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
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
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: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

    £7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

    Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'