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The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive

Unofficial SJG Archive



Richard Dawkins: The NS Interview

by Mary Riddell


T
he taboo against cannibalism is the strongest we have—but 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 scary—the 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 other.

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 back—a 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 products—one 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 Dennett—a 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 you."

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 things."

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 (Gould).

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 that."

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 development works."

This gets us no further on wrestling over why sexual reproduction exists, but it does make Richard Dawkins giggle naughtily at his own frivolity—evidence 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 suit.


[ Mary Riddell, "Richard Dawkins: The NS Interview" New Statesman, March 26, 1999. ]


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