Brought to life on a CD-Rom

Richard Dawkins has championed his controversial views in books, newspapers and on television. Now he is evolving into multimedia. Tom Wilkie talks to him
If you haven't bought his books, read his newspaper polemics or seen him on television, now is your chance to meet a virtual reality version of Britain's most controversial scientist and media superstar, Richard Dawkins. Gasp as you see the complexity of the human eye evolve from the simplest beginnings; marvel at how the camel got its hump; and play with the process of natural selection itself to drive whole populations of innocent creatures into extinction.

Next month, Notting Hill, the publishing house launched by The Independent's founder-editor, Andreas Whittam Smith, releases its latest CD-Rom, The Evolution of Life. It opens in a virtual version of Professor Dawkins's study at Oxford University containing strategically placed artefacts, such as a skeleton, a model of DNA and a photocopier. Each is significant to the story of the evolution of life - the photocopier, for example, is intended to symbolise "replication", one of the defining characteristics of life as we know it.

Behind each lies a different story, accessible by a click on the relevant artefact, whereupon a miniature Professor Dawkins pops up to give an introductory voice-over. Users can set the conditions for evolution of life themselves and watch it happen before their eyes.

The scientific content of the disc goes from the simple to A-level standard. However, Professor Dawkins rejects the idea that this is a straightforward "encyclopaedia" about DNA and evolution. "This isn't a textbook. It has one authorial voice which does come through. It does take a stance - it's my view," he said.

There is a nice irony in our time that the two greatest writers about science in English - Richard Dawkins from Oxford and Stephen Jay Gould from Harvard - are at opposite ends of a long-running controversy in evolutionary biology. Neither doubts for a second the fact of evolution, but they do dispute some of the detailed mechanisms by which it happens.

In books like The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, Professor Dawkins has tirelessly and powerfully argued his view that the drive by genes to make as many copies of themselves as possible is the motivating force behind Darwinism and that this explains all the diversity of life on earth today. The books are best-sellers that have led on to newspaper polemics and to television appearances.

But "books and television are passive media," Professor Dawkins said. "I was attracted to another medium I had not done before - the idea of a new medium that demands active participation from the consumer was an attractive one."

One of the recurrent themes of the books is that evolution is usually a slow process which can sometimes best be understood by computer simulation - a comparatively simple program starting with simple "creatures" can rapidly end up evolving complexity. These are the famous "Biomorphs" first introduced in The Blind Watchmaker and the theme of computer simulation was revisited in his latest book, Climbing Mount Improbable. There, Professor Dawkins said, "Computer models were integral to the exposition. In a book, you have to describe in prose what they are like but inevitably you feel, `if only the reader could press a button and see for himself'. The US edition of The Blind Watchmaker came bundled with a Biomorph floppy."

Professor Dawkins said one attraction of making a CD-Rom was that "readers" could interact and run the programs for themselves to see how complexity could arise in "virtual" life-forms from very simple beginnings.

There is a further computer-related element to the production of this CD-Rom. For most of his career, Professor Dawkins has had to fit his passion for popularising science around his day-job in the department of zoology at Oxford University. Now he has been freed from the pressures of teaching and has more time to write about science, thanks to a donation by Charles Simonyi, one of the founders of Microsoft, to Oxford University. The money has gone to endow a professorship in the public understanding of science - and Professor Dawkins is the first holder of the office.

However, Professor Dawkins's adherence to information technology is not total: he freely confesses to being still "a bit of a novice" about the Internet. But he appreciates the irony that the Net - one of the most hi-tech fruits of high science - is being used by anti-science groups to promote their beliefs: one of the first and most active groups to use the technology of the Internet were the creationists - those (predominantly American) groups who believe that the first chapter of Genesis is literally true and that Darwin's theory of evolution is wrong.

"The Net provides a medium that any fruitcake can get on and broadcast nutty ideas, whereas book publishing is subject to some controls - vanity publishing aside. I suppose we have all got to become our own editors and publishers and censors," he concluded.

After this first dipping of the toe into the new technology of multimedia and virtual reality, will more CD-Roms follow? Not for the moment: "I think I'm going to write another book next" he said.

`The Evolution of Life' (Notting Hill, pounds 29.95) will be released on 10 October.