Richard Dawkins: The NS Interview
by Mary Riddell
taboo against cannibalism is the strongest we havebut even that needs to
be looked at"
When Dolly the sheep was cloned, Richard Dawkins said that he
wouldn't mind a copy of himself. A few weeks ago he announced that he would also
be happy to clone his daughter. At this point, the vision of a proliferation of
Identikit Dawkinses became too much for the commentator, Paul Johnson. The
author of The Selfish Gene was, he adjudicated in the Daily Mail,
"the most dangerous man in Britain".
Dawkins does not design to expend much of his legendary and
withering scorn on Johnson. "Truly ridiculous," he sighs. "To be called dangerous
by him can only be an honor. I'd been asked about my daughter by another
journalist. To have answered the question by saying I wouldn't clone her would
have been tantamount to saying I didn't love her. I was happy to say that I love
my daughter enough to wish there were two of her. But you can demonise that kind
of thing. It triggers the famous 'Yuk' reaction. 'Here's this mad scientist
trying to clone his child.'"
One of the chief prophets of neo-Darwinism, Dawkins, at 57, is
slight, youthful-looking and, needless to say, neither mad nor bad. He is,
however, oddly scarythe result, I would guess, of some social awkwardness,
an overload of self-certainty and a war-weariness accrued from years of battling
against dissenters on his own side and diehard American creationists on the
Almost a quarter of a century has passed since he published
The Selfish Gene, his first exposition of his argument that we exist only
to help replicate a string of DNA molecules. His latest book, Unweaving the
Rainbow, taking as its starting point Newton' s artificial rainbow and
Keats's Luddite response, argues that poetry and beauty are enhanced, rather than
diminished, by scientific truth. He is now starting work on his most ambitious
opus: an inverted history of life.
"I intend to begin with ourselves and look backa
direction that has a logical end point. It is chauvinistic to treat humans as
though they were the end point of evolution. They are only one of millions of end
productsone tiny twig."
Dawkins, dedicated to demystifying the abstruse, is professor
for the public understanding of science, an Oxford chair endowed by Charles
Simonyi, one of Bill Gates's Microsoft millionaires. But for all his populist
credentials, he remains by instinct dauntingly serious. Ask him what he does for
amusement, and he says that he enjoys having books read aloud to him by Lalla
Ward, his third wife and a former Dr Who assistant. On their last holiday, she
worked through Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennetta
neo-Darwinian masterpiece opaque even by Dawkins' elastic standards. Did they
read it on the beach? "Only in the shade," he says severely. "The sun is bad for
The Dawkins take on good and bad is not always so inarguable.
He suggests, for example, that there is little distinction between the
environmental and the genetic manipulation of children. So there is no moral case
against creating a designer baby with blue eyes or enhanced intelligence? "At the
very least, people ought to think twice before throwing up their hands in horror
at manipulating genes to, say, make a child good at music while approving sending
a child to a school that is especially good at music. These are the same kinds of
Both, however, are the province of the rich. "Oh, sure. The
genetic equivalent of sending your child to Eton is going to be expensive, too.
There is no obvious distinction between spending your money on one kind of child
manipulation and the other."
But patently there is a difference between haphazard attempts
at purchasing privilege and straightforward eugenics. "Ha," says Dawkins
triumphantly. "You will immediately see the oddness [he means lunacy] in what you
have just said. You are saying that one works and the other doesn't. It's odd to
take refuge in lack of efficiency as a defense."
I refrain from saying I have reservations about buying either
sort of privilege. I do not much want to pick a fight with Dawkins, who is a
formidable foe; evangelistic, his enemies would say, to the point of arrogance.
Creationists charge him with playing God, but Darwinism itself is also driven by
struggles for supremacy.
The battleground between the Dawkins camp and an opposite
faction, including the American palaeontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard
Lewontin, concerns two issues: whether evolution was gradual (the Dawkins view)
or a stop-start process (the Gould pitch); and the pre-eminence of the gene as the unit of natural selection
(Dawkins) as opposed to the organism
Most untypically, Dawkins now says he wants a truce. He has
been, he says, complicit in accelerating academic feuds, and he is sorry. "I
rather regret it. I am not entirely guiltless. I care passionately about the
truth and I regret it if that has ever led me into impoliteness towards
colleagues. Sometimes personal enmities escalate, and they shouldn't be allowed
to. I may have got into bad habits of sounding more dogmatic and certain than
perhaps I ought
Saying what you think can be mistaken for arrogance. I am
just trying to be clear."
And is lack of clarity the problem with Gould and Lewontin?
"I wouldn't single that out as the fundamental flaw of those two individuals.
There are others it would be fair to say that of, but I will go quiet on
The diplomacy is short-lived. Could he mean Steven Rose,
professor of biology at the Open University and a long-time adversary, I ask a
little later? "Ha. Yes," cries Dawkins, abandoning his mea culpa. "He's been a
problem for years."
I wonder if he has any doubts. "There's genuine uncertainty
about why sexual reproduction ever evolved, or consciousness, or how embryonic
This gets us no further on wrestling over why sexual
reproduction exists, but it does make Richard Dawkins giggle naughtily at his own
frivolityevidence of a new wish, in the neo-Darwinian jargon, to play the
dove as well as the hawk. Hawkishness, on balance, is probably his stronger
[ Mary Riddell, "Richard Dawkins: The NS Interview" New
Statesman, March 26, 1999. ]
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