across biological ideas, but it is relatively easy compared to modern physics, where even physicists, in many cases, admit that they do not really understand it intuitively. Quantum theory is so foreign to human intuition that Richard Feynman was moved to say, ‘just shut up and calculate’ – get on with it, make your predictions and test them in the lab, and do not worry that you cannot understand intuitively what is going on at the quantum level. That is a difficulty with physics.
Biology is comparatively easy for people to understand. There are barriers in my own field of evolution, such as the immense time span involved, which the human brain is not accustomed to dealing with. You get people saying, ‘I will believe in evolution when I see a monkey give birth to a human’ – they do not understand the enormous lengths of time involved. But that is not a difficulty of the same order as quantum theory.
Freethinker: How would you define the scientific method, if there is one scientific method?
Dawkins: I hesitate to do so. I can give a list of things that it involves: logic, observation of the natural world, experimental manipulation of the natural world – which is very important because observation itself cannot prove causation, whereas experiment can. By ‘experiment’ I mean you manipulate a putative cause, preferably at random, and see whether the result is as predicted. It involves model building, that means imagining; the imagination is important. It involves imagining theoretical possibilities and logically deducing consequences from those theoretical possibilities and then testing those deductions.
It also involves taking elaborate precautions to avoid self-deception. That is what, especially in medical research, a double blind control trial is all about, where, for example, you are testing a new drug, and you give 100 patients the control and 100 patients the drug. The double blinding means that neither the patient nor the doctor, nor the nurses taking care of the patient, nor the statisticians eventually doing the analysis, are allowed to know which bottle contains the drug and which bottle contains the control, until finally the computer code is opened. Otherwise, with the best will in the world, a scientist may be deceived by a preconception, a desire for a particular result.
That is an incomplete list of things that the scientific method involves. I would refrain from giving a single-sentence definition.
Freethinker: To what extent do the sciences differ? Are some of them more rigorous or reliable than others – are some more dependent on interpretation, or more open to human error?
Dawkins: In biology, it is more messy, and we have to rely more upon teasing out patterns statistically. In physics, everything can be carefully controlled in an experiment – you almost do not need to do the experiment lots of times and then count the number of times in which it works. Whereas in biology, you do.
Science depends upon verification later, repeating experiments. In physics, because experiments are so accurate, if a repeat of an experiment fails to give the same result, it is a cause for alarm and maybe for saying there is something wrong with the original experiment. In biology one tends to say, ‘Oh, well, it’s probably just some random effect which we didn’t know about,’ so it is less satisfactory than physics. Within my own field of biology, I was trained in animal behaviour. In that field, failure to repeat an experiment may not mean that the experiment was wrong. It may just be some sort of random, unforeseen difference which you did not know about.
Freethinker: People can be inconsistent, and believe incompatible things at the same time. But logically speaking, is it possible to be scientific and religious?
Dawkins: Many people are, but I am not sure whether that falls under the heading of logic. I suppose I have to say it is possible, yes. You could say the universe is such a mysterious place that it would be foolish to be over-confident one way or the other about whether some monster intelligence lies behind it. That would be, for me, bending over backwards an awful long way. It is very hard to be a logical theist.
Freethinker: Would you describe yourself as a humanist?
Dawkins: My only hesitation in describing myself as a humanist would be that it implies giving too much of a privilege to the human species as opposed to other species. I would like to call myself a ‘sentientist’ or something like that – with a moral regard for sentient awareness. A large part of that would be human, but no doubt there are other animals that are capable of feeling pain and suffering something like the way we are. With that reservation, I would call myself a humanist.
Freethinker: How does the scientific method relate to humanism, if it does?
Dawkins: Humanists take the view that we are on our own, we are not the children of some supernatural creator, and so we have to make the best of the world in which we find ourselves. The only way to discover what is true about the world is the scientific way. I think, as a matter of fact, most humanists are atheists, but there are some who would call themselves humanists from a religious point of view.
Freethinker: In April last year, the American Humanist Association stripped you of your 1996 Humanist of the Year Award on the basis of a tweet. Speaking as a scientist, what are your views about the transgender debate?
Dawkins: I have sympathy for people who suffer from gender dysphoria. Jan Morris’ Conundrum moved me very much when I read it soon after it came out in 1974. In one of the tweets to which people objected, I said that whether you call a trans woman a woman is a matter of semantics – it depends upon your definition of words. That’s what we mean by ‘semantics’. You are at liberty to define a woman either as a scientist would in terms of genetics, in terms of chromosomes, or as an individual person might do, or alternatively as a sociologist who believes in social constructs might do. So it is a semantic question whether a trans woman is a woman or not. That does not mean it is trivial. Words are our servants, not our masters. I am sympathetic to people who identify as a different gender from their biological sex, and I am perfectly happy to call them by the pronouns that they request.
Freethinker: But in terms of biological sex, that is a matter of chromosomes?
Dawkins: Yes, absolutely. It is one of the few really distinct dichotomies that we have.
Freethinker: You wrote an article for Areo magazine entitled ‘Race is a spectrum. Sex is pretty damn binary.’ But what does ‘race’ mean?
Dawkins: I do not even need to answer that in order to justify the point that it is a spectrum, because whatever race is, people hybridise. And so you have a complete spectrum. Sex is not a spectrum in that sense. There are extremely rare intersexes – people who have chromosomes that suggest that they are male but have a very shrunk penis that is hard to notice, and vice versa. There are various kinds of rare intersexes of that sort, but they are so rare that we can forget about them when talking about the vast majority of people, who are either male or female. That is binary, which is not true of race.
Freethinker: You talked about semantics in terms of sex and gender. Is there a similar issue with race, that it means one thing genetically speaking, and another culturally speaking?
Dawkins: Yes, there is. There are many geneticists who actually say that race is a fiction, because they point out correctly that if you look at the actual genetics at a molecular level, you will find that there is more variation within geographical races than between them. Another way of putting that is to say that you could wipe out everybody on earth except people living in sub-Saharan Africa, and the great majority of human variation would be retained. There is a case, therefore, for denying the concept of race. On the other hand, in terms of observation, the few differences that there are between geographical populations are conspicuous, because they involve things like skin colour.
There is less variation in the whole of the human species, from Africa to Japan to Greenland, than there is between two chimpanzees in the same forest. From that point of view, we are a remarkably uniform species. Yet because of a few superficial features like skin colour, we look very different. That demands a biological explanation.
Freethinker: Which has not yet been satisfactorily made?
Dawkins: You can speculate about it. We know why it is that certain geographical areas are different from others. We know that skin colour is about melanin protecting the skin from the harmful rays of the sun. On the other hand, in places where there is not so much sun, people with too much melanin can suffer from a shortage of vitamin D: they get rickets. From a Darwinian point of view, it is not difficult to see why, as you go further away from the equator, you tend to see people becoming lighter in colour. There are other things, local, regional adaptations, like in mountainous areas, there are adaptations to high altitude oxygen shortage. I have speculated, and Darwin did before me, that sexual selection might be important. It is an interesting question, bedevilled by the fact that it is politically so sensitive.
Freethinker: Let’s talk about a few more controversial issues. First of all, blasphemy and free speech. You recently tweeted about the rescreening of Monty Python on British TV and the fact that it was accompanied by a warning saying, ‘some viewers may find this content offensive’.
Dawkins: I don’t like having my tweets quoted. I would much rather you quoted my books, if I may say so.
Freethinker: OK. But how far do you think anything should be banned, censored or accompanied by a warning because it is offensive to some people?
Dawkins: Censorship is justified when it is a direct incitement to violence. Unfortunately, some people might want to censor a film, play, lecture or book, not because is itself an incitement to violence, but because they are afraid that other people may incite violence in attempting to suppress it. People refrained from publishing the Danish cartoons of Mohammed, which were deemed offensive, and they did it because there were threats of violence if they did publish them. It is not that the cartoons themselves were threatening violence, but that there was a threat of violence in response to their publication. I stand for free speech, except only in those cases which are a direct incitement to violence.
Freethinker: In 1959, the scientist and novelist C.P. Snow published The Two Cultures, in which he bemoaned the scientific illiteracy of those educated in traditional humanities subjects. Since then, things have moved on dramatically, not just in terms of what science has done but perhaps even more in people’s perception of it. Today, in a world where science has achieved so much, both for good and ill, what place is left for the humanities and arts, for philosophy, history, literature and culture?
Dawkins: A huge place, obviously. One of the things that makes life worth living, for me, is poetry and music especially.
Freethinker: Do you play an instrument?
Dawkins: Sort of. Behind you over there is an EWI – if it was not for Covid, I would offer you a go on it. It is an electronic instrument which has an amplifier inside it. The noise that comes out depends upon software and it is programmable. You finger it like a clarinet or oboe, and it can sound like a clarinet or tuba, cello or trumpet. I shall try and make it sound like a clarinet. [He plays the cat theme from Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’.] You get the idea that you can sound like pretty much what you like, but not all that accurately – it is an all-purpose instrument. Quite apart from that, yes, I love music. That does not mean I can play it, but I love listening to it.
I am deeply moved by poetry. I have got a bit of a blind spot about visual art. I am ready to learn, but I do not have the same depth of feeling about it as many people do. I have not read all that much history, but I am interested in it. I enjoy talking to my humanities colleagues in Oxford and learn a lot from them. I don’t know what more to say, really.
Freethinker: What projects are you working on at the moment?
Dawkins: I am working on a new book called The Genetic Book of the Dead, which is aimed at the same kind of audience as The Selfish Gene. Its thesis is that an animal is a description of ancient worlds, of an ancestral world in which its genes are naturally selected. A sufficiently knowledgeable zoologist of the future should be able to pick up an unknown animal and read it as a description of a palimpsest of ancestral worlds in which its ancestors were naturally selected.
Freethinker: Over the course of your long career, what is the achievement of which you are proudest?
Dawkins: My second book, The Extended Phenotype (1982), about the visible manifestations of genes, because it has the most of me in it, and the most original thought. It is aimed at professionals rather than lay people, although lay people can enjoy it.
Freethinker: Finally, in your view, what are the biggest achievements of biology since the beginning of the millennium?
Dawkins: In biology, there has been steady progress in the molecular genetic world. The revolution initiated a half a century before by Watson and Crick is being built upon with astonishing speed, including the development of instrumentation to enable us to read the genes of any living creature. So from the year 2000, when the Human Genome Project was approximately completed, having taken ten years and huge numbers of dollars and man hours, what was done then can now be done in a couple of days very cheaply. We are well on the way to a time when doctors can simply take anybody’s genome and tailor their prescription to the individual, rather than giving a generic prescription that applies to everybody. In the future, it will be possible to say, your genome is so and so – what you need is so and so.
As a zoologist, taxonomy – the study of classification, what animals are related to – is revolutionised by the ability to read the genome. You can take any two animals or plants and read every single letter of their genome, and literally compare it as a scholar might compare two manuscripts of the Book of Isaiah and say, there is a letter here, a word there that is different. You can imagine how powerful that is in comparing, say, a hedgehog to a frog, and seeing how closely related they are. That is uncovering surprises which will go on uncovering surprises.