I am by no means the first nor will I be the last person to describe British popular science writer and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (1941 – ) as having what might be termed a ‘fierce intellect’.
Indeed, unarguably Richard Dawkins has one of the fiercest.
Back in 1992, when asked the question “What has been the most important invention of the last 2000 years?” he offered the spectroscope – the instrument by which scientists determine the chemical nature of stars and by which mankind has come to know – via the red shift of light from receding galaxies – that the universe is expanding and that it began in a ‘big bang’.
As an emeritus fellow of New College Oxford and a former University of Oxford’s Professor for Public Understanding of Science from 1995 until 2008, Dawkins is an intellectual colossal among mental giants.
I’ve read just two of his many books – THE GOD DELUSION (2006) and THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (2009). Both contained some of the most sustained, masterful chains of reasoning I have ever set eyes and mind upon.
THE GOD DELUSION (2006) has sold well over 3 million copies and been translated into 35 languages. His 2009 book systematically laid out the evidence for evolution with a title that came after someone sent him a t-shirt in the mail that read EVOLUTION: THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH – THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN.
The name ‘Richard Dawkins’ entered the collective mind of society’s pop culture some time ago. He was after-all, the person responsible for coining the term ‘meme’ way back in 1976 in his book THE SELFISH GENE.
He has also appeared in a 2008 episode of DOCTOR WHO entitled ‘The Stolen Earth’ as himself. His image and voice appeared also in a dream sequence of a 2013 episode of THE SIMPSONS called ‘Black-eyed, Please’.
In 2012 he had a genus of freshwater fish named after him by a team of Sri Lankan ichthyologists (marine biologists). They conferred the scientific name Dawkinsia.
Dawkins nominates British geneticist John Maynard Smith (1920 – 2004) as his personal hero and rates English -American intellectual Christopher Hitchens (1949 – 2011) as the finest orator on any subject he’s ever heard.
Richard Dawkins is often credited with the quote “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion”. As much as he might endorse that notion, it was actually American theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg that said those words.
Richard Dawkins has so far produced two autobiographical memoirs. AN APPETITE FOR WONDER was published in 2013. BRIEF CANDLE IN THE DARK was released two years later. I am currently 3/4 of the way through the 2015 volume.
The life of a travelling scientist – having conducted field work and spoken to audiences in a great many parts of the world – along with his single-minded devotion to science and it’s place in our intellectual culture makes for engrossing reading…if you have the mind and leaning for such material.
A couple of anecdotes he shares are definitely worth recounting here, including the time he debated Cardinal George Pell – sentenced to six years jail in 2018 on historical sexual abuse charges but whose conviction was overturned by the High Court of Australia in 2020; he is currently still facing a number of civil law suits filed against him on related matters – on the ABC television program Q & A back in 2012.
As Dawkins tells it, he had been warned in advance that Pell was a ‘bully and a bruiser’ but that he had an almost endearing gift for putting his foot in his mouth. This apparently came to the fore during the sharing of an anecdote from the then Archbishop of Sydney about a time when he had been ‘preparing some English boys…’ and allowed an embarrassing pause to ensue before he completed the sentence ‘… for first communion’, a pause long enough to allow a minority of the audience to laugh suggestively.
Another highlight was the time he was invited to speak at Randolph Macon College in the state of Virginia in the U.S. The audience had been stacked by a busload of fundamentalist Christian students who had driven down from the nearby private evangelical Liberty ‘University’ (founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell). They all occupied the front row.
According to the passage written in BRIEF CANDLE IN THE DARK, these students all monopolized the question and answer session that followed his presentation, lining up as a ‘congregation’ behind the microphones placed in each aisle.
Everything remained polite until one of the students mentioned that at Liberty University they had on display a dinosaur fossil labelled as being just 3000 years old and that this appeared to dramatically contradict Dawkin’s favored timelines of Earth history.
Dawkins responded by clarifying that fossils are dated by several different radioactive clocks – running at very different speeds – and all independently agree that dinosaurs are no less than 65 million years old.
He went on to add – “If it’s really true the museum at Liberty University has a dinosaur fossil labelled as being 3000 years old, then that is an educational disgrace. It is debauching the whole idea of a university and I would strongly encourage any member of Liberty University who may be here to leave and go to a proper university.
From the Randolph Macon College students this comment got the biggest cheer of the evening.
Amusement is gained in equal measure from Richard Dawkin’s rebuttals of what he refers to as ‘theological gymnastics’ – attempts by Bible-clutching spokespeople and ‘leaders’ to conjure symbolic and preposterously speculative interpretations to non-sensical ‘holy’ ideas from the past.
You know the type. “Of course we don’t literally believe the story of Jonah and the whale. But it is symbolic of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Of course Adam and Eve were not real people. They are terms for life and Earth.”
Hold that thought for a moment, while checking this out-
Now return to considering Dawkin’s comparison –
Dawkin’s postulates what it would be like if science worked in a similarly flakey way. “Suppose that future scientists were to find that Watson and Crick were completely wrong and the genetic molecule is not a double helix after all. Ah well, of course nowadays we no longer literally believe in the double helix.
So what is the significance of the double helix for us today? The way the two helices twine intimately around one another, though not literally true, nevertheless symbolizes mutual love. The precise, one-to-one pairing of purine and pyrimidine is not literally true but it stands for…”.
Ridiculous? A joke? Something not to be taken seriously? Among the points being made, I believe.
Ps. Richard Dawkins is now 79 years of age. He separated from his second wife, former DR WHO actress Lalla Ward in 2016 after 24 years of marriage. His most recent book, OUTGROWING GOD: A BEGINNER’S GUIDE, was published late last year.
Pss. Still curious? HERE you’ll find a link to his website.
Psss. Final word goes not to Richard Dawkins but my favourite television comedian from the 1970’s, Dave Allen. Pretty sure Professor Dawkins would get a laugh out of this…