Our Brief Candle Time: A Conversation with Richard Dawkins

“Out, out brief candle! Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player. That struts and frets his hour upon the stage. And then is heard no more,” were the last words of Shakespeare’s tyrant Macbeth, the passage that inspired the title of Richard Dawkins’ book, this time a memoir, “Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science,” in which he reflects on his long, prolific career as an evolutionary biologist and popular science writer, and what he calls “the incredible privilege of being alive — why we’re here, what life’s about, why the world is here, why the universe is here.”

Richard DawkinsThe monologue, which Dawkins passionately recited to me over the phone, is also a nod to his friend, the late astronomer Carl Sagan and author of “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark,” who argued the importance of skepticism and the scientific method as the best cure for superstition.

Dawkins, best known for coining the “meme” and for his work on genetic mutation — the way in which genes seem to act in their own interest in the way they replicate, rather than serving to benefit the organism — didn’t really become a household name in the United States until 2006 with his bestseller “The God Delusion,” in which he rebukes organized religion and makes the case that a supreme deity almost certainly does not exist. He continues to be one of the most prominent voices of the new atheism movement, earning the ire of many fundamentalist Christians and Muslims.

In that book, however, Dawkins also discussed the evolutionary advantage that religion may have had: “I think religion is a byproduct of several psychological predispositions, which in themselves have Darwinian survival value, but consequences which probably don’t. It’s probably a good thing for a child to listen to, or believe his parents, when they say not to touch a fire. The brain picks up on this — to believe what your parents or tribal elders tell you, and that could have survival value. The trouble is that at an early age, the child has no way of knowing the difference between the good things and the bad things they are told.”

Civilization was only a recent development for humanity, coming about over the last 8,000 years or so, following a number of centuries of tribal living — times at which believing that large and dangerous predators lurked in the tall grass could have meant the difference between life and death. Somehow, this mentality, along with the brain’s tendency to interact with other brains and form new connections, could have eventually given birth to organized religion as we know it today. Not everyone would readily agree, however.

Many of Dawkins’ harshest detractors are also critical of the theory of evolution by natural selection, the predominant theory of all biology and one of the most strongly supported scientific ideas that accounts for the vast array of diversity on Earth — a growing concern for professor Dawkins, whose own media appearances have sometimes been manipulated by creationists that reject evolution for a literal interpretation of the Bible: “I did well in biology at school, and it was what my father studied, so I followed in his footsteps in a way. I’ve always been drawn to the philosophical aspects of science — those questions like why we’re here, and what life is about. If you look at the human eye, it is a beautiful piece of machinery, albeit with many revealing flaws as well. Up until Darwin’s time, its sophistication was taken by many to be evidence of design, and it was a stupendous intellectual feat of Darwin and his successors to find a purely mechanistic explanation for that appearance of design. We live in a time in which science has an answer for it.”

Dawkins delivered a memorable explanation of the human eye as the gradual product of evolution from an aquatic ancestor in his first television foray, his 1987 documentary, “The Blind Watchmaker,” which took him to America’s Bible Belt: “Even today [according to the Gallup Poll], more than 40 percent of people in North America consistently believe that life on Earth began less than 10,000 years ago, which is pretty worrying. I don’t notice it when I travel around America when I give talks to large audiences even in the Bible Belt, I usually get very enthusiastic reception, but I assume the polls are not lying, so we’ve got a struggle ahead of us. I like to think we are winning it, I mean, we’ve got the evidence on our side, so I like to be optimistic.”

Dawkins has also had his share of criticism from atheists as well, some of whom are afraid that efforts to unite atheists and other skeptics of religion may cause them to be seen as just another religion, indirectly encouraging the same tribalism they wish to distance themselves from. However, Dawkins believes that atheism is evidence of a healthy and independent mind while religious doctrine is merely a way to justify belief without evidence — the same line of thinking that has allowed things like homeopathy or psychic hotlines to thrive. Consequently, he has endorsed The Brights Movement, which seeks to unite people who share in a naturalistic worldview, and defended the use of the word “bright” to describe likeminded people.

“It hasn’t caught on in the way I think they had hoped. I’m not entirely sure why — I think because people think it’s arrogant. It’s meant to be a noun, not an adjective — and many people who hear it think that the opposite of a ‘bright’ is a ‘dim.’ Rather, the opposite of a bright is a ‘super,’ as proposed by Daniel Dennett, someone who believes in the supernatural, which perhaps not many people would find objectionable, being called a ‘super.’ There are those in the skeptic movement as well who like to denounce homeopathy and astrology while giving religion a free pass. I tend to lump them all together.”

“Brief Candle in the Dark” is the sequel to “An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist,” which detailed his youth growing up in Kenya and his days as a student at Oxford and at the University of California, Berkeley. I asked Dawkins at what moment in life did he find himself drawn to the sciences, what drives his passion for discovery, but he quickly made me realize I was asking the wrong question. Instead, it should be why aren’t people more deeply invested in the sciences than what we are currently seeing? Why shouldn’t we all be interested in it, at least enough to be scientifically literate citizens? Particularly in an age where technology is rapidly evolving and new discoveries are frequently being made, like NASA’s recent announcement that there’s evidence of flowing water on Mars.

In the years since “The Selfish Gene” was published, the meme — or idea spreading from person to person within a culture — has found a permanent place in the lexicon with the advent of Facebook and social media. A generation of people has grown up reading Dawkins’ books. Among those who credit him as an influence is Elise Andrew, founder of the popular website “I F—ing Love Science.”

I asked Dawkins what advice he had for those who sought to pursue careers in science or technology: “It’s fascinating, it’s enthralling, it’s thrilling to be part of this great, cooperative, international enterprise to get to the truth, and I stress cooperative and international because you can’t say that about all cultural and all educational enterprises. Science truly is international. It’s the truth and it’s the same wherever you are, whatever language you speak, and I think there’s something inspiring about that.”

This article was first published in Brain World Magazine.

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