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.

Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
i100
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

    Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

    Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

    Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape