Dawkins talks to the BBC about his new book

September 14, 2011 • 9:24 am

In this 8.5-minute clip from last night’s BBC2 Newsnight, interviewer Jeremy Paxman describes Dawkins’s new book, The Magic of Reality, and discusses it with Richard.  The author is in fine form here, waxing lyrical about evolution and the virtues of reason. Note that Paxman himself doesn’t give a lot of credit to religion: near the end (8:06), when they’re discussing the 40% of Americans who are Biblical literalists on evolution, Paxman asks, “Do you really care that there are a lot of stupid people around?”  (Can you imagine an American interviewer asking that question?)  Dawkins gives a great answer.

57 thoughts on “Dawkins talks to the BBC about his new book

  1. I watched it last night. Well done, Prof Dawkins!

    I like his point when asked about the conflicting world views of religion and science: “Well, one of them is true.”

    and later: “I think the truth has some value.”

  2. Paxman’s increasingly wearisome shtick is to repeatedly bray stupid questions at his interviewees until they get angry, then accuse them of being angry. He tries it at the beginning of this interview.

    Richard does a brilliant job of disarming Paxman and has him eating out of his hand by the end. Fun.

      1. I admire tenacity, but Paxman often doesn’t seem to know when to let it go. When an interviewer is literally unable to answer a question because Paxman just keeps shouting and shouting and shouting the question over the putative answers, there has to be a rabbit away. It’s boring and unskilled and that’s how I tend to view many of Paxman’s interviews.

          1. I think that’s the point: the version of Paxman we get now is “another Paxman” compared with that “vintage Paxman”. The interview in that clip was practically 15 years ago. The problem with Paxman now is that he sometimes comes across as though he’s trying to do a parody of that interview – constantly repeating his questions, regardless of whether the interviewee has answered them.

    1. You may not be one who sees much American TV – this guy is a gentleman, a rational devil’s advocate compared to the actual devils we have, especially the ones on Murdoch’s networks … !

  3. Earlier this year Paxman did a very reverential & friendly interview special with Hitchens, with whom I think he must be on good terms. Paxman is brilliantly savage when on form & does not suffer fools gladly.

  4. Lovely interview, and I am really looking forward to this book. And I must say, that I have experienced six-year olds (okay: A six year old (That would be my son)) who understand the concept of evolution quite well. Not, of course, the time-span of billions of years, but the fact that things evolve, that some of the fossils we find on the beach are animals that still exist, and some are extinct, that the life he sees around him was not always like it is now. I’d love to read a book by prof. Dawkins for even younger kids.
    (Warning, slight brag ahead: My son is now in third grade and had his first Religion-lesson in school. When I asked him what he thought of this new subject he answered “weeellll. I don’t know. None of it is scientifically proven, so I don’t really know what to think.”)

      1. 🙂
        (Having a science-wannabe-geek-who-talks-too-much as a mother does have disadvantages. Quote: “Mum, would it be OK if I said I wanted some silence now. I need to be alone with my own thoughts”
        errmmm … well ok. Point taken.)

  5. Jolly good!

    Nitpick on what I heard of Dawkins’ book, speaking of facts: Our inflationary universe didn’t “explode into existence”.

    – How our observable universe came to be is still an open question. The most natural continuation of inflation, which nowadays embeds or replaces the old big bang cosmology (take your pick), is … inflation. Eternal inflation is the robust ground state of inflation.

    – No big bang/inflationary universe goes on to “explode” into a preexisting spacetime either, but expands as spacetime expands. Speaking of “explosion” around cosmology gives the wrong impression, and is discouraged by many physicists.

    Maybe Dawkins interviewed the wrong ones when he did his research for the book.

    1. explosion is semantically equivalent to a big bang. and so far we’re still calling it the big bang. so nitpick that. inflation is what happened after the big bang.

    2. Didn’t the very earliest inflation happen very rapidly? (I.e., given common, colloquial definitions/conceptions of “explosion,” might one not be appropriate here?)

      1. I looked up some figures & what we regard as an explosion is unimaginably slow compared to inflation…

        ** Light takes 3 x 10^-9 sec to travel 10cm
        ** Inflation expanded spacetime from a size much smaller than a proton to 10cm in only 15 x 10^-33 sec

        So you could say that, on average, spacetime expanded 500,000,000,000,000 times faster than light in the initial 15 x 10^-33 sec
        However that’s only an average expansion speed for that time interval & I expect it was much faster nearer time zero ~ whatever that means

        I am not a physicist so I’m speculating in all of the above & I await correction 🙂

          1. Yes. The term ‘inflation’ is absurdly inadequate

            All verbal descriptions of any aspect of modern science suffer the same problem ~ taking as an e.g. I’ve tried picturing all the minuscule lives&deaths required to build the chalk downs near me that reveal themselves as the White Cliffs & the White Horse
            [If that seems like a ‘downer’ ~ it isn’t for me at all ~ just overwhelming]

        1. Pot-kettle syndrom there! (If you’re from the US , Diane.)

          As Dominic points out, there is a live audience in that show (Have I Got News for You).

          When the BBC broadcast M*A*S*H, we got it without the laugh track. It’s really odd watching it on satellite channels where it still has the original laugh track – and no funnier.


          1. I suppose you’re right. I watch very little TV. I just overhear the British sit-coms my husband/daughter like. Despite the live audience, the laughter on that posted vid sounded quintessentially spliced in (whatever the digi-audio equivalent is) to me.

  6. There was a debate I atttended in the UK in 2009 with Dawkins and A C Grayling opposing the motion “Is atheism the new fundamentalism?” (the motion was soundly defeated). Paxo was in the audience then, and he’s nothing if not skeptical about everything (he interviews politicians, for dog’s sake), so I think he wasn’t really trying that hard to stick up for religion. Notice he never argued that it might be true, only that it may be comforting: I think that’s as far as any intelligent, educated man can go when playing devil’s advocate.

    1. I wish that Dawkins would reply to the “comfort” issue in this way, that it’s like being lost in the forest. If you are armed with the truth, which is to say, you recognize/know the names of trees, bushes, mushrooms, animals, fruits, geology, etc., then you are, or at least I, am far less worried, and feel far more comfortable with the situation and could then remedy the situation reasonably well. If all I had were the myths of stone-age pre-science culture, I would shake with fear of make-believe beasts and witches and who knows what, and be dead by morning.

  7. Like sex, you don’t teach evolution to children all at once, but drip-feed it, from basic to detailed, from easy to difficult.

    The first thing in evolution is not “187 million generations” but how related life-forms are (in general) like each other, and decreasingly related are less and less like each other.

    So I would start with familiar things that are obviously similar – cats and lions and tigers, dogs and wolves and foxes (and later, cats and hyenas and dogs), lemons and oranges and grapefruit, plums and pleaches and apricots, apples and pears. The kids themselves and their siblings and their cousins and other human beings. If they can get that big pattern clearly, the details of how they came to differentiate can come much later. How Darwin discovered it, from artificial selection (dogs especially) to natural selection is a good way.

    Another value of the true story that RD doesn’t mention is that the truth means all life on earth is kin. I find it inspring to look at a beautiful animal or plant and know that I am its cousin. (You and I are cousins of the ugly, nasty ones too of course, but every family has skeletons in its closet.)

  8. If anything I’m surprised that Dawkins is so apologetic about the difficulty of teaching the concepts of evolution to very young kids. It’s actually not hard!!! The idea that one type of animal slowly changes into another over a very long time, again and again and again – and even the idea that the creatures that happen to have useful bits have lots of babies with the same useful bits, while the ones who don’t have useful bits, don’t – is something that my kids grasped when they were four. It comes up fairly naturally as a followup to the question about what happened to the dinosaurs and all the other extinct fossilised animals.

    All the details – timescale, genetics, specifics – can come later. But the basic concepts aren’t hard. They’re only hard if the kids are trying to square them with myths that have been presented as true. In other words the difficulty with teaching evolution to young kids is purely a cultural one.

    1. But the basic concepts aren’t hard.

      This is why I’m always puzzled whenever the basic fact of evolution is somehow cast into doubt. For example, we all take concepts like heritability for granted. “You take after your father”, or “She looks like her mother” are things we hear our entire lives. Heritable change, likewise, is another perfectly intuitive concept. Think of all the farm kids out there participating in fairs with their prize goats or pigs. You wouldn’t have to spend 5 seconds explaining the concept to them.

      Throw in genes and genetics, now a permanent part of everyday discourse, and natural selection, which most people intuitively grasp. I actually think that every basic concept of evolution is already understood by the average child, even if they’re not yet aware of it.

        1. Well, maybe. But evidently not more than 60%.

          No, I think the components of evolution, including natural selection (“survival of the fittest”) are easily grasped and (consciously or unconsciously) accepted by a majority of people. It’s only when you put it all together and call it “evolution” that lots of people reject it.

          And in saying that, I guess I shouldn’t be so puzzled why many people reject it. It’s religion, of course.

          1. I take your point regarding my glib response.

            But I still doubt that most people intuitively grasp natural selection correctly, even when they accept evolution and the theory of evolution. Most people seem to intuit that evolution is teleological or intentional, an intuition which is reinforced by the language that is use in popular media; e.g., “spinosaurus’s conical teeth evolved to grip prey rather than tear flesh” (from last night’s so-so Planet Dinosaur).


          2. I’ve tried to teach evolution to creationists. Even when I simplify things to a 4-year-old level, they still don’t get it.

    2. Agreed. In many respects the basic of idea of evolution is quite intuitive; so much so that the word itself has been borrowed and applied to many other situations and disciplines. Sure, the details go on and on and as Ant says many get them wrong, but at first glance it’s one of those “makes sense” concepts that most children can easily grasp. IME.

  9. I am sure the basic concepts of evolution and natural selection can be taught to any child over about 5 years, 4 billion years just becomes ‘a very very long time’.

    I think RD allowed one through we he agreed that religion keeps society together. It partly caused the most horrendous civil war in England and endless wars in Europe, to say nothing of what it’s doing today. Religion is used more often to divide than unite, and when used for unity that unity is used to wage war against others.

    But altogether a very good interview. I’ve read most of RD’s other stuff so I guess I’ll get this one too. The idea that kangaroos don’t have knees is interesting!

  10. Starting at 1:00, a female voice brings up the apparently foolish contention that light was created on the first day but the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day. I think if you consider the people who wrote the creation tale and look at this from the “what were they thinking” angle, it does make some sense – not that it’s true, of course, but that it could have seemed reasonable to them in light of their limited knowledge.

    If you glance out of a window during the day you might see a bright blue sky and plenty of light, but the chances are pretty good that you won’t see the sun because you’re not looking in the right direction. Light appears to come from everywhere in the sky, and it’s really not hard to imagine a blue sky and plenty of daylight without the sun. The effect is even more pronounced on an overcast day when you can’t even tell where the sun is.

    If you set aside your modern scientific knowledge that all daylight comes from the sun, it’s not hard to believe that the sun only contributes to daylight. As Genesis 1:16 says, it’s there “to rule the day”, not to cause the day. This, I believe, is what the writers of the Genesis creation tale may have been thinking.

    On the other hand, I also believe the entire tale of six days of creation and one day of rest was originally just a fairy tale meant to teach Jewish children why it’s so important for them for observe the Sabbath. I think it’s very possible that the author never meant it to be taken seriously by adults.

    1. I don’t know about that. What about sunrise and sunset? What about the many other cultures that realized the sun was the source of light? Are you saying that the early christians were stupid compared to most other peoples?

      1. I don’t know how you got to ‘stupid’ from the place where my post left off

        There were a few theories of light knocking about at the time ~ most of them do not resemble earlier versions of our theory. It was unremarkable to believe that some (or all) light originated from the eye & that a medium, such as air, was required to transmit ‘seeing’. See Ancient Visions

        Even today the eye is not popularly thought of as a passive organ ~ for example people claim that they know when they’re being watched. The ‘evil eye’ is another example of folklore thinking. There is a passage in the bible about the eye being the lamp of the body. In the previous post is a link to Winer et al. (2002) ~ they claim to have have found recent evidence that as many as 50% of American college students believe in emission theory.

  11. Although I am not generally a fan of Dawkins for sometimes using his Scientific celebrity to claim God doesn’t exist [because that question lies outside the realm of science], he is a staunch proponent of evolution and science and does a fantastic job of championing science here. I only hope that people are open minded enough to give it a chance, and frankly, be rational. I do have to say that the interviewer referring to people as stupid is not really the best way to get them to consider the book. After all, the goal is to get those people to read the book and not only those that already appreciate science read it. Well done Dawkins.


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