Art: Preaching to the converted

Richard Dawkins The Queen Elizabeth Hall; Will science be the new rock'n'roll?

The manner of entry on to the stage is always of crucial significance. The historian, Roy Porter, introducing the neo-Darwinian populist Richard Dawkins (who is about to deliver a lecture on the subject of science and sensibility), hurtles in from the wings with scarcely a glance to left or right, as if shot from the rubber band of some mischievous child. Porter looks scrubbily bearded and genially crumpled, wrenched into the spotlight from a terrific snog. Dawkins, by contrast, gliding across the stage on invisible wheels, looks seamlessly plausible in his grey suit and savagely centred tie - natural selection has evolved the very acme of the sprightly and infinitely trustworthy insurance agent.

Dawkins spends his hour tilting at old enemies - those (principally Americans) who would "dumb down" scientific endeavour by pretending that science is really "fun" and not hard labour; the woeful gullibility of those who fall for the predictions of pseudo-scientists, quacks, astrologers, New Agers - such as those who took comfort from that statement in the Daily Mail that Hale-Bopp was not directly responsible for the death of Princess Diana. The main thrust of this evening's argument is that we are living in the "digital century" - but his explanation of what exactly this means (he defines it with reference to beacons lit to warn of the approach of the Spanish Armada) leaves the audience baffled. But most heartfelt of all is his lament, in a century which has seen some of the greatest scientific achievements of all time, for the woeful neglect from which science continues to suffer, the lack of appetite on the part of the public for true scientific understanding, the willing acquiescence in superstition and mystification.

At times, Dawkins's rhetoric resembles that of some prim, 19th-century evangelical preacher. We must defend ourselves against that "populist whoring that defiles the wonders of science", he shrills. And against those who, in their efforts to bring themselves down to the level of readers of The Sun, "squeal with gameshow levity" as they describe insects as "ugly bugs"....

In fact, concludes Dawkins with a desperately heartfelt flourish, the 20th century has ended with the same level of scientific credulity as the 19th....

And there endeth the lesson. Dawkins sat down, and Porter glanced across at him, wild haired, sceptical. The only problem, he pointed out fingering his beard, was that Dawkins's books, and all those written by scientists and scientific popularisers whose first names generally began with Stephen, were selling like hot cakes, and if Dawkins cared to glance out into the audience for a moment, he would see that he had managed to fill a hall whose capacity was no more and no less than one thousand bums on seats. How much neglect did all this amount to? Wasn't this, in fact, the greatest era of scientific popularisation in the history of mankind? In short, wasn't Brother Dawkins being a bit of an ivory-towered, prattish, Oxbridge whinger?

After that, Dawkins looked somewhat destabilised. To a question about his frequent attacks upon religion, he replied, somewhat unconvincingly, that his books contained very few sentences against the subject. And when asked for a quick definition of science, he looked baffled, and then finally produced the following: "The search for what is true..." is that all? prompted Porter. "Well," fumbled Dawkins, "religion might also be thought to be the search for what is true, but there are so many religions, and they obviously can't all be right..."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

    £28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

    £40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor