Anatomy of a selfish genius

The Saturday Profile: RICHARD DAWKINS

Andrew Brown
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:52

Richard Dawkins is a brilliant teacher and a beautiful writer. He is rich, handsome and charming; his manners are exquisite, and his company is sought out by almost everyone who knows him. It is only a small compensating misfortune that his most passionately held beliefs are wrong. His chair at Oxford in the public understanding of science, specially created for him by the Microsoft millionaire Charles Simonyi, is richly deserved. But the title it seems he really craves, that of professor of the public understanding of religion - a position he would use with his customary lucidity and brilliance to explain that it is all rubbish - will for ever escape him. He is the Calvin of the Darwinian reformation: a man with a vision like a laser beam - dazzling, unnaturally coherent, and ultimately too narrow to illuminate the world around us. His latest book, Unweaving the Rainbow, displays both his skill at catching beautiful ideas on the wing and his relish in machine-gunning sitting ducks.

It is easy to underestimate the vehemence of his hatred of religion: he has demanded that astrologers be prosecuted under the Trades Descriptions Act; he has proposed a theory that religions are "viruses of the mind"; his friend Nicholas Humphrey has suggested that it should be a criminal offence to teach children that the Bible is literally true. If nothing else, these proposals show that the attitudes that gave the Inquisition a bad name can survive and even flourish in the absence of religious belief.

Yet they are not peripheral to his brilliance as a teacher of science, for that seems increasingly to be founded on a desire to ensure that science is not just the best, but the only source of wonder about the natural world. He is convinced,that "an amplified and developed vision... of Darwinism... can make everything about life fall into place, in the heart as well as the brain." Science, in other words, must satisfy our emotional and spiritual needs, as well as our intellectual ones.

He is certainly thorough-going in this aim. His second marriage, to Eve Barham, ended in bitterness which persists to this day. He asked one recent interviewer not even to mention her name. "Can't you just call her the mother of my daughter?" But his devoted attempts to pass the vision to his daughter Juliet, now 14, form a constant theme in his writing: In Climbing Mount Improbable he told an extraordinary story: "On a crisp, starry night in 1986 I woke my two-year-old daughter and carried her, wrapped in blankets, out in into the garden where I pointed her sleepy face towards the published location of Halley's Comet. She didn't take in what I was saying, but I stubbornly whispered into her ear the story of the comet and the certainty that I could never see it again, but that she might when she was 78." What makes the anecdote revealing is that neither could see the comet at all. "To be truthful I had a hard time convincing myself that I could see the comet. Sometimes I seemed to conjure a faint, greyish smear at approximately the right place. At other times it melted away. The problem was that the number of photons falling on our retinas was close to zero." But the problem is nothing to do with photons. It is a man afraid of death, and of losing touch with the child he loves, reduced to a passionate, inarticulate stoicism. It is about human beings, and the difficulties of being a boarding-school-educated Englishman, a gentleman and, perhaps, a nerd, who listed his recreation in Who's Who as "The Apple Macintosh".

Dawkins was born in 1941 in Kenya, the son of a colonial administrator who later inherited a farm near Witney. He was educated at Oundle and then at Balliol. He took his doctorate under Niko Tinbergen, who won a Nobel Prize for his studies of birds; as a young post-doc he was head- hunted to Berkeley, where he developed his first metaphor of the immortal gene; in this instance they were leading down the generations, discarding the bodies they used as hitch-hikers discard their rides. The fully developed viewpoint of The Selfish Gene appeared when he returned to Oxford as a fellow of New College in 1970. The book is, by accident, one of Edward Heath's contributions to Western civilisation: Dawkins started it when Heath's confrontation with the miners forced a three-day week and left him with nothing else to do.

At the time, his enthusiasm for the subject was startling, and its combination with literary merit unprecedented.

That scientific knowledge can be a source of wonder and delight is no longer controversial in this country; and this is very largely the work of Dawkins himself. In the 22 years since The Selfish Gene was published in 1976, he has poured out an iridescent stream of wonderful descriptions of the way the world works. The chapter on the echo-location of bats in The Blind Watchmaker; his description of the engineering of spider webs in River out of Eden; the struggles of fig wasps in the same book; are marvellous, and should be in any anthology of modern English prose. It is not just nature. He does just as well the ideas with which he sympathises. When it was published, The Selfish Gene was not just pop science for the masses; it was pop science for a great many biologists, too, for whom the ideas had never been so coherently or lucidly synthesised.

This applied even to some of the people whose work he was describing and extending. John Maynard Smith, the grand old man of British theoretical biology, says that every single really brilliant student he has had since the book came out had been turned to a study of biology by reading The Selfish Gene. Certainly Dawkins's ambitions were huge: "Rather than propose a new theory or unearth a new fact, often the most important contribution a scientist can make is to discover a new way of seeing old theories or facts. What we are talking about is not a slip to an equivalent view but, in extreme cases, a transfiguration", he wrote in the preface to the second edition of The Selfish Gene, before adding with typical Oxonian humility, which can seem to outsiders unbearably arrogant, simply because it is: "I hasten to disclaim any such status for my own modest contribution." None the less, this passage stakes his claim to scientific greatness clearly enough: "Expounding ideas that have hitherto appeared only in the technical literature is a difficult art. It requires insightful new twists of language and revealing metaphors. If you push novelty of language and metaphor far enough, you can end up with a new way of seeing. And a new way of seeing, as I've just argued, can in its own right make an original contribution to science."

Not all biologists were similarly delighted. The figure of the "selfish" gene seemed to them to attribute to a gene qualities it could not possibly possess: morality, perhaps, and certainly agency. Dawkins's rhetoric in The Selfish Gene contributed irresistibly to the idea that he saw genes as the puppet-masters of our fate: in fact his German publishers issued the book with a cover showing marionettes dangling from a frame labelled "genes". He was horrified, and for some time lectured with that as an illustration of what he did not mean. His next book, The Extended Phenotype, his most technical, least-read and possibly most profound, contains enough argument to convince any reader that genes cannot be our puppet-masters.

But this is not the conclusion that most people would reach from his most celebrated passage of rhetoric: "We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes." In this and other books, Dawkins occasionally dazzles himself with the brilliance of his own metaphors. Selfishness, in The Selfish Gene, is sometimes used to mean that genes are what natural selection chooses to copy down the generations. And sometimes it is used in the normal, human sense. "We are born selfish," he says.

It is easy to suppose that he thinks that selfishness, in a moral sense, is the fundamental stuff of human character; and in some moods this is what he claims. Yet the beauty and power of the biological theories in The Selfish Gene is that they show how genes for "altruism" may spread through a population even in a selfish world. The book is in fact an explanation of our genes for unselfishness. The constant flickering between the two senses of the word has caused huge confusion to many readers and it is quite irrelevant to the underlying biology. Yet instead of moving away from it, his books since 1982 have moved steadily in the direction of merging science and philosophy into one seamless whole in which neither can flourish.

Another anecdote about his daughter, from Climbing Mount Improbable, gives a measure of this ambition. He takes her out for a car ride in the country. They see a field of wonderful flowers and he asks her what they are for. "She gave a rather thoughtful answer: `To make the world pretty and to help the bees make honey for us.' I was touched by this, and sorry to tell her that it wasn't true." So he explains to her that the flowers are not there to make the world beautiful, or to delight bees or anything else. They are in the world to copy their DNA. She was, at the time, six years old: not perhaps quite ready to be told that the entire universe is a purposeless, indifferent machine, Dawkins himself, like most of his followers, skips lightly over the difficulties of finding meaning in a world he believes he knows to be morally meaningless. Yet this is to avoid the ultimate question that his style of explanation raises: why should science tell us what the world is for at all?

As the philosopher Jerry Fodor wrote, reviewing Dawkins's last book, science really tells us that "there's an awful lot of `because' out there and very little `for'." Dawkins has done more than any other living writer to illuminate the "because" of natural selection; but also more than almost anyone else to muddy the question he really wants science to answer, which is: "what for?"

Andrew Brown

Life Story

Full name: Clinton Richard Dawkins.

Origins: Born 26 March 1941, son of Lincolnshire farming family, Clinton Dawkins and Jean Mary Vivuan. Privately educated at Oundle School. First class honours degree at Balliol College, Oxford.

Vital statistics: Aged 57. Three times married, with daughter, Juliet Emma, by second marriage. Current wife, the actress Lala Ward, only daughter of Viscount Bangor.

Climb to Success: Assistant professor of zoology, University of Berkeley, 1967-9; lecturer in zoology at Oxford, 1970-90.

Current title: Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, University of Oxford.

Books: Six, including `The Selfish Gene' (1976), and `Unweaving the Rainbow' (1998).

Greatest feud: With Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard palaeontologist, over the nature of evolution.

Dawkins on religion: "If you tell her about changing princes into frogs, she will believe you. If you tell her that bad children roast in hell, she will have nightmares. I have just discovered that without her father's consent this sweet, trusting, gullible six-year old is being sent, for weekly instruction, to a Roman Catholic nun. What chance has she?"

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