Whenever Richard Dawkins’s name appears in the news nowadays, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. The occasional controversial outburst by the British scientist about religion can sometimes be insulting, misinformed, and arrogant. They also make it easy for us to forget why we come to read his work in the first place. While it’s certainly true that Dawkins’s 2006 book The God Delusion was an intriguing riposte to the world of theology, it’s not his area of expertise.
Too often Dawkins's anti-clerical rhetoric makes him seem like a dour and negative man. But lure him into a conversation about biology and the tone changes. The angry and defensive manner is replaced by a sincere warmth and geniality. It is a shame that Dawkins’s scientific views have taken a backseat in the public domain.
Dawkins’s 12th book is An Appetite For Wonder, a memoir. It brings the reader back to his childhood days during the Second World War in sub-Saharan Africa, where his father worked in the British Colonial Service. We also read about Dawkins’s privileged upbringing in Oxfordshire in southern England, where the family moved to when he was a small boy. Dawkins also spends considerable ink in this memoir recalling how he came to write The Selfish Gene, his first book. Its phenomenal success in 1976 made him a modern day prophet for Charles Darwin’s ideas.
I met with Dawkins at his home in Oxford, and tried to rediscover why he is still one of the world’s most innovative thinkers today.
You discuss in the book an experiment you conducted very early in your career, where you deprive chicks of natural sunlight, to explore the concept of whether their knowledge of the world around them is innate or learned. Does that experiment tell us anything about the advanced information that humans are genetically equipped with?
No, it doesn’t, because the experiment hasn’t been done on humans. But something like it could be done on humans. It would be regarded as unethical to do it, unless it was very mild treatment. But in principle you could deprive humans of all kind of things to see what happened. You could bring up children without contact to language and see if they could develop their own. You could bring up children without any knowledge of how to copulate, and then see if they could work it out when they reach sexual maturity. I don’t really see how there would be much objection to bringing up babies in an environment where light came from below for a few days. It could be done when they are in hospital so they experience light, but they are not actually deprived of light.
If we brought children up with light coming from below, so that every time they saw a solid object, like their mother’s face, it would look the reverse. Obviously babies don’t peck like chicks so what do you do? Something like gaze fixation. A lot of work has been done on babies fixating their gaze on things that interest them. And it’s been shown that if you give them a picture of a face, they will fixate on a face that is the right way up, rather than the wrong way up. But as far as I know that experiment hasn’t been done.
How important was W.D Hamilton’s theory of kin selection in the two papers he published in 1964 in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, for you writing The Selfish Gene? Would you never have written the book if you weren’t so inspired by his ideas?
I think in order to write The Selfish Gene it required Hamilton. I hadn’t read George C. Williams at the time, but I think that might have done it. But Hamilton was enormously influential on me. I had pretty much laid out the rhetoric of The Selfish Gene in 1966, a full 10 years before the book was written. And that was inspired by Hamilton.
Can you remember when you first started to think seriously about questions like why are we here, and what is our purpose in life?
I guess I should have tried to say more about that in the book, but didn’t really. It was probably at Oxford that I started seriously thinking about those questions. But I think I was probably curious about them at the age of about 8 or 9. And being inspired by the idea, or at least by the question of whether space has a bound, or time has a bound, or goes on forever. University, especially in biology, gave me the tools to think about this in greater detail.