Health & Science

KUHF Conversations: Richard Dawkins

The British biologist Richard Dawkins had a blockbuster four years ago when he wrote The God Delusion, an argument for atheism. But for the most part he writes about evolutionary science. In his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkins returns to that topic. KUHF health science and technology reporter Carrie Feibel spoke with Dawkins recently and asked him what he felt he still needed to say about Darwin’s great discovery.


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The Greatest Show On Earth book coverFeibel: “Why did you write this book?”

Dawkins: “I’d written I think nine books before, most of them about evolution, different aspects of evolution, but I’d never actually laid out the evidence for why evolution is a fact. Not just to try to persuade people to change their minds but also to show what a thrilling and exciting story it is.”

Feibel: “I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the analogy you used of reconstructing a murder scene, why is that a good analogy?”

Dawkins: “Yes, the point is that because most of evolution took place before we were born, a long time before we were born, we can’t hope to get eyewitness evidence of it. We can in a few cases, and I’ve got a chapter called “Before Our Very Eyes” which does talk about some examples of evolution during a sort of decade-long timescale that we can actually see. But mostly we can’t, and so I use the analogy of a detective, coming upon a murder scene after the murder has been committed, therefore unable to see as an eyewitness how the murder took place, but able to gather clues, like fingerprints and blood stains and footprints and all the other clues. And you piece it together until you form a case for somebody doing the murder. In the case of evolution, the case that we can make is overwhelmingly strong. It’s not just a few fingerprints and footprints here and there. It’s millions and millions of fingerprints, in the form of DNA fingerprints for example. The footprints we’ve got — I suppose you could call ‘fossil footprints.’ We’ve got millions of fossils, everything points to the conclusion that evolution is a fact.”

Feibel: “You know, I was struck the phrase you used. You call evolution the “Greatest Show on Earth” and you argue that understanding the mechanisms of life in no way drains the mystery and the beauty out of the world, at least for you. Can you explain why not?”

Dawkins: “Yes, well I actually wrote a whole book about that called Unweaving the Rainbow. The metaphor comes from Keats who complained that Newton had spoiled the poetry of the rainbow by explaining it, and by extension science, generally, spoils the poetry by looking at the reality. And I’ve always felt that’s completely wrong, and that the more you know about reality the more beautiful it becomes in a true poetic sense. And that’s true of evolution as much as anything else. Finding out where we came from, where our ancestors came from, what they were like, how they lived, how it all started, this is poetry. The poetry of reality.”

Feibel: “And turning to Americans and their beliefs about evolution. You rely on the Gallup poll and that’s shown consistently over the years that at least 40 percent of Americans don’t accept evolution of life on earth. Why not let these Americans or Brits go on believing that, I mean can’t believe people whatever they want, even if it’s incorrect?”

Dawkins: “Of course they can believe whatever they want. By the way, it’s worse than you say. It’s not just that they don’t believe in evolution, they actually think that the world is a matter of a few thousand years old. That is a shocking figure. I mean, that is an extraordinary betrayal of history. How can you live a full life if you don’t know where you came from? If you don’t understand the depth of the past from which you have sprung, from which you have emerged? But I think it’s symptomatic of something wrong with the education of a country and I should have thought that’s bound to rub off on other things. It’s bound to rub off on the general scientific and technological awareness of a country.”

That’s Richard Dawkins, author of “The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution.” He’s appearing tonight at the Wortham Center, but that particular show is sold out. From the KUHF Health Science and Technology Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.

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