Eating people is wrong

"The taboo against cannibalism is the strongest we have - but even that needs to be looked at". Rich

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 deign 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 honour. 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 defence."

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 riven 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."

Dawkins is notoriously reticent about his private life, but we discuss briefly his first marriage - to Marian Stamp, a fellow academic who worked closely with him when he, born in Malawi and educated at Oundle School, left Balliol to become a junior don at Berkeley in California.

"Marian is an animal behaviourist - very distinguished, and I still know her well. We are very good friends." His second marriage, to Eve Barham - the mother of his 14-year-old daughter, Juliet - was evidently less happy. "Couldn't you avoid mentioning her name?" Dawkins once pleaded with an interviewer, refusing to elaborate on past hurts.

Now he says carefully: "She has just died. Last week, of cancer. Juliet is now living with us. This is private, and I shouldn't talk about it. But it is lovely to have my daughter around. I do love her very much. It is quite a change. Juliet wasn't here all that much. Not even alternate weekends towards the end. When her mother was very ill, she understandably wanted to spend more time with her."

Presumably Dawkins, the freewheeling academic, has had to refocus his life totally in order to care for his bereaved daughter? "Of course. I am happy to do that. I cancelled a lecture tour of the United States last month, which was difficult. I had a lot of commitments to a lot of people. Everyone was very nice and very understanding, but it was a hard thing to do. There will be other things like that now.

"I would love to be able to speak more freely," he says, rather touchingly. "I am just conscious of your tape recorder and your notebook." It is, however, clear that his readjusted lifestyle will evoke issues far more subtle and complex than a scientist's pat verdict on whether he, theoretically, might clone a beloved child.

The cloning issue, like the media hysteria over GM food, actually bores Dawkins. "Cloning will happen fairly soon, and - because many governments have turned their backs on it - it will originally come in a semi-criminal way, like backstreet abortions. It will probably also be one of those things we look back on and think: 'What was all the fuss about?' I haven't said it's obviously a good thing. Let's just not assume it's a bad thing. Cloning Saddam Hussein would be horrible. Cloning David Attenborough, or someone we all admire, might be fine."

Science, he says, is subject to moral arbitration. "But it's not a case of science going too far. Every case should be looked at on merit. Suppose someone suggested human tissue culture should be used to grow food for us. Perfectly sensible on the face of it, but I would be against it because the taboo against cannibalism is probably the strongest we have . . . But even that needs to be looked at. We have to ask ourselves why we are against it."

This demand for a debate on the ethics of eating people would, in the eyes of some opponents, merely reconfirm the notion that Dawkins is a dangerous man and a terrible autocrat to boot.

But then he is often misunderstood and always has been, ever since his critics first mistook his selfish gene theory as evidence that he - in reality a leftish liberal with no discernible interest in current politics - was an apologist for "me-first" Thatcherite economics. As for the charges that he is over-confrontational, over-bumptious and over-serious, he ponders on all three. I would have left under the impression that having abstruse tracts read aloud to him was the extent of his hinterland, except that this pastime sounds so worthy that I ask again what he does for fun.

And he says: "Well, there's nothing very obvious. I daren't give Horace de Vere Cole, the famous hoaxer's, version. When asked for his recreation in Who's Who in the early part of the century, he wrote down, 'Fucking'. I suppose that's the honest answer."

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.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Eating people is wrong