Richard Dawkins Q&A: “Don’t follow your instincts, a leader, tradition or a holy book”

The author talks David Attenborough, evolution, and Clement Attlee.

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Richard Dawkins was born in Nairobi in 1941. He is the bestselling author of 16 books including “The Selfish Gene” and “The God Delusion”, and a fellow of the Royal Society.

What’s your earliest memory?

Two memories, two injections, first from a doctor, second from a scorpion.

Who are your heroes?

As a child, Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle (I haven’t seen any of the films and don’t want to). As an adult, Charles Darwin.

What book last changed your thinking?

Democracy Hacked by Martin Moore, a penetrating exposé of the mercenaries who got us into our present appalling mess.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Clement Attlee, who presided over the foundation of the welfare state.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Evolution. It’s an interesting one for an audience, unlike those highly specialised subjects (Assyrian woodwind instruments, left-handed ping-pong players), which contestants are apt to choose and which nobody else has a hope in hell of answering.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

The moment language was first invented. Did it start with vocabulary but no grammar? Was it invented by a single individual, in which case to whom did that genius talk?

What TV show could you not live without?

David Attenborough, of course.

Who would paint your portrait?

I have a blind spot where visual art is concerned. My answer to this question, were I to give one, would be founded in ignorance and therefore of no interest.

What’s your theme tune?

“An die Musik” by Schubert. But there are so many I would like to claim.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t follow your instincts, don’t follow a leader, don’t follow a tradition, don’t follow a holy book. Follow the evidence, follow logic and reason.

What’s currently bugging you?

The subversion of democracy by our current political leaders. We are, or should be, a parliamentary democracy, not a plebiscocracy and not a dictatorship ruled by a loud-mouthed Hooray-Henry Bullingdon bully.

What single thing would make your life better?

The impossible: make me 40 years younger, but still with all the books I have written behind me. I couldn’t face doing them again. On the other hand I shall always look forward to writing new books.

When were you happiest?

I can’t easily answer that, but today would be a candidate to rival when I was about six.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A computer programmer. I was once addicted to it – it’s a terrible vice, and I’m glad now to have kicked the habit. But I once thought that that’s what I would like to have been.

Are we all doomed?

Realistically yes, but it’s terrible to live your life in the shadow of such pessimism, so I prefer to feign optimism to myself. Almost every species that has ever lived has gone extinct, leaving no descendants. We might be a rare exception. 

“Outgrowing God” by Richard Dawkins is published by Bantam Press. He appears at Cambridge Literary Festival on 1 December

This article appears in the 09 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain