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Richard Dawkins interview: “What I say in biology has become pretty much orthodoxy”

At 80, the evolutionary scientist and atheist still courts controversy. Will his influence survive a passion for social media?

By Kate Mossman

Richard Dawkins uses the autopilot function on his Tesla on the ­motorway, but it won’t work on the narrow medieval streets of Oxford. He demonstrates, patting the car’s giant touchscreen, which maps out its surroundings at 360 degrees and renders passing ­students as vulnerable grey pawns. He ­activates a highly effective seat-heater beneath the New Statesman.

It has been snowing on the day we meet but, at 80, Dawkins wears no coat as we pull up to New College, ­Oxford: he picks his way across the front quad, his hiking shoes pushing through piles of yellow ginkgo leaves. He had a mild stroke in 2016, but has fully ­recovered: he tweeted, the other day, that he enjoys watching the CBS show Young Sheldon while on his exercise machine. “That ­unlocked an enormous barrage of hate,” he says, sounding almost fascinated. Someone responded: “I used to be an atheist but this tweet was so bad it made me become a ­Christian.”

Dawkins doesn’t have a room in college, having retired in 2008, but there’s a nice space that former lecturers can book for meetings, three flights up an ivy-covered tower. On the door is an email from him, printed out by the porters and fixed with a drawing pin: “Might I reserve this room for an interview on Friday the 27th and Saturday 28th?” He jangles the keys. The Friday slot was for the psychologist ­Jordan Peterson, who came to record ­Dawkins for a future podcast. Peterson has hit out at Dawkins on Twitter for his ­comments on the gullible nature of the Christian mind; but as two silver-haired controversialists who hold a magnetic appeal for young men, their names are thrown together increasingly often.

In his Tesla, Dawkins, who once described the company’s CEO, Elon Musk, as a “hero for our times”, cut a rather powerful figure. Now, on a large tartan sofa in college, he is an ­eccentric scientist, as he imagines building a plane with wings as complex as a bird’s, a hundred different moving parts mimicking tiny bones and feathers. “The pilot would have to have an enormous capacity for ­control,” he suggests, “but now that computers pretty much fly the plane anyway, it seems not an impossible idea.” Such a plane would be able to swoop and dive, he suggests playfully.

Dawkins’ new book Flights of Fancy, which is out for the Christmas market and aimed at the over-12s, elides the evolution of birds and planes in a manner that brings to mind faint echoes of Leonardo da Vinci’s winged contraptions. Dawkins is afraid of heights, and will creep towards a cliff edge on his hands and knees, but he is not afraid of plane crashes. He dreams of being able to fly – and also, incidentally, of getting lost in a large mansion house with many interconnecting rooms. He is not convinced, as the biophysicist Francis Crick was, that dreams are the mind’s way of clearing out images it no longer needs. “I don’t think science has a very convincing explanation for why we dream at all.”

Scientists spend their life converting one language into another to explain things to laymen, graciously. Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, published in 1976, was read by sixth formers and spawned a rush in popular science books. But its neo-Darwinian thesis – that what an animal is doing is maximising its genetic representation in future generations – was of huge professional, as well as public, influence. On the book’s 40th anniversary, Nature magazine wrote that Dawkins had helped explain what was going on inside the genome long before DNA sequencing became routine.

If the book also generated considerable controversy, this stemmed largely from a misunderstanding arising from the title: the geneticist John Maynard Smith, one of a handful of scientists then espousing a gene-centric view of evolution, pointed out in the London Review of Books that Dawkins was not arguing that the “selfish gene” was also a force at work in morality, politics and human sciences. “Nobody but an idiot could think that DNA could be selfish in the conscious sense,” Dawkins says today. He has said he regrets the word “selfish”, but he clearly knows the power of a good title: his next work will be called The Genetic Book of the Dead.

Dawkins has several different registers. When he’s talking about science he shoots to the edge of the sofa. On religion, he sits back and broadcasts: atheism is still his mission. On his personal life, no questions, please, he warns in an email before we meet: “No one is interested in me.” (He has been married three times and has a daughter and a grandson.) When you ask a question that makes no scientific sense, he corrects a word in it, then gives you an answer. The sunlight from the window behind him casts his face into shadow. With his delicate nose and powerful gaze, he sometimes feels a bit like an owl. He doesn’t like being photographed, or made to pose. “What I hate is face-on,” he says. He is gallant – he’ll take your coat off and put it on for you – but he is increasingly worried about how he is being presented.

Dawkins’ God Delusion, published in 2006, still speaks to youths around the world who are being raised in organised religion, and put Dawkins at the centre of the New Atheist movement, alongside Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris; they titled themselves the “Four Horsemen” for a debate a few years later. Now, in his Christmassy book for children, Dawkins, who abhors the indoctrination of young minds, says, “77 per cent of Americans believe in Angels. Muslims are required to believe in them,” then goes on to talk about magic carpet rides, and broomsticks, as though they are all much the same thing.

Dawkins’ relentless opposition to organised religion – particularly Islam, of which more later – varies in tone from creatively condescending to combative to foghorn. Perhaps this explains why he has never become a national treasure (neither is he – despite his huge influence – a Sir). So associated is he with debunking the mysteries that lie beyond ­human reach, it is almost surprising to find that he supports the work of scientists to divert the course of asteroids orbiting the Earth and prevent the kind of blast that took out the dinosaurs.

“You’d only have to speed the asteroid up or slow it down by about four miles per hour,” he points out. “That’s a tiny change.”

How would you do that?

“Well, I don’t know. An atomic explosion or something of that sort, I suppose.”

Dawkins had an OK pandemic. “It was always on the cards, of course,” he says of Covid; each new variant is “something any Darwinian could see”. But he is bothered by what he calls a “mimetic epidemic of anti-vax propaganda” and thinks it suggests a distrust of Big Pharma rather than of science. He was impressed by the vaccine roll-out. What did he make of Dominic Cummings’s claim, as part of the Leave campaign, that Brexit would enable Britain to reorientate itself as a world leader in scientific research?

“It’s resulted in cutting ourselves off from major scientific scholarships,” Dawkins says. “Lots of labs in this country have had their European funds cut. It’s a disaster for science.” He talks about the EU referendum the way he used to talk about a single dinosaur sneeze affecting the evolution of the human race. “The sort of hit-and-miss affair of the one simple majority vote on one particular day in June in one particular year, which might have been different if you’d done it a week before or a week after.”

He thinks in terms of these historic contingencies. In some alternative universe, there is a Dawkins who stayed at Berkeley College in California, where he was a research student between 1967 and 1969, and went on to fight creationism on American soil. He was not a hippie – he wore sandals and shorts but no beads – but he was involved in anti-­Vietnam protests as well as more “silly” projects, such as the appropriation of a piece of ­university wasteland for a “people’s park”, as satirised in David Lodge’s novel Changing Places. “I don’t know why I was so confident that I should leave a secure job in Berkeley for an insecure research grant at Oxford,” he says.

An instinct? “I wouldn’t call it instinct. Instinct is something else.” Englishness? “I think possibly, yes.”

As a boy, Dawkins was sent to Oundle public school because it taught courses in farm management: it was thought he might take over the family estate in Oxfordshire, 210 acres at Over Norton Park, which has belonged to the Dawkins family since 1720. You wonder if his interest in genes began here: the family tree, which appears in his 2016 autobiography An Appetite for Wonder, features seven generations of Anglican vicars and a character called Yorick who “took to snuff and Roman Catholicism, and died tragically”. There is also a Sir Henry Clinton, commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America from 1778-82. Dawkins says he wishes he had inherited some of Sir Henry’s ardour, then points out that only one 64th part of his genome is derived from him.

His early childhood was spent moving across Africa; his father was a botanist who worked for the British colonial service in Malawi, and was called up to the King’s African Rifles during the war. Dawkins’ earliest memory is of building a mud hut with his mother. The ­family lived in buildings lit by paraffin pressure lamps and travelled by Ford station wagon, but always had servants.

Dawkins tries, unprompted, to offer ways in which it might have been a disruptive upbringing (“I didn’t see my father for two years. But I don’t think it was a rough life, I don’t seem like I was deprived”), but it only appears to have been magical. John and Jean Dawkins wrote a joint diary and compiled poetry anthologies together. They were “beautiful” parents, he says.

“Going away to boarding school at seven, that wasn’t great,” he offers. “I fantasised about the matron turning into my mother.” At Chafyn Grove in Wiltshire, a master slipped his hand into Dawkins’ shorts. “The cremasteric reflex is not painful,” he wrote, of the touch to the inner thigh that makes the testicle retract inside the body. “But in a skin-crawling, creepy way it is almost worse than painful.” He claims it did him no ­lasting damage.

What there is instead, throughout Dawkins’ accounts of his early life, is a consistent motif of being conned: of believing in something, then realising – with an energy that still reverberates – that an adult had taken him for a ride. Where most of us look back on childish misapprehensions with amusement, Dawkins feels something like outrage: at the neighbour he played hide and seek with, who claimed to have made himself invisible when he’d in fact just left the building. At Santa Claus, whom he saw through at a young age (“When a child believes in Father Christmas, lead them in a gentle little game of questioning,” he writes in An Appetite for Wonder. “‘How many chimneys would he have to reach, if he is to deliver presents to all the children in the world?’”).

Dawkins is angry to have been circumcised without his consent. And he’s angry that he spent so much time praying for things that weren’t going to happen. He talks constantly of protecting the minds of children: why is he so concerned with that? “Well, how could you not be? I’m not sure that needs a positive answer. I deeply hate the labelling of children with the religion of their parents.”

After confirmation at his Anglican school, Dawkins became intensely religious, and lay in a foetal position in bed at night to pray, or fantasised that, if he were to creep down to the chapel alone, he might see an angel. “Yeah, I wouldn’t make too much of that,” he says coolly.

During his religious phase, he was also heavily into Elvis Presley, whose song “I Believe” confirmed for him the presence of a non-denominational creator god. He writes in his memoir: “I listened with delight – for my hero sang that every time he saw the wonders of the natural world around him, he felt his religious faith reinforced. My own sentiments exactly! This was surely a sign from heaven.” But when I ask him about Elvis, picking our way down the stairs in New ­College, he says I might be making too much of that, too.

Psychoanalysis would say that the child who prayed is still in there, but Dawkins has a compelling theory about that, which he would be the first to admit is not his own: not a single molecule of that child remains in the adult body.

“Occasionally, I have second thoughts about it, because tattoos seem to last so long,” he says. “But it’s pretty much true that no molecule in your body now was in you in childhood.”

Where does the idea of the self fit into that theory? “Well, I think it was [John] Locke who said it’s really nothing but your memories.” The continuity of memory gives the impression of a self? “Yes, though the molecules are changing all the time.”

In other ways, Richard Dawkins has not changed at all. He still wants to talk about creationism and the work of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, which finances secular education programmes in the United States. In his ninth decade, he accepts speaking engagements all over the world: a few years back, on a Swedish TV show, he found himself opposite Brandon Flowers, the Mormon lead singer of the rock band the Killers, and launched into an attack on Mormonism, imaginary sleeves rolled up, before realising that the speechless pop star had only been brought on to sing. Both of them looked mortified.

Late-period Dawkins has, for some time, not been about flying machines or genetics but a painful experiment in expressing his views on social media, a habit that led Daniel Dennett to suggest he risked damaging his long-term legacy. On Twitter, where he has 2.9 million followers, the man at the forefront of clear language in science has constructed “irrefutable” statements, exercises in semantics over 140 characters, such as the following: “Date rape is bad, rape by a stranger at knife point is worse. If you think I’m saying that date rape is good, you need to go away and learn to think.”

In April, a 1996 award from the American Humanist society was withdrawn after Dawkins tweeted: “In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a white chapter president of NAACP [the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], was vilified for identifying as black. Some men choose to identify as women, and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as. Discuss.”

I want to know more about what must be, on some level, an impulse to offend, but Dawkins says, “I don’t want to talk about Twitter.” He has, many times, claimed to be “religiophobic” rather than Islamophobic, arguing that he generally attacks Christians more than Muslims, for much less flak.

In 2012 he mocked the journalist Mehdi Hasan, then working at the New Statesman, for his faith; Hasan responded that “for me, faith and reason go hand in hand… there is nothing in the Quran that prevents Muslims from embracing evolution”. A 2017 radio appearance in Berkeley, California, was cancelled when listeners drew attention to Dawkins’ 2013 post: “Islam is the greatest force for evil in the world today.” Hastily written explanations are published each time one of these statements makes the news, and they seem to have disappeared of late; Dawkins has taken to quoting others instead, without comment. Of his critics on social media he says now: “The random person on Twitter is no more worth listening to than somebody who shouts abuse at you in the street.”

But the science journalist Kavin Senapathy, an atheist who has written about racism in the academic world, told me that, “the real problem with Dawkins isn’t his abhorrent hot takes on Twitter… it’s that he distracts from the pseudoscientific biological essentialism hidden in plain sight in the mainstream scientific community”. She points to Dawkins’ 2004 book, The Ancestor’s Tale, parts of which explored racial difference, and the Four Horsemen’s “demonisation” of Islam in the wake of 9/11.

Dawkins conducted the last interview with Christopher Hitchens as part of a guest edit of the New Statesman in 2011, shortly before the latter’s death. In it, Hitchens told him, “never be afraid of stridency”. “That was a lovely thing,” Dawkins says now, though it certainly dates the piece. In a discussion between the two about Tony Blair – his knowledge of the corruption of the Catholic Church, co-existing with his Catholic zeal – Hitchens argued that many people are in two minds: “We are all great self persuaders.” Dawkins didn’t sound convinced: “But do we hold such extreme contradictions in our heads?”

“I was talking to Christopher, not about my scepticism, but my lack of comprehension as to how that is possible,” he says now. “The most extreme case I know is certainly not Tony Blair. It is an American geologist who knows all about palaeontology and yet is a seven-day creationist. That is utterly incomprehensible to me. And a professor in America who writes learned papers in ­astronomical journals which assume the age of the universe as 13.8 billion years, yet in private believes that the sun is only 4,000 years old. That demonstrates the level of internal ­contradiction that the human brain is ­capable of.”

Does he hold such contradictions in any area of his life?

“Well, I don’t think so, and I think I’d feel very uncomfortable if I tried to.”

Dawkins once said he “lives his life on the assumption that God is not there”. He experiences feelings of numinosity – when he looks at the night sky, when the stars are many and unobstructed by light pollution – but he explains those feelings as an “emergent” property of the human brain.

“It’s all of a piece with a whole lot that’s unique about humans,” he says. “It is ­moderately baffling why an animal selected to survive in Africa as a hunter-gatherer would need the ability to do higher mathematics, or have a transcendent feeling ­looking at the stars. These are all emergent ­properties. There must have been something that the human brain was designed for which meant that it couldn’t be designed in any other way – a bit like a computer which, originally designed to do calculations, turns out to be capable of language translation, too.”

Does this also explain the impulse towards faith? “I think you probably need an additional explanation: why believe in something supernatural?” he says. “There’s a great appeal in the idea of agency. Since we’re such social animals, we’re used, when anything happens in our world, to the idea that somebody did it. When you’re in danger of being eaten by a predator, what you see may be a predator or it may be just a trick of the light. It’s safest to assume it’s a predator. You’re safest to assume that there is an agent.”

Does Dawkins have a theory as to why, if our function as animals is to maximise our genetic representation in future generations, we aren’t more afraid of what we’re doing to the planet?

“People are short-sighted,” he replies, “and the horizon of what one takes seriously as danger is sort of one’s own lifetime. Even if people wouldn’t admit they don’t really care about what happens to their great-grandchildren, even if they do care a bit, it’s hard to put into action. To pay us a compliment, we are the only species that’s remotely capable of looking into the future. That idea is totally unbiological. We are unique in that we can do that, and some people care very much indeed. The hope is that, culturally, we’ll change. That as the centuries go by, there is a progressive, pseudo-evolutionary change in our values, morals and ethics.”

Dawkins had a long-standing disagreement with the futurist scientist James ­Lovelock, whose popular Gaia theory – that the Earth is a self-regulating organism – he dismissed as un-Darwinian on its publication in the 1970s. Speaking from his home on ­Chesil Beach, Lovelock, now 102, tells me, “We may have argued about Gaia, but we never quarrelled. I hope that Richard is ­remembered as a savant. As an erstwhile Quaker I have no strong ideas about the God delusion. I was brought up to believe in God as the still small voice within.”

Other scientists are more troubled by some of his views. In 2016 the geneticist Adam Rutherford wrote that Dawkins is now perhaps better known for his “irritable contempt for religion” than The ­Selfish Gene. The science writer Philip Ball told me that while Dawkins is “a brilliant ­communicator of evolutionary theory… some of the views he has expressed in recent years, for example about gender issues and ­‘wokeness’, have done much more harm to his scientific profile than his views on religion. Their lack of nuance, and frankly sometimes of compassion, have given a rather poor (and inaccurate) impression of the ‘view from science’.”

Christopher Hitchens told Dawkins that it was the “shame” of his colleagues not to have defended him against detractors over the years. Has he felt isolated? “No,” he says quickly. “What I say in biology has become pretty much orthodoxy. And what I say about religion is shared by everybody I know, living in the university environment. Many people go to church for the music.”

Every day, Dawkins plays the EWI, or electronic wind instrument, a kind of electric clarinet invented in the Seventies which ­converts your breath into all manner of sounds, including rather wacky ones. “At school, my melodic gift got in the way,” he says, “because I was so good at playing tunes that I didn’t bother to practise reading ­music.” He is trapped in a netherworld between classically-trained and making-it-up-as-he-goes-along.

It’s this and other things he talks about as we drive back to Oxford train station. Dawkins is transformed when the tape is off, full of questions and stories. He tells me about a fellow scientist who was so old, he delivered his speech three times before his wife took to the podium and stopped him. The touch-screen in his Tesla flashes with a message indicating new software to download: it does this every week, improving itself – in effect, a kind of evolving car. Two days after we meet it is attacked by a cyclist, who smashes the rear mirror with a bike lock, then comes back for another go. Dawkins, shaken, takes to Twitter to ask for witnesses.

Richard Dawkins’ new book, “Flights of Fancy”, is published by Head of Zeus

[See also: “Darwin’s cultural bias was laced into his science”: Lucy Cooke on why evolutionary biology needs feminism]

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This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special