by John Brockman
On January 2, 1997, Edge published in its inaugural edition, “Science, Delusion, And The Appetite For Wonder: A Talk With Richard Dawkins”, the complete text of the Richard Dimbleby Lecture which he had delivered a few weeks earlier on BBC Television in his role at that time as the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.
Over the years Dawkins has been among the most frequent (and valued) Edge contributors, and our pages are filled with his elegant writing and brilliant thinking. On a trip to England this month, it occurred to me all of his contributions on Edge had been the result either of his public speaking or his writing. I realized that I had never asked him to sit down for a one-to-one videotaped interview. After making arrangements, we met at noon on Saturday, April 11th, in the Enthoven Room of New College to have an Edge conversation. I am pleased to present the video and the transcript below. [ED NOTE: The accompanying soundtrack of the New College bells for the first 22 minutes was not part of the plan.]
THIS IS MY VISION OF “LIFE”
Natural selection is about the differential survival of coded information which has power to influence its probability of being replicated, which pretty much means genes. Coded information, which has the power to make copies of itself—“replicator”—whenever that comes into existence in the universe, it potentially could be the basis for some kind of Darwinian selection. And when that happens, you then have the opportunity for this extraordinary phenomenon which we call “life”.
My conjecture is that if there is life elsewhere in the universe, it will be Darwinian life. I think there’s only one way for this hyper complex phenomenon which we call “life” to arise from the laws of physics. The laws of physics—if you throw a stone up in the air, it describes a parabola, and that’s it. But biology, without ever violating the laws of physics, does the most extraordinary things; it produces machines which can run, and walk, and fly, and dig, and swing through the trees, and think, and produce the whole of human technology, human art, human music. This all comes about because at some point in history, about 4 billion years ago, a replicating entity arose, not a gene as we would now see it, but something functionally equivalent to a gene, which because it had the power to replicate and the power to influence its own probability of replicating, and replicated with slight errors, gave rise to the whole of life.
If you ask me what my ambition would be, it would be that everybody would understand what an extraordinary, remarkable thing it is that they exist, in a world which would otherwise just be plain physics. The key to the process is self-replication. The key to the process is that … let’s call them “genes” because nowadays they pretty much all are genes. Genes have different probabilities of surviving. The ones that survive, because they have such high fidelity replication, are the ones which we see in the world, the ones which dominate gene pools in the world. So for me, the replicator, the gene, DNA, is absolutely key to the whole process of Darwinian natural selection. So when you ask the question, what about group selection, what about higher levels of selection, what about different levels of selection, everything comes down to gene selection. Gene selection is fundamentally what is really going on.
Watch the video and read the full transcript by clicking the name of the source located below.