February 20, 2003

Richard Dawkins: You Ask The Questions

by Mark Sappenfield

The evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins was born in Nairobi in 1941. A graduate of Oxford University, he has been a fellow of New College, Oxford, since 1970; he became the first Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the university in 1995. His first book, The Selfish Gene, a radical updating of Darwinian theory, was an immediate bestseller in 1976. He is a confirmed atheist. He lives in Oxford with his third wife, the actress Lalla Ward, and has a daughter, Juliet, from a previous marriage.

In the name of rationality, would you like to see Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy stamped out?
Patricia Kell, London

No. Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy are part of the charm of childhood. So is God. Some of us grow out of all three.

Did you have a Pauline conversion to atheism? Or did your beliefs evolve more slowly over time? What changed your mind?
Adam Elford, Northampton

I had a normal, decent Anglican upbringing, which is to say that I was never brainwashed as I might have been had I been brought up in another faith.

I toyed with atheism from the age of about nine, originally because I worked out that, of all the hundreds of religions in the world, it was the sheerest accident that I was brought up Christian. They couldn't all be right, so maybe none of them was. I later reverted to a kind of pantheism when I realised the shattering complexity and beauty of the living world. Then, around the age of 16, I first understood that Darwinism provides an explanation big enough and elegant enough to replace gods. I have been an atheist ever since.

Do you think anyone who claims to have seen a poltergeist has witnessed something objectively real? Would you spend the night in a haunted house?
Mike Dell, Blakeney

The philosopher David Hume's put-down of miracles can be adapted to poltergeists. If someone claims to have witnessed a poltergeist, it may seem improbable that he is a liar, a hoaxer or deluded. But still it is more probable than the claim itself. I like to think that I would spend the night in a haunted house. But I am a human being as well as a rationalist, and it is possible that primitive fears would overtake me.

By analogy, reason convinces me that pain is only a brain mechanism warning me not to damage myself, so I should just ignore it. But I always want an anaesthetic when the dentist drills.

What is beyond scientific explanation?
Emma Hutchins, Surbiton

There are things that science wasn't meant to explain and doesn't try to, such as what is right or wrong. There are things that science can't yet explain but is working on. And there may be things that science would like to explain but never can. It is a simple (but distressingly common) fallacy to presume that if something is beyond science, it is not beyond religion, too.

Do you have a particular affinity with chimpanzees?
Sheila Anderson, by e-mail

No more than you do. You and I are exactly equally close cousins of chimps, which means very close indeed.

Is a scientist who believes in God a true scientist?
Bruce Kitts, Cardiff

Some of the greatest scientists who have ever lived ­ including Newton, who may have been the greatest of all ­ believed in God. But it was hard to be an atheist before Darwin: the illusion of living design is so overwhelming. My guess is that if Newton were born today, he would be an atheist.

A recent poll of scientists elected to the American National Academy of Sciences (equivalent to fellows of the Royal Society) revealed that 93 per cent are atheists. That figure drops to 60 per cent if you include scientists not elected to the National Academy. It would be absurdly arrogant for me to claim that the 7 per cent of academicians who believe in God are not true scientists.

One day, will it be possible to predict a child's future at birth by testing its genes, foretelling what diseases it will suffer from, what crimes it will commit and how long it will live? If so, do you welcome this?
Kelly Stimpson, by e-mail

This prophecy is often made, but it is exaggerated. If the effects of genes were all that deterministic, identical twins would die simultaneously and commit the same crimes even if apart. The increased predictability we'll gain from reading genomes cheaply will, for many genes, be only statistical. But even the improved statistical prediction will have a big impact on the life-insurance industry. And there are some terrible diseases whose heritability score is one, meaning that if an identical twin dies of the disease, his twin is bound to die of it, too. When it becomes feasible to screen for such nasty genes in the DNA of embryos, the moral case for selective abortion will become overwhelming.

Sufferers from such inherited diseases sometimes object, on the grounds that selective abortion would have deprived them of existence. All of us have to thank a ludicrously improbable chain of past events for our existence. If a different sperm in your father's ejaculate had won the race to the egg... did your parents or grandparents meet each other as a direct consequence of the Second World War...? Many people could answer yes. Do you, then, see this as grounds for objecting to the suggestion that wars should be abolished? Of course not: the idea is absurd.

Was your friend Douglas Adams right: is the answer to life, the universe and everything 42? If not, what is? And what was Adams right about?
Paula Guthrie, London

The scientific understanding of the universe is so strange and unexpected to the human mind that laughter may be the only way to cope. I think that is one basis of Douglas Adams's unique humour. Other science-fiction writers give us goose pimples over the mystery in the universe. Douglas Adams's response to the same kind of mystery was to make us laugh. It is as though the universe, as portrayed by science, were one big Monty Python sketch.

Doesn't the fact that so many societies throughout history have invented some sort of god or gods suggest that humans really have a need to believe in gods ­ that in some way our brains have a god-shaped hole, which we try to fill as conveniently as possible?
Charles Harry, Reading

You could be right, but the evidence is not strong. Plenty of us lead happy and fulfilled lives without plugging that hole. Or maybe the hole is not god-shaped but understanding-shaped. We have a need to understand where we came from; understand our place in the universe. If that's the real shape of the hole in our brains, science will plug it more satisfyingly than religion. Finally, if it turned out to be true that we have a psychological need for gods, that emphatically wouldn't prove that gods exist.

If, when you die, you find yourself unexpectedly at the Pearly Gates, what would you say to St Peter?
Mark Richards, by e-mail

OK, I was wrong. But I was wrong for the right reasons. Those guys in there were right. But just look at their reasons.

'A Devil's Chaplain', a collection of Dawkins' essays, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £16.99

© 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

File Date: 02.23.03