Intelligence Squared- “Richard Dawkins: The Rational Revolutionary” [podcast]

Jul 25, 2016

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In the 1960s and 70s, a revolution took place in the way we understand human nature. Out went Marx and Freud, and in came a rational, scientific approach to the way we see ourselves. At the vanguard of that revolution was Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist whose book ‘The Selfish Gene’ changed the thinking not just of other scientists but of all of us, and propelled its author to intellectual stardom as the modern heir to Darwin.

To mark the 40th anniversary of ‘The Selfish Gene’ and Dawkins’ 75th birthday, Intelligence Squared staged a global event, bringing together luminaries from the worlds of science, philosophy and culture to engage with Dawkins about his life and work. Steven Pinker, celebrated cognitive scientist, and Daniel Dennett, philosopher and fellow ‘New Atheist’, were beamed in live from America. On-stage guests included the illusionist Derren Brown, an avowed fan of Dawkins’ theories about the workings of the mind, the science writer Susan Blackmore, who has further developed some of Dawkins’ important ideas, and the acclaimed novelist and playwright Michael Frayn.

It was Dawkins’ understanding of the gene as the fundamental unit of natural selection that captured the popular imagination. It was Dawkins, too, who invented the word ‘meme’ to describe the cultural equivalent of a gene – an idea, belief or practice that replicates itself from person to person and is subject to the same selective pressures as genes – whether it’s an age-old religious practice or a modern fad such as the ice bucket challenge.

And on the subject of religion, the publication of ‘The God Delusion’ a decade ago marked the moment when Dawkins became the patron saint of atheism. The book turned him into the world’s leading controversialist – hero-worshipped by atheists, demonised by believers. But throughout the hubbub of being the celebrity scientist and the non-believers’ poster boy, Dawkins continued his scientific studies at New College, Oxford, and in obscure corners across the world – where he honed the art of observing and writing beautifully about nature, conveying his sense of wonder at how organisms developed their complexity over the ages.

17 comments on “Intelligence Squared- “Richard Dawkins: The Rational Revolutionary” [podcast]

  • I understand a video of this will be forthcoming.

    This is an excellent reminder of the importance of Dawkins teaching and thinking. It is precisely the testability of the hypotheses he promotes unlike the just so stories of worthy but information starved minds like Freud and Marx that allows us to take science where it was once denied or fruitless. It turns the might bes of just soes into testable, negatable hypotheses to restart Project Science and the accumulation of confidence for its models.

    Incidentally, Nick Davies talking about his ground breaking research into cuckoos on BBC R4 The Life Scientific (so good) which hinged he noted on precisely Dawkin’s thinking for their insight.

    Dawkins is important to ongoing biological research, but that research is thrilling about the curious patchiness of cognition and how exploitable this can be.

    Human parallels are not to be overlooked.

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  • In the 1960s and 70s, a revolution took place in the way we understand human nature. Out went Marx and Freud, and in came a rational, scientific approach to the way we see ourselves.

    Love Dawkins, but this above is a bunch of pernicious, leveling crap. Almost on the level of creationism. It is unworthy of this site. Who wrote it? No name attached to it.

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  • I call it as I see it, Ohoo. It was a goddamned stupid and destructive remark the author of that little essay made. The end of Freud and Marx! Why just them? If everyone shared that disdainful, dismissive attitude it wouldn’t bode well for the future of our collective intellectual life. It made me think of Fahrenheit 451. I smell a rat, ignorance, an insidious trend, a biased agenda that I do not claim to understand – and a large bonfire….

    (I pasted a link to a thread that might help you find your space explorer-tree story on the Brain Map thread.)

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  • If everyone shared that disdainful, dismissive attitude it wouldn’t bode well for the future of our collective intellectual life.

    This is wrong twice over.

    Recognising when ideas have not been supported by science or even by mere evidence is crucial so that the research can proceed elsewhere.

    Continuing to build on sand is dangerous for people. Some of the ideas of both those mentioned (through no fault of their own I might add) created genuinely harmful environments for others. (The same is true for Darwin…its just that there was an upside….he was more correct.)

    Both though made huge contributions to the progress in how people thought about their subjects. They truly moved things on (proving the unconscious, powerfully arguing for an expanded view of economic forces.) They were agents of change. The problem they represent now is entirely the inability (and danger) of some folk not moving on. The fault is perhaps not Freud and Marx but Freudians and Marxists. If we still had Newtonians, Isaac would surely come in for the same stick.

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  • @ Phil

    Okay, I see what you’re saying. But the phrase “the end of Freud and Marx” just struck me as stupid. I am entitled to my opinion. And I have said many times before that Freud is worth reading and studying in spite of the mistakes or shortcomings. And some of the repudiations may have been or may someday be repudiated. And his failures are worth studying, just as “a beauty that might have been” can be as compelling as beauty itself. (Wilde)

    It’s not always about being a hundred percent right or wrong, as you know.

    “My interest in idea is not necessarily in verifying its certainty, because one rarely can; it’s in gaining an intimation of whether it is a nicely placed or nicely proportioned idea, by the way you feel it as it passes through you. It’s an existential approach to the intellectual life.” —Mailer

    Must we read with a red-ink mentality and cross out line after line like rigid maniacs, or try to commune with an author such as Freud, in a spirit of openness, allowing ourselves to take what we can and leave the rest?

    I know you do the latter, but others are so obsessed with fact that they miss out on the… What do you call it, the maybes? What was that word again? You sometimes use it when you rebut my (probably unfair, unwarranted) accusations that science (physics) disregards the thing-in-itself.

    I sent you a nice message on the new Trump thread. (Comment 21) A little syrupy, perhaps.

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  • The thing that moderate muslims will pick up on is the discussion on religion 35mins on. “Islam has the capacity to…..”, “but is worse and than”……, “Christianity has the capacity but is not followed by so many people……”, “Its the same in the bible but….”. There has to be an honest comparison with the beheading of people by bombing. I just can’t let this pass without feeling there is a contradiction and confusion even in the speakers mind.

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  • I was at the event with our daughter, who’s a Biochemist working at Oxford University, and as Richard was signing my copy of The Extended Phenotype, I tried to introduce him to her, but unfortunately it didn’t quite work because he was too busy with the book signing, for which there was a long queue, which would have been held up if I’d persisted.

    But it was an enjoyable evening which my daughter thoroughly enjoyed, and that was the main thing.

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  • Out went Marx and Freud, and in came a rational, scientific approach to the way we see ourselves.

    Dawkins is great, but would you discourage your daughter from being introduced to the works of Freud? Would that cause harm to the development of her mind, in your opinion? And do you agree that the above statement is crude, leveling, destructive?

    (I tried to introduce [Dawkins] to her…)

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  • Dan @2, I have read a bit of Freud & a little bit of Marx. Both men had powerful minds, that is obvious. But unfortunately for them a lot of their hypotheses and thoughts that they exposed in black and white have long since been proven wrong! This is quite unlike Darwin, whose main hypothesis is STILL being proven right hundreds of years after he published.

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  • Good podcast, Richard.

    I’ve probably left this comment on many other threads before, but you’ll be happy to know that I was one of those kids who had her doubts about God after she learned the truth about Santa Claus.

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  • 13
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    @Stafford #8

    I tried to introduce him to her, but unfortunately it didn’t quite work because he was too busy with the book signing, for which there was a long queue, which would have been held up if I’d persisted.

    I made a similar mistake at a talk & book signing event I attended in Medford last year. I tried to comment on something he said during the event and he simply ignored me. Same situation, long line so he made me understand in a clear but non-verbal way that he didn’t appreciate me holding up the line. So I just left with my tail between my legs, my silly juvenile excitement of meeting him extinguished in a heartbeat.

    I felt really bad afterwards for exercising such poor judgment but I also felt diminished, struck by the sudden realization that I’m an insignificant, poorly educated nobody in a world of elite academia and great thinkers. A flea among giants. I was in a place where I simply don’t belong.

    (Funny anecdote: that night just as I was finally falling asleep after hours of tossing and turning, the fire alarm went off in the hotel around 4 AM and the smoke detector in my room was so loud that it felt like my eardrums were being bored through with a half-inch drill bit. This went on for about half an hour. Ironically, I couldn’t wait to go back home to my irrelevant little life in the Deep North where the great giants of this world are never born and only rarely set foot.)

    It was a harsh experience but on the upside, it brought with it a few useful lessons: a) When attempting to mingle with celebrity intellectuals, you have to do it at the right time and you’d better have something interesting or controversial to say. If you don’t, then STFU and listen. b) Don’t assume that a genuine intellectual will be as enthusiastic about speaking with you as you are about speaking with him/her. Brilliant, successful people with a horde of followers tend to get bored easily. Unless you are as brilliant as they, getting their attention can be a real challenge.

    Note: the events organized by RDFRS, some offer an option to purchase a VIP access which includes a dinner or a cocktail with the guests of the event. They’re a bit more pricey than the regular entry fee but they are worth it you’re looking for an opportunity to introduce yourself and/or your daughter to Richard Dawkins. Access to celebrities come at a price, c’est la vie.

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  • NNA

    I went to that one in Medford too. Next time you’re in the neighborhood I’ll take you for a night on the town in Harvard Square. Those book signings are a mob scene. Fun but a mob scene. I was in the line for that one and it went all the way up the two sets of stairs and was backed up into the theater itself. They need to keep it moving as efficiently as possible. Also, I’ll bet they’re worried about raving lunatics. I don’t think our controversial intellectuals should stick around the place any longer than necessary. But like I said, better to come out mucking around with us lumpen proletariat instead!

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  • NearlyNakedApe, I think you might be overthinking this. I can’t speak for your experience, but I have met Richard at 8 separate book signings, including the one in Medford. In all of them he has been kind (at the Medford one he actually gave me a hug, I assume because he recognizes me at this point!). I strongly suspect in your case he was distracted, or perhaps he was exhausted. Remember how hot it was that day? Somebody even commented that at the VIP event beforehand (which obviously I couldn’t go to) the A/C was broken. Also, were you at the end of the line? If so, it wouldn’t surprise me if he were just exhausted by then.

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  • I’m extremely sorry if I sometimes seem dismissive when signing books. I really REALLY don’t intend it. I have to balance courtesy to the person who has reached the front of the queue with courtesy to those still waiting in line. The longer the line, the more I worry about the people still waiting. The problem has got measurably worse since the advent of the Great Selfie Plague.

    Stafford Gordon, I’m especially sorry I didn’t take the time to meet your daughter. I’m completely sure I was not aware you were trying to introduce her to me because I most CERTAINLY would have been very happy to meet her. Please convey my apologies to her.

    And PLEASE ignore the foolishly provocative remark about Marx and Freud. I’ve no idea who wrote it. I’d ask the mods simply to remove that first paragraph, but I suppose it’s too late for that now. But please don’t let it derail the thread.

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  • I’d like to add that one thing that has always impressed me about Richard at book signings is how seriously he takes his readers and their questions. And how he always smiles when I have a drawing to give him at a book signing! 🙂

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