I’m not sure about the nature of this website, The Freethinker, but it appears to be a rationalist and humanistic venue. But I haven’t investigated it in any detail as I really don’t care about its politics given that the article at hand is an interview with Richard Dawkins. Nor is the interviewer named; it’s just “Freethinker.”
Much of the interview you may already know about, as a lot of people here follow Richard, but I’ll highlight just a few intriguing questions and answers. The Q&As in the piece are indented, and click on the following to read:
The introduction includes this:
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.
You’ll recognize the painting to the right:
‘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.
Well, the job of the interviewer isn’t to call attention to Twitter scandals, but to illuminate a person. The interview does a creditable job, but concentrates too much on social media and on memes—an idea I still consider clever but unfruitful, as it hasn’t explained much. More later Here are a few parts of the interview that struck me.
First, and I love this, Dawkins explains what The Selfish Gene is about. It’s a masterpiece of concise summary:
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” asks a lot of questions about memes (it’s the subject of more questions than any other), referring to a word coined by Richard as a “unit of culture” analogous to a gene. Like genes, memes can spread or not spread via selection, in this case cultural or psychological selection. As examples of memes, Dawkins has often used catchy “earworms”: music or phrases that you can’t get out of your head. And Dawkins notes, as he has before, that religion is a particularly insidious and invidious meme, since it spreads both horizontally (via proselytizing) and vertically (through indoctrination of children). He mentions that religion is, perhaps, a highly successful meme because children are identified by their religion: we speak of a “Jewish child” or a “Hindu child” while we wouldn’t speak of a “Republican child” (poor kid!).
I don’t want to dwell on why I think memes, though a good idea, hasn’t proven especially fruitful. Richard himself—while he thinks the idea has been fruitful—mentions some of the difficulty of analogizing memes and genes. My own view and critique is best summarized in my review of Susan Blackmore’s enthusiastic book on memes, The Meme Machine; that review was in Nature in 1999 and you can read it here.
Another exchange below: “I don’t do movements?”
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.
The question below I consider confrontational, which after all is part of an interviewer’s job, but it’s naive and, indeed, trivial. It’s a “gotcha” question. (The whole interview is peppered with stuff like this.) Richard’s writing may sometimes be polemical, but I see it as “passionate”. Indeed, I give the first part of Dawkins’s response:
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. . , ,
But of course all critiques of religion are seen as polemical, just as all critiques of wokeness are seen as polemical. The best way to shut down discussion is to call a critic “polemical” or “strident”. But If you want to see real polemics, read Mencken!
On accommodationism and humanism, Dawkins gives good answers, though “logically speaking” is ambiguous pharasing by the interviewer.
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.
The interviewer asks Richard about the American Humanist Association revoking his Humanist of the Year Award (a rather boorish thing to bring up), and asks “Speaking as a scientist, what are your views about the transgender debate?” Did he expect Dawkins to come of as a transphobe, which he isn’t? You can read Richard’s answer for yourself.
Two more bits:
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.
Richard has given this answer many times, and means it. I’ve read the book, and yes, of all his books, this has the most “meat”, and is the hardest to read and the most original. But the meat is savory, and if you’re feeling ambitious, you must read it. I can understand why he is proudest of this, because I feel the same way about Speciation (written with Allen Orr). I’ve had two fairly successful trade books, but of everything I’ve written, I’m proudest of Speciation, also written for professionals. When I dip into that book from time to time, I think, “Damn! I could really think then!” I don’t think I could write it now, but I was at the right age to do so and my mental faculties hadn’t yet begun their inexorable decline.
However, if you consider everything that Richard has written, and combine literary quality with scientific explanation, I put The Blind Watchmaker at the top. Some of the prose is so lovely that it almost brings one—or at least a scientist—to tears. Those who claim, as E. O. Wilson did, that Richard is just a “journalist”, or that he’s not a scientist but a popularizer, should read The Extended Phenotype.
Finally, the discussion turns to Dawkins’s next book:
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.
Now that is also an original idea of Richard’s, and in principle a good one. But as a biologist, I would have drilled deeper into this answer (there are no followup questions). How can you be so sure that you can read environments of the ancient past from a DNA sequence? After all, that sequence is a palimpsest which has been overwritten continuously for three billion years. And don’t you have to know tons of information about developmental genetics to even start such an endeavor? We know that all very young vertebrates develop gill slits, and that’s a clue that we’re all descended from fish and that our ancestors lived in water. But how do you know which bits of the DNA produce the gill slits, allowing us to infer an aquatic ancestor? And how do you know whether the ancestor lived in fresh or salt water? We carry genes from extinct and unknown ancestors that lived in unknown environments; what way can we reconstruct those ancestors and their environments from just a DNA sequence? I’d ask for an example.
In fact, the fossil record combined with a good phylogeny can answer such questions, but I am doubtful about sequencing DNA as a way to infer the environmental forces that impinged on an organism’s ancestors. Dawkins describes DNA as a palimpsest, as it is, but when a document is overwritten millions of times, you lose a lot of the past information.
These are some of the things that I would have preferred to ask Richard about instead of his supposed “transphobia” and “polemic style.” In fact, I’d love to have this as part of a public conversation onstage, which I’ve had the honor of having with Dawkins several times. But I’ll wait until the book comes out, as I anticipate it with keen interest. And my construal of its contents above is purely speculative, as I know nothing about this upcoming book.