The Freethinker interviews Richard Dawkins

July 16, 2022 • 1:00 pm

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.

h/t: Daniel

20 thoughts on “The Freethinker interviews Richard Dawkins

  1. I have read The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, and the Blind Watchmaker. All three are brilliant. Richard Dawkins may very well be the best thinker on evolution since Darwin.

  2. ‘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.)’

    Am reminded of Peter Hitchens being interviewed by Eric Metaxas (with whom Christoper Hitchens had a confrontation). In the beginning of the interview Metaxas poses a statement to Hitchens apparently calculated to provoke a response from Hitchens. Hitchens does not respond. Metaxas makes a rather big deal of Hitchens not responding. Hitchens replies to the effect that he is glad to answer any question Metaxas cares to pose to him.

  3. Agreed all ’round – that was an excellent, concise summary.

    The Selfish Gene – the book – is so refreshing, so illuminating of depth I was ignorant of – I could go on, but I have a feeling that is the writing Dawkins is getting back to – what makes science so enthralling – finding the extraordinary hiding in ordinary observations, like the nest and the skull he is holding.

  4. Reading Dawkins’ description of his future work, “The Genetic Book of the Dead”, I imagined it would come at things from the phenotypical direction. It might start with some physical characteristic of a species that seems useless now and surmise how it might have arisen via natural selection. Similarly, he might deal with the trajectory of eye development. I think these are some of the areas that non-biologists struggle to understand and lead them to posit a designer.

    1. I too was sent down a bit of a rabbit hole thinking about the planned book. Humans have disabled genes for yolk proteins from our reptilian egg-laying ancestors — that would be a prime example of there being a “genetic book of the dead”.

      1. Yes, that’s another good example of the kind of stuff that I was thinking. Actually, Dawkins wrote about this stuff in 2017 in response to an Edge question: WHAT SCIENTIFIC TERM OR CONCEPT OUGHT TO BE MORE WIDELY KNOWN? Assuming Dawkins hasn’t gone in a different direction in the intervening 5 years, it looks like we are on the right track.

  5. Great interview by RD. I have just finished reading his latest anthology, ‘Books Do Furnish a Life’, which is well worth adding to your shelf-ful of his works.

    The Freethinker lives up to its name: it is a secular, humanist, atheist publication, one of the earliest in the world, founded by the great GW Foote ( in 1881. As a result of his writings in The Freethinker, Foote was convicted of blasphemy and sent to prison: at his trial, presided over by a fervent Catholic judge, he responded to his sentence with the words: “My Lord, I thank you; it is worthy of your creed”.

  6. Good on ol’ RD – he has a lot of energy even at 80 and still sounds great in interviews. I look forward to his latest.

  7. An off-the-cuff interview as intelligent as RD’s books, with his replies in well
    turned complete sentences and short paragraphs. And some neat ideas,
    like this one: “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.” Another example that comes to mind: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion as a meme-plex, or better, a buzzword-plex.

    1. I never liked the term “memeplex.” Seems better to think of memetic ‘ecosystems,’ where memes compete and cooperate.

  8. Despite the various caveats and critiques about memes, I do still like the idea as a way for the average person to relate to evolution.

  9. “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.”

    Thank you, Professor. Your words bring me close to tears. Dawkins was one of my intellectual guides on the way out of Mormonism. I well remember reading the Watchmaker chapter “Making tracks through animal space”, getting chills and feeling as though (as Richard described) I was hearing the first chords of 2001, Space Odyssey. Then just few years ago I made it through Extended Phenotype, and felt such an emotional reaction to the explanatory power of the insights there that I found myself literally gasping for breath.

    I feel pity for those who think science is boring, or just “another way of knowing”. I found it to be a full emotional replacement for religion; indeed I felt, as the apostle Paul said, that with science I was finally “putting away childish things”.

  10. “Natural selection is the differential survival of genes in gene pools.”

    Layman’s inquiry: It’s usually said that the genes that are selected to survive in gene pools will tend to predominate in a given species, and that the genes that are thus selected provide a survival or reproductive advantage to their hosts.

    But it seems to me that this doesn’t capture the whole picture, and that perhaps a more comprehensive description would be that natural selection is about the selection of genes for any given niche, and that though varying Darwinian fitness is typically the main factor, it need not be.

    Take artificial selection (animal breeding), for example: The environment (humans) gives rise to selection pressures that result in a few animals whose genes differ from those of all the rest—at least initially, and possibly permanently if the wild conspecifics continue to outnumber the domesticated variety. And if a desired-for trait is pursued further and further, the selected alleles (those enhancing the trait in question) will be in the minority in the gene pool for as long as the pursuit continues. I understand that artificial selection is called artificial for a reason, but it can still be seen as a particular type of natural selection (humans are part of nature, after all).

    Another example: assortative mating in humans. It can bring about the selection of traits that have nothing to do with Darwinian fitness, and result in a small niche—where the most sought-after traits are to be found—that would sit atop a traits hierarchy. One such trait may be extraordinary intelligence—extraordinary intelligence that will not result in more offspring. I’m mostly thinking of assortative mating at elite universities or among professional colleagues. I understand that this is about sexual selection (which could be seen as a subcategory of natural selection) and the idea of runaway selection, but the point is that, at least in humans, we see that certain traits can be selected that will never predominate in the entire species.

    Finally, imagine that there’s a population of families of circus acrobats from which a given number of the best are selected from each generation to continue in the profession. Let’s suppose that in each generation the best usually choose to marry among themselves. Each generation will tend to have better and better acrobats to choose from, until after many generations we’ll have a niche of extraordinarily innately talented acrobats whose genes aren’t prevalent in the general population. This selection would also be largely independent of Darwinian fitness, as it wouldn’t be at all required that the genes being selected for (those that make for a great acrobat) provide any survival or reproductive advantage (they’d just need to be non-deleterious, or not too deleterious).

    Any thoughts?

    1. Layman’s cautious response: Seems to me that the idea of fitness landscapes does a good job of explaining what you’re getting at.
      On the matter of intelligence, it might help to distinguish between societal or social success and Darwinian fitness. In fact, intelligence may even be negatively correlated with number of offspring produced, at least in the context of our modern Western societies. Similarly, wealth accumulation, a key marker of social success, may also be negatively correlated with reproductive fitness.
      Hopefully you’ll get some responses from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, too. 🙂

    2. Let’s suppose that in each generation the best usually choose to marry among themselves.

      You’re effectively describing a process of speciation by reproductive isolation.

      This selection would also be largely independent of Darwinian fitness, as it wouldn’t be at all required that the genes being selected for (those that make for a great acrobat) provide any survival or reproductive advantage …

      As you’ve described it, in that acrobat gene pool, genes for being a good acrobat do indeed give reproductive advantage.

  11. “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.”

    I wonder if a document being scraped off and reused is the best analogy for information about past environments that may be accessed through the study of DNA. Per my understanding of the engineering sense of the word, the information content of a signal is relative to the Bayesian change of the probability of some hypothesis given that signal. I have no idea whether information about past environments would be enhanced or lost over millions of generations, or how it would even be studied. I too am looking forward to the book.

  12. Good interview. I don‘t think it is boorish to bring up controversial issues, as they present an opportunity to clarify, double down, clear up misunderstandings or admitting error.

    The transgender debate is confusing, in part, because different activists pursue different ideas and aims. For instance the Q and the first letters in the rainbow LGT seem at odds with one another. Homosexuals made it a central point that sexual preference draws them to the same sex, and that “conversion therapy” is as futile as it is morally questionable. However, queer activists prefer to emphasise continuity, and long made it a mission to “subvert” sex and gender classifications. At least some trans activist also wish sexual preference was “inclusive”. When you agree that “transwoman are women”, fullstop, and it is not a semantic issue as Richard says correctly, you’d naturally ask what sexual preference even means. It can’t be informed by how someone identifies as, but that is precidely used as the gold standard by trans activists.

    I think Richard is wrong about intersex, though the confusion is understandable. As far as I’ve read, the expert consensus is that intersex individuals are best understood and classified medically by their karyotype, and we’re back at a binary here, too. They are formally “disorders of sex development” and that implies once more the existence of normal development pathways that are either female or male (sidenote: terms like “biological” add to the confusion, it’s just “male” and “female” for the sex development, and it’s not about essences or souls, but which developmental pathway the individual took). As pathways go, there appears to be a fork in the road, but from then can go more or less “normal”. This, and and “(dis) orderly” is not a moral judgment, but refers to statistical distrubution.

    But of course, people aren‘t their disorders. Intersex is a way to say that someone may be male, but appears as if female due to, say, Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS). What should have primacy: the karyotype XY, and the male developmental pathway that cannot develop normally due to an unresponsiveness of cells to androgen hormones; or the age-old folk taxonomy we use every day, informed by voice pitch, physique, features etc, that tells us this is a woman before us? “It depends” is as close as it gets. It’s semantics is a decent answer.

    Further, there appears to be no spectrum at all. I have never seen a rigorous paper that would establish one, and I am sure everybody would have seen it twice every day on twitter if it existed. The spectrum and the lovely rainbow iconography are “physics envy” when it tries to construe a “scientific theory” to club people over the head with authority. Since the woke gotcha! is a game played in the Blue Bubble, it’s understandable that the governing rhetorical authority would be science, not religion.

    But that’s a very bad idea. If you only accept people because an authority tells you so, whether it’s science or religion, you can’t count as a good person. If scientist found out tomorrow that there is no innate sex preference, you’d not lobby for the criminalisation of same-sex relationships, I hope. Refering to biolgy is a crutch, and a counter-rhetoric to those who say it’s “unnatural” only.

    1. Re: “The transgender debate is confusing, in part, because different activists pursue different ideas and aims.”
      Reminds me of Dave Chappelle’s great piece on what happens when an L, a G, a B and a T take a ride together in a car. It gets dicey!

  13. Dear Jerry,

    Thanks for reposting. I’m the editor of the Freethinker, and did the above interview with Dawkins. Interesting to read people’s comments here. We are a magazine of freethought, open enquiry and irreverence, within Britain’s secularist tradition (as noted by Steve Pollard above).

    You can see my partial response here:

    To reiterate: it was a pleasure and a privilege to meet Dawkins. If your view is that what is most interesting about him are his scientific ideas, that sounds very plausible.

    But if public intellectuals become involved in political discussions, on Twitter or otherwise, then surely we journalists should be entitled to ask them to explain their views?

    Incidentally, I never used the word ‘transphobia’. And I would suggest that the real ‘boors’ in the abovementioned case were the American Humanist Association, for stripping Dawkins of an honour on spurious grounds.

    As to whether politics ever made anyone a better scientist – well, that is another question.

    Emma Park

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