Richard Dawkins interview: On Pope Francis, poetry and why Jews win so many Nobel Prizes

The controversial biologist Richard Dawkins talks unrepentantly to Isaac Chotiner about Muslim scientists, the uses of literature, Pope Francis, and Darwinian altruism.

This piece was originally published at newrepublic.com

Richard Dawkins first became famous for his pioneering work in evolutionary biology, but these days his reputation stems mostly from his no-holds-barred advocacy of atheism. On Twitter, his attacks on religion are blistering and relentless. Sample tweet: “I’m not ‘intolerant’ of your belief in a virgin birth. Please be tolerant of my right to tolerate your belief but call it stupid.”

But in his new memoirAn Appetite For Wonder, Dawkins reveals a softer side. The book covers his childhood—including his struggles with a stammer and nasty teachers—and his discovery of the beauty of science. He writes about scientific discoveries with a sense of joy: In the early 1960s, as a zoology student at Oxford, he was transfixed by the experience of processing data on the university’s sole computer. The memoir concludes with the publication of his foundation-shattering1972 bookThe Selfish Gene, which argues that selflessness is a good genetic strategy because it can help close relatives thrive.

When I met Dawkins at a hotel in Washington, D.C.—he currently lives and teaches at Oxford—he did not noticeably resemble his forceful public persona. Instead, he was soft-spoken and reserved. He is not exactly warm, but listens attentively, a rather rare quality among famous academics. Over the course of two chats, he discussed a wide range of topics—including Pope Francis, his love of poetry, and why Jews win so many Nobel Prizes—without any apparent concern for political correctness.

Isaac Chotiner: Do you think religion can be eradicated from society?

Richard Dawkins: Yes, because individuals clearly get rid of it, and they can be educated into realizing the truth. Faith is the lack of evidence, and it shouldn’t be that difficult to convince people that the right reason to believe something is that there is evidence for it. People do not innately go for this view, but nevertheless it is not that difficult to teach.

IC: When you think about faith, do you think about it as an ideology, the way some people “believed in” communism? I am not comparing the two, but do you think religious beliefs and ideological commitments are similar?

RD: Yes, I think I do. Again, it is belief without evidence. In the case of Stalinism, people actually distorted science, because it was for the good of the Communist Party.

IC: Are you trying to say that people go along with religion even though they know some of it isn’t true—the way American Catholics, for instance, pick and choose what to believe, but don’t question the fundamental tenets of the faith?

RD: I wrote The God Delusion in 2006. You are giving me an interview about The God Delusion and faith, not about my memoir.

IC: We are going to cover it all.

RD: OK.

IC: Do you see any dangers from science? And I don’t mean simply that scientists can do bad things just like religious people can do bad things. But also that, with technology and environmental damage and nuclear weapons, the real dangers come from scientific advancement, rather than faith?

RD: If you want to do bad things, science is the most powerful way to do them. If you want to do good things, science is the most powerful way to do them. It is just an effective way to get things done. The whole of technology depends on a scientific background, and of course technology can be used for evil purposes. You can’t blame science for that. What you can do is say, ‘This is an exceedingly powerful tool.’ And you want to make sure it is used for good purposes, not bad ones. That is a political decision.

IC: Do you feel the same way about religion, though? You frequently highlight things like men in Saudi Arabia who stone their wives for having affairs. Is that not a political action rather than a religious one?

RD: You are trying to say, I suppose, that religion is a powerful weapon that can be used because it persuades people to do things. And thus it can be used for good or ill. But it should not be a powerful weapon at all. There is something wrong with using faith—belief without evidence—as a political weapon. I wouldn’t say there is something similar about using science. Science—or the products of science like technology—is just a way of achieving something real, something that happens, something that works.

IC: Doesn’t religion work for people, like for someone who has had children die and gets comfort from believing they are in heaven?

RD: Yes, it can be consoling to think your children are in heaven. You have got to understand that that doesn’t make it true. Many people cannot understand that distinction.

IC: You have gotten involved in a lot of controversies on Twitter about faith. One thing I have noticed is that you often use the argument that religion is something that we choose, unlike, say, race or sexual orientation. I wonder what the word “choose” means if you go to, say, a poor, religious, Muslim country.

RD: You don’t really get much choice.

IC: In two senses: One is that you cannot go on the street and shout that you are an atheist, the other is that you are never given the intellectual framework for calling your faith into question.

RD: That is true. I suppose I would like to give them the intellectual framework. I would like to find a way in which people in Saudi Arabia could learn that they can be something other than a Muslim. Some people may not realize this. Of course, there is the problem that you can get in trouble or get stoned.

IC: Small side effects.

RD: Yes. But you are asking how much freedom of choice we really have. It is important not to confuse race and religion.

IC: You got in trouble for a tweet where you noted that there had been more Nobel Prizes from King’s College, Cambridge, than from “all the world’s Muslims.”

RD: Trinity College, you mean.

IC: Trinity College. I am American. But back to your remark.

RD: That was unfortunate. I should have compared religion with religion and compared Islam not with Trinity College but with Jews, because the number of Jews who have won Nobel Prizes is phenomenally high.

IC: OK, but what do you make of that?

RD: Race does not come into it. It is pure religion and culture. Something about the cultural tradition of Jews is way, way more sympathetic to science and learning and intellectual pursuits than Islam. That would have been a fair comparison. Ironically, I originally wrote the tweet with Jews and thought, That might give offense. And so I thought I better change it.

IC: I still want to know what you draw from this. Do you think the Torah is more progressive than the Koran?

RD: No, I doubt it. I don’t think that.

IC: So then what?

RD: I haven’t thought it through. I don’t know. But I don’t think it is a minor thing; it is colossal. I think more than 20 percent of Nobel Prizes have been won by Jews. And especially if you don’t count peace prizes, which I think don’t count actually …

IC: Kissinger won one of those. C’mon.

RD: Exactly. Most of the ones that have gone to Muslims have been peace prizes, and the [number of Muslims] who have gotten them for scientific work is exceedingly low. But in Jews, it is exceedingly high. That is a point that needs to be discussed. I don’t have the answer to it. I am intrigued by it. I didn’t even know this extraordinary effect until it was pointed out to me by the [former] chief rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks.

IC: He must have been anxious to share this fact.

RD: Yeah. He shared it with due modesty, but I thought it was astounding, and I am puzzled about it.

IC: There have been a lot of studies done—Paul Bloom at Yale is one of the big guys behind this—that say there is a genetic basis to faith. Or at least a genetic reason that we look for patterns in things that are not there. Are you sympathetic to this view?

RD: Oh yes. I think that Bloom’s approach—and others who take it—is not so much that there is a precise genetic basis to faith. But there is a genetic basis to a psychological predisposition that manifests itself as faith and religion under the right conditions.

IC: Does this change, in any way, your belief that faith is a choice?

RD: No, I don’t think so.

IC: I am curious how much you try to convince people about religion. I am sure you have heard people say that you are a great advocate for science and others who say that you alienate people. Do you worry about that?

RD: There may be some people who are turned off, but I think there are a lot who are not. Possibly we need both approaches. When I sign books, I get lines of people and what they usually say is: “Thank you. You have changed my life.” I am really moved by that.

IC: These are people of faith?

RD: They are either people of faith who have lost their faith from reading my books, or they are people who had already lost their faith, and something about my books encouraged them to affirm that.

IC: How old were you when you began to think about science and faith?

RD: I remember at the age of six regaling my poor little sister with stories about the planets, and how far away they were and which ones might have life. I think by the age of about nine I recognized that there were a lot of different religions, and it was an accident I happened to be born into one of them. If I had been born somewhere else, I would have had a different one. Which is a pretty good lesson, actually. Everyone should learn that.

IC: Are you interested in science fiction?

RD: Yes, I’m fond of science fiction. But not all science fiction. I like science fiction where there’s a scientific lesson, for example—when the science fiction book changes one thing but leaves the rest of science intact and explores the consequences of that. That’s actually very valuable. I’m not so fond of the sort of science fiction that isn’t really science fiction but is sometimes thought to be—Gothic princesses and white horses and bats and castles and things.

IC: Your wife was an actress on “Doctor Who,” so I guess you’ve seen it.

RD: I’ve seen her episodes of “Doctor Who.” They’re good, at least partly because the scripts were written by Douglas Adams. I think Douglas is writing with an eye to irony for adults at the same time as entertaining children.

IC: That’s true of a lot of great writers. P.G. Wodehouse, whom I know you like, but also Philip Pullman, right?

RD: Yes, I do like Philip Pullman. And that’s an exception because Philip Pullman’s books allow magic.

IC: This fits into the two conflicting popular conceptions of scientists. You have this very serious person who’s doing experiments and is somewhat austere. And then you have these dorky people who love Star Trek and Star Wars.

RD: Well, Professor Challenger, Conan Doyle’s science hero, was a sort of irascible man constantly bellowing at people, so he was a little bit of a departure from both of those stereotypes.

IC: So you don’t feel like you fit either stereotype?

RD: No, I don’t think I do.

IC: You have more of a reputation as someone who shouts people down.

RD: I don’t shout people down. I argue people down, perhaps.

IC: Your book The Selfish Gene talks a lot about Darwinian altruism: How the promulgation of the species causes us to act in generous ways. Some people have said that altruism is something distinct—when you go out of your way to do something nice that’s not about the promulgation of your tribe.

RD: People who criticize The Selfish Gene like that often haven’t read it. The selfish gene accounts for altruism toward kin and individuals who might be in a position to reciprocate your altruism.

Now, there is another kind of altruism that seems to go beyond that, a kind of super-altruism, which humans appear to have. And I think that does need a Darwinian explanation. I would offer something like this: We, in our ancestral past, lived in small bands or clans, which fostered kin altruism and reciprocal altruism, because in these small bands, each individual was most likely to be surrounded by relatives and individuals who he was going to meet again and again in his life. And so the rule of thumb based into the brain by natural selection would not have been,Be nice to your kin and be nice to potential reciprocators. It would have been, Be nice to everybody, because everybody would have been included.

It’s just like sexual lust. We have sexual lust even though we know perfectly well that, because we’re using contraception, it is not going to result in the propagation of our genes. That doesn’t matter, because the lust was built into our brains at a time when there was no contraception.

IC: One problem with these Darwinian explanations, however convincing they are, is that they aren’t really falsifiable.

RD: That is a very common criticism, and it’s probably a valid one. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, of course. I think from my point of view—I won’t say it doesn’t matter whether they’re right or wrong, it’s just sufficient in some cases, for me, to be able to say, Well, at least it’s not totally implausible from a Darwinian point of view.

IC: But is that science?

RD: Yes, it sort of is. I mean, it would be really worrying if, as a Darwinian, it was impossible to think of ways in which our behavior could be explained.

IC: But it seems like evolutionary psychology gets presented as hard science in a way that it’s not.

RD: I think that’s absolutely right, and the better examples of evolutionary psychology actually do get evidence. They do psychological studies.

IC: To what degree did your findings on the selfish gene influence your feelings about politics or religion or the world at large? Or do you bracket those things?

RD: I think I put them in a separate compartment. I’ve always been antagonistic to any naïve application of the selfish gene theory to politics. Some people have attempted to suggest that it means we are selfish or we should be selfish.

IC: What other big thinkers do you really like?

RD: Daniel Kahneman.

IC: What about novelists?

RD: I read novels for entertainment rather than for edification, so I tend not to read the sort of novels that are said to illuminate the human condition.

IC: You don’t look to art for that?

RD: I have never quite understood—and this is no doubt my failing—I never quite understood why you would read fiction to understand the human condition. Although I’m easily persuaded that a really good novelist who gets inside somebody else’s head could be serving a valuable purpose. I enjoy satirical novels that take a wry, humorous, ironic look at modern life.

IC: You know, Jonah Lehrer, the disgraced former New Yorker writer, has a bookcalled Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

RD: I haven’t read that.

IC: Well, it’s a stupid book, but the idea is that science has uncovered things about the way the brain works that novelists did in the past. I do think you can find something about the human condition by reading George Eliot or Dickens.

RD: You probably can. That’s probably right.

IC: I was wondering what you think of the current Pope. What’s your emotional reaction to religious figures who don’t seem so doctrinaire or who reach out to people who are less religious?

RD: I’m a sucker for nice religious leaders. I fall for it every time. But that doesn’t mean that I accept their arguments. Pope Francis seems to be a much nicer man than Pope Benedict, but I’m not sure that his views on things that really matter are all that different. Whereas Benedict was perhaps a wolf in wolf’s clothing, Francis is perhaps a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

IC: People talk about “new atheism.” Is there something new about it?

RD: No, there isn’t. Nothing that wasn’t in Bertrand Russell or probably Robert Ingersoll. But I suppose it is more of a political effect, in that all these books happened to come out at the same time. I like to think that we have some influence.

IC: Sometimes when I read the so-called new atheists, there’s almost a certain intellectual respect for the fundamentalist thinkers. For being more intellectually coherent.

RD: I’m interested you noticed that. There’s an element of paradox there—that at least you know where you stand with the fundamentalists. I mean, they’re absolutely clear in their error and their stupidity, and so you can really go after them. But the so-called sophisticated theologians, especially ones who are very nice, like Rowan Williams and Jonathan Sacks, you sometimes don’t quite know where you are with them. You feel that when you attack them, you’re attacking a wet sponge.

IC: Do you want people to become secular, or do you want religion to be less conservative and patriarchal?

RD: Ideally, I’d like everybody to be secular. I suppose I have to say politically I would like religion to become gentler and nicer and to stop interfering with other people’s lives, stop repressing women, stop indoctrinating children, all that sort of thing. But I really, really would like to see religion go away altogether.

IC: Have you ever been tempted by faith? Felt there was something missing?

RD: It’s wonderful what we’ve got! How much more do you want? It would be a shallow chimera to want some sort of spook in the sky to look up to when you have such wonderful reality.

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic.

This piece was originally published at newrepublic.com

Richard Dawkins speaking at a book festival last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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We're asking the wrong questions about the Google “anti-diversity memo”

Which sex is better at what skills is less important than which skills we value in the first place. 

Yes, I feel sorry for the Google employee who has been fired for writing an "anti diversity manifesto" and circulating it within the company. (Guess what? It leaked.) Losing your job is painful, and doing it in public is even more so. But the conversation around this is heading in such an unproductive direction (do women suck at maths?) that I can't resist wading in.

I agree with the writer that these issues are hard to talk about, but that pushback comes from both directions. Look at the crap Mary Beard is wading through for trying to inject some facts into a discussion about the racial composition of Roman Britain. Nicholas Nassim Taleb keeps honking about "diversity genes" and refusing to listen to evidence that contradicts him. But in his mind, he's Mr Science - sorry, Professor Science - and she's Madam Arts-Subject.

This matters, because when it comes to diversity, there are fact-based positions on both sides. Yet there is a certain strand of Rational Internet Thinker (let's be honest, mostly men) who solemnly tells everyone that we Must Stick To The Facts while advancing deeply ideological stances, which only happen to look "natural" because they are so embedded in our culture. 

But back to the subject at hand. Here's the recap: the memo was headlined  "Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber" and its writer's firing will be taken as confirmation that his thesis was true. Ironically, this will be done by the same section of the right which usually has no problem with firing at will and normally thinks that HR should be a brutally Darwinian process. (Looked at from that perspective, of course Google would fire someone who brought such criticism on the company.) But now there are Principles involved. Probably Free Speech is under attack. Political Correctness may even have Gone Mad. Social Justice Warriors are on the march. Before it's all placards as far as the eye can see, instead I would like to look at what was actually said, and whether it's an argument with any merit. 

In essence, the memo argued that the gender imbalance of staff in tech companies like Google is primarily the result of biological, not cultural differences. ("They’re universal across human cultures," it argued. "They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone".) There are differences in ability between the sexes, the writer said, and that's why most top programmers are men. Men like numbers, and the numbers like them right back.

The memo added:

Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership. Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.

The section about typically female traits is also interesting, because of a couple of points the writer picks out.

"Women, on average, have more...

- Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas. Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men (also interpreted as empathizing vs. systemizing).

- These two differences in part explain why women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas. More men may like coding because it requires systemizing and even within SWEs, comparatively more women work on front end, which deals with both people and aesthetics.

- Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness. Also, higher agreeableness. This leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading. Note that these are just average differences and there’s overlap between men and women, but this is seen solely as a women’s issue. This leads to exclusory programs like Stretch and swaths of men without support.

- Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.  

Well, SOMEONE has been reading their Simon Baron Cohen. The first point is a distillation of Baron Cohen's argument about "male brains" being better at understanding systems, and "female brains" being better at feelings - which he extends to say that autistic traits might be an "extreme male brain". Unsurprisingly, there are other scientists in the field, such as Cordelia Fine and Rebecca Jordan-Young, who find a lot of the neuroscience of sex difference quite flaky.

I'm not a neuroscientist, but from a lay perspective, my take is that yes, there are some biological differences between the average male and female brain, but that these pale beside a) the way our brain architecture is shaped by stimuli (like years of being told you're rubbish at maths) and b) the overall effect of culture (eg companies which value presenteeism, or make it hard for women to return after having children, or cover up for senior men who are repeated sexual harassers etc etc). 

The "higher agreeableness" point was dealt with by Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In. Women aren't stupidly not asking for raises or being assertive in the office because they are delicate little flowers. One of the reasons they are more agreeable at work is because they face heavier penalties if they are not. As Sandberg formulates it: "Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.” Women are nicer because there are more negative consequences for them if they are not nice.

The last point about neuroticism is bleakly funny, because while women might report more anxiety, men commit suicide in far greater numbers. Which gender is really more susceptible to stress and anxiety? Women talking more about their mental health on "Googlegeist" is being held against them here, when possibly one of the reasons that more men kill themselves is because of the stigma of talking about their feelings.

Overall, the memo makes some compelling points, but it also chucks in a lot of stuff that "everyone knows" about sex differences, which isn't scientifically supported, and also some evolutionary psychology about "protecting females" which strays into the kind of rhetoric found on MRA sites. Its understanding of male and female work patterns can also be naive, for example:

"Yes, in a national aggregate, women have lower salaries than men for a variety of reasons. For the same work though, women get paid just as much as men. Considering women spend more money than men and that salary represents how much the employees sacrifices (e.g. more hours, stress, and danger), we really need to rethink our stereotypes around power."  

I mean, doesn't this just raise a huge number of questions?

How often do men and women do the same work, and for what reasons might they not? (Clue: women do far more unpaid care work and housework.) Are women spending that money on themselves, or are they running household budgets, which is an unpaid project-management task they are doing alongside any paid work? What an individual finds stressful is also entirely subjective.

The author chucks in a reference to "Marxist intellectuals" but doesn't seem to have read any of the vast and fascinating literature on unpaid care and its interaction with paid work. I'd recommend starting with The Second Shift or Wife Work. Angela Saini's Inferior is a good recent choice, too, on women's overlooked contributions to science.

When I talk about feminism with self-styled rationalist men, this dynamic comes up again and again. They will present my arguments as mere anecdote and emotion, which - sad shake of the head - is contradicted by the available evidence. When you point to peer-reviewed studies, or great ethnographies, supporting your point, which they haven't bothered to read, they steam on regardless. It makes the contest deeply unequal. Internet skeptic types talk about the need to engage with writers they don't agree with, and the importance of free and open debate, but often actually don't want to read the contrary view. 

 

***

If you want to read more about the discussion of the science of sex differences which has arisen as a result of this memo, then this piece by Slate Star Codex is interesting - it argues that interest in STEM subjects, not ability, might be the key difference between the sexes. It also completely misses the point. 

Here's a thought experiment. Say you were recruiting for a spoon-juggler. Your advert would probably mention "needs to juggle spoons". But, almost certainly, there would be other skills involved. Turning up to performances on time. Keeping your spoon inventory in check. Not turning up drunk. Not stealing forks from the fork-juggler. 

This is what the argument that women can't succeed in tech because they are innately bad at the skills needed to succeed in tech sounds like to me. We know that many of the early programmers were women, back when the job was considered to be largely secretarial. (Go watch Hidden Figures for more on this, and also because it's just a lovely film and I am so happy for Mahershala Ali and Taraji P. Henson.) We know that the fastest way to depress wages in a job is to feminise its workforce. It's not unreasonable to wonder if we've constructed the whole idea of "success in tech" in such a way that it makes men's success look natural and pre-ordained. Yes, you need to be able to code to be a coder. But there are other skills you need too. 

Yonatan Zunger, who recently left Google, makes this argument better than I could. And he seems to own a pair of testicles, so you know he's more rational and objective than me:

"Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to. Solitary work is something that only happens at the most junior levels, and even then it’s only possible because someone senior to you — most likely your manager — has been putting in long hours to build up the social structures in your group that let you focus on code.

All of these traits which the manifesto described as “female” are the core traits which make someone successful at engineering. Anyone can learn how to write code; hell, by the time someone reaches L7 or so, it’s expected that they have an essentially complete mastery of technique. The truly hard parts about this job are knowing which code to write, building the clear plan of what has to be done in order to achieve which goal, and building the consensus required to make that happen.

All of which is why the conclusions of this manifesto are precisely backwards. It’s true that women are socialised to be better at paying attention to people’s emotional needs and so on — this is something that makes them better engineers, not worse ones."

As I said on Twitter, this is a pattern we see again and again - a high status job is coded as "male", requiring "male" traits, to justify men's dominance of it. The same thing happens in politics: we are assured that politicians need to be "strong" and "decisive", when many of the most successful male politicians today have incredible people skills. Jeremy Corbyn makes time for everyone he meets, hugging them and posing for endless selfies. Sadiq Khan has that Queen Mum ability to remember your name and a key fact about you. What's the real difference between the Clintons? Bill demonstrated huge empathy and made people he was talking to feel special; Hillary didn't. But still, maybe men dominate politics because they are just more aggressive and ambitious. Yeah, OK. 

Tech suffers from a similar silent rewriting of core competencies to flatter its mostly male leaders.

We have all these conversations about how hard it is for Mark Zuckerberg to make the leap to being a frontman CEO because he's a maths guy, not a people guy. We treat this like he's doing an amazing project of personal growth. We don't go, "wow, they really lowered the bar for CEOs to let someone without some of the key skills have a go at it". Or, "his poor colleagues, having to make up for the stuff he's not naturally gifted at". 

There was a similar reaction when Sergey Brin and Larry Page brought in Eric Schmidt when it was time for Google to "grow up". We didn't say, "How embarrassing, they have to find someone to counteract their deficiencies." We said: "Smart move. Not every human can possess all skills, it's wise to have a range of experience and aptitudes at the top of your company."

So this, for me, is the most interesting takeaway from the Google memo. "Do women suck at maths" is a complicated question, and I'm not sure how far answering it will move the conversation forwards. "Have we structured society so that those competitions between the sexes that men can win are deemed to be the most important competitions?" is a better one.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.