Dawkins with the band in the studio.
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Richard Dawkins to feature on Finnish metal band Nightwish's new album

The biologist-turned-atheist campaigner is sampled on the band's forthcoming Endless Forms Most Beautiful.

Richard Dawkins is no stranger to controversy; musical and otherwise.

It’s hard to imagine, given how his recent remarks on the shooting of three Muslims in North Carolina have been taken, but the arguments against Dawkins were once quite mild. Back in 1995, after his appearance on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, the evolutionary biologist-turned-atheist campaigner was criticised for his choice of Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion — an odd choice, apparently, for such a vocal opponent of religion. 

If such a small thing can draw discussion, his latest foray into the arts will presumably garner some fairly raised eyebrows — at least, if my inbox is anything to go by. When I message a friend to say I’m about to interview Richard Dawkins about Finnish metal, her response is simply “please explain this”.

It’s hard to know where to begin. It’s not every day, after all, you sit down to listen to a 24-minute symphonic metal track with rolling piano, cello and ape noises; and fewer still you get to watch a Scandinavian rockstar discussing childhood clarinet lessons with one of the country’s most prominent and – not to put too fine a point on it – most criticised public intellectuals.

When I meet Dawkins and Nightwish lyricist Tuomas — who is wearing a T-shirt with Charles Darwin’s face on — in a Kensington hotel, however, it seems a surprisingly straightforward collaboration. Both of them are disarmingly earnest about their work together; indeed, by the time I leave, it seems almost inevitable that Dawkins would be sampled on a Nightwish album.

For that is exactly what’s happened. A self-declared “life-long science fan”, Tuomas studied the subject at university before dropping out to pursue music. A recent interest in the works of Dawkins, as well as Christopher Hitchens, Carl Sagan and other figures, led to him approaching the scientist.

“I wrote him a handwritten letter, explaining what we had in mind”, says Tuomas. Two weeks later, Dawkins replied via e-mail expressing his willingness. They set up a studio date in Oxford, and less than six months later, two tracks are ready for the forthcoming album Endless Forms Most Beautiful.

Richard Dawkins recording in Oxford.

I ask Dawkins if he’d heard of Nightwish before he received Tuomas’ letter. There’s no sense of irony in his response.

“No, I hadn’t. But I was interested, I was intrigued and fascinated. I asked advice of my assistant, and he urged me to do it. I was pleased to do it.”

When I suggest that perhaps the genre is a little unexpected, Dawkins is sanguine. “Yes, it’s a bit of a different kind of music, but I am capable of being very moved by music.” The lyrics Tuomas has him read, alongside his own writing and the works of other scientists, are “beautiful”. When I ask if he'll play at Nightwish's upcoming Wembley show, both parties seem keen. "Let's do it."

Being moved by music is a topic Dawkins spoken on before. Is this an attempt to make the scientific sublime? “Exactly”, Dawkins says. “That’s so important.” Tuamos agrees: people may think of science and evolution as dry, but it’s “exact opposite of that. It’s the most poetic thing there is, evolution.”

And what of people who think Dawkins should stick to his discipline? “Yes, I can’t think what else I’ve done… I did that rather strange thing for Saatchi & Saatchi. A psychedelic extravagorama.”

Dawkins's performance at Saatchi & Saatchi. 

It seems an easy thing to laugh at, but again, Dawkins seems to take it all at face value. His explanation of the “ewi” – which he plays at the end of the clip – is in-depth, conveying a genuine enthusiasm for the instrument.

I ask about other cultural gestures that have been awkwardly received in the press, like his recent Twitter poetry. “Did I do poetry?”

“I call that comic verse. I don’t know why the Independent keeps picking up these ridiculous things.”

It’s impossible to tell if Dawkins is unaware how he is perceived, or just gifted with a total lack of self-doubt. Either way, it might explain something about his public persona. I ask if there’s a certain pleasure in provoking people – his detractors on the Christian right, for instance, will surely be unhappy that he’s now collaborating with a metal band. Dawkins seems not to know what I’m getting at. There’s a certain image, I suggest – “satanic?”, he fills in. Yes, perhaps.

And what about the Nightwish fans? According to Tuomas, “people are really excited”, but there is some opposition. He imitates some of his fan responses: “I’ve been a fan of Nightwish for fifteen years, I’ve seen twenty of your shows, but I will never ever come to see you again. I just burned all your CDs.”

“It’s good for publicity, that sort of thing”, says Dawkins. And he would know.

Endless Forms Most Beautiful is due out on 30 March. Nightwish – possibly featuring Richard Dawkins? – will headline Wembley Arena in December this year.

 

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times