Richard Dawkins was enjoying a coffee at the Mondrian Hotel when a star-struck waiter interrupted him to thank him for his work. It was the kind of thing that happens a lot at the swanky West Hollywood hot spot — but usually to showbiz celebrities, not biologists.
Dawkins is used to the adulation. The British intellectual has become a celebrity thanks to his books on evolution — including "The Selfish Gene," written in 1976 — and his vocal atheism, expressed in works like "The God Delusion," published in 2006. His latest offering is the first volume of his new autobiography, "An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist," which describes his childhood in colonial Africa and his early scientific work.
Dawkins talked with The Times about his writing, his fans and what people do and don't understand about evolution.
You have a lot of readers who are not scientists.
Yes. I would like people to appreciate science in the same way they appreciate the arts. Science has a timeless quality to it.
The usefulness of science is sometimes exaggerated. You'd never talk about music being useful, or art being useful.
People do talk about music being useful, as a tool for training the brain.
They do, that's true. If you're really struggling to find something to say, that's what you'd come up with. It's not quite as bad as saying it's useful because it's good exercise for the violinist's right arm.
But music is beautiful, music is inspiring. And so is science. I'm of the Carl Sagan school of science writing — it should be beautiful and inspiring and enthralling and thrilling. Because reality is all those things.
We are privileged to be in reality. We get here by a process which happens to be my subject — evolution, Darwinian evolution — and the fact that we understand how we got here is itself wonderful.
Do you think people understand evolution?
Jacques Monod, the great molecular biologist, said that the trouble with natural selection is that everyone thinks he understands it.
It's a simple idea. And yet, simple as it is, nobody thought of it until the 19th century, which is remarkable when you think of what clever things had already been thought of in mathematics and physics. On the face of it, it would seem to need less cleverness to think of natural selection than to think of Newton's Laws, the mathematics of Archimedes or Pythagoras, or the astronomy of Galileo or Kepler.