My conversation with Richard Dawkins

October 30, 2023 • 9:45 am

About ten days ago I had an hourlong conversation with Richard Dawkins for his Substack site, “The Poetry of Reality“.  The video, from YouTube, is embedded below. As Richard says in his written introduction:

We covered a myriad of controversial topics plaguing our world today: from the religious conflict in Gaza to modern-day struggles with freedom of speech, from the prospect of revolt against oppression to considering the demands of the Maori people, and also on affirmative action and the debate about race.

In other words, it wasn’t about evolution—the usual topic of our discussions.

As always, I can’t bear watching myself on video, but I’m sure I’d stand with what I said, for I do remember a bit.

But I do note that Malgorzata watched the whole thing and sent me two corrections.  First, I mixed up Abba Eban with Ehud Barak. It was Eban and not Barak who made the comment about “Palestinians never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Also, I’m told that the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) are not completely free from service to Israel.  Malgorzata notes that there are “thousands of Haredi men queuing in front of military posts, asking to be let into the army. Others worked 24/7 collecting bodies (and body parts) after the massacre, cleaning, working in hospitals, and helping Jewish refugees from both the north and south and north borders.” I knew about the Haredis cleaning up after terrorist attacks (they’re willing to take on very gory jobs), but was unaware of their help after October 7.

With those corrections in mind, here’s the video. Feel free to comment below, but I don’t think I’m going to watch this.

14 thoughts on “My conversation with Richard Dawkins

  1. Also, I’m told that the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) are not completely free from service to Israel.

    …thousands of Haredi men queuing in front of military posts, asking to be let into the army…

    It is understandable than many ask to be let into the army and that many already serve in some capacity. But are they required to do military service? Can they legally avoid it if they want?

    1. They are not required to do military service. I think that’s a mistake, making a class of religious people exempt from something every other citizen does, and I probably mentioned it in the video. They also get subsidies so they can study the Torah instead of working–or so I’m told.

  2. An interesting discussion – thanks!

    The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) appears to have adopted a version of the Kalven Report (although it doesn’t acknowledge it). According to the LSE’s Code of Practice on Free Speech:

    The school, as an institution, does not take a formal position on political or international disputes. Instead, it endeavours to provide a platform to facilitate discourse on contemporary issues by encouraging critical debate, within the law, where the views of all parties are treated with respect.

    However, I can’t see any explicit prohibition on individual departments or other administrative units taking positions and making statements. I know that as recently as 2021 the LSE’s Department of Gender Studies published a somewhat hysterical response to the launch of the Open University’s Gender Critical Research Network (GCRN). It was taken down shortly afterwards, but I believe that the decision to do so was only made by the LSE’s senior management after individuals involved in launching the GCRN threatened legal action because it was defamatory. I don’t recall LSE referencing the Code of Free Speech at the time, although as far as I can tell it was in place then.

  3. Good interview! You covered many of the topics discussed on this site beautifully. Dawkins was an excellent interviewer. He did his homework—so knew your areas of current interest—and asked questions that let you expound at length. It was good to hear you talk about Dick Lewontin at the end. I learned a lot of biostatistics from him, not to mention population genetics.

    Nice shirt, too!

  4. An interesting point on the proportion of Jewish Nobel Prize winners. I too think it’s cultural, and there’s an interesting parallel example from history, albeit showing the effect in the opposite direction. I’ve often wondered what became of all the amazing Greek thinkers, from Pythagoras to Ptolemy, who made such amazing advances in mathematics, astronomy, and practical engineering. After Ptolemy and Galen, that tradition completely dies away, leading to the long European slumber of scientific knowledge that didn’t really end for more than a thousand years.

    When I worked (as commissioning editor) on the Encyclopedia of Greece and the Hellenic Tradition, the answer suddenly became clear: after the adoption of Christianity by Constantine, the founding of Constantinople as the new capital of the Roman Empire but in a Greek-speaking region, and the founding of Christian monasticism, all of the brilliant minds who, in previous centuries, would have become the successors to Eratosthenes and Hipparchos, became monks instead — monastic institutions by then offering the only forum in which an advanced education was available, having shut down all competing secular institutions — and all their intellectual energy was expended on endlessly fruitless (because impossible to resolve) speculation about the relationship between the members of the trinity and other pointless, and in a real sense meaningless, theological questions. Only when institutions arose a millennium later (the medieval universities) that allowed some space for serious thinking about something other than religion did it become possible for Europe to begin rebuilding its intellectual base.

  5. Thanks for this Jerry, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I especially liked the section at the end where you discussed the genetics of race. The fact that great scientists like Richard Lewontin can allow politics to derail their objectivity is a lesson for us all.

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