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FROM THE MOYERS FILES: Bill Moyers talks with Richard Dawkins

December 3, 2004

MOYERS: At least half of America is going to take issue with the cover story of the November issue of the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC magazine. There it is, with the provocative question boldly displayed, "Was Darwin Wrong?" The article inside answers just as boldly, "No. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming."

But try telling that to this red-state mom in Cobb County, Georgia in the suburbs of Atlanta.

ROGERS: I believe that God created the world in six literal days about 6,000 years ago.

MOYERS: She's not alone. A recent CBS/NEW YORK TIMES poll found that more than half of Americans believed that human beings were created by God just as we are today, and 65% said that biblical creation should be part of the curriculum, along with evolution. These Bible-based beliefs about the origins of life are churning American politics.

As USA TODAY reported recently, there have been efforts in 24 states this year to challenge the teaching of evolution in public schools. Because the Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that creationism is a religious belief and can't be taught in public schools, this biblical worldview is being repackaged under a new banner.

They call it "intelligent design," the notion that our world is far too complex not to have been issued from some higher power. A school district in Dover, Pennsylvania has become the first in the nation to require that students be taught the theory of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution.

With me now is a man who is puzzled by America's seeming retreat from what science has to say about the world we live in. From his teaching base at Oxford University Richard Dawkins holds forth as one of the world's foremost advocates for the public understanding of science. His books on the subject have been acclaimed by literary and scientific peers alike. They make science so clear and engaging that even a journalist like me gets it. My favorite among them is A DEVIL'S CHAPLAIN and now, the latest, THE ANCESTOR'S TALE: A PILGRIMAGE TO THE DAWN OF EVOLUTION.

A zoologist by training, Richard Dawkins was recently described by an influential British magazine as his country's leading public intellectual. Welcome to NOW.

DAWKINS: Thank you.

MOYERS: What strikes me about this is that you have offered this trip back to the dawn of evolution at the very moment, in this country, there is a huge backlash against the very notion of evolution. Are you aware of walking into that buzzsaw of religion and politics here?

DAWKINS: Yes, I am. I mean I'm aware that the subject of evolution is, itself, controversial. I also feel that perhaps the fact that it's a sweep of four billion years helps to get things in perspective. I mean, this is the real long-term view of life. Whereas temporary politics perhaps we cannot exactly shrug this off. But at least get it into perspective.

MOYERS: Even as you speak about the four billion years of evolution, I can hear minds going off in the audience that says, "Yes, but we can't think that long. We're concerned right now with this controversy in this country."

One of the largest school districts in Georgia created a real stir, not long ago, when they insisted on putting a warning sticker on biology books saying, and I've got the exact quote here, "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered." What's your response to that?

DAWKINS: All materials should be studied with an open mind, studied critically, etcetera. I'm all for that. What's wrong is to single out evolution as though that is any more open to doubt than anything else. Of course, in science, there have been sort of open to doubt and things that need to be discussed.

And, of course, everything needs to be approached with an open mind. But, among the things that science does know, evolution is about as certain as anything we know. And that, of course, as you know, is accepted by responsible educated churchmen, as well as scientists.

MOYERS: When you say it's about as certain as anything we know, how do we know it?

DAWKINS: We know it from a massive evidence, not just fossil evidence, which is actually rather less important, nowadays, than molecular evidence. There's a huge quantity of evidence. Everything about the distribution of animals and plants over the earth's surface. The distributions on genes within the animal and plant kingdoms, everything points to the overwhelming conclusion that evolution is true. That doesn't mean that every detail of the theories… the details are necessarily true. But the fact that we and chimpanzees are cousins, the fact that we and amoebas are cousins, is beyond all educated dispute.

MOYERS: What do we have in common with jellyfish?

DAWKINS: We have a huge amount of DNA in common with jellyfish. At the deepest level, all living things that have ever been looked at have the same DNA code. And many of the same genes. We can actually measure how long ago the common ancestor of jellyfish and ourselves lived. Well, I say measure... estimate.


DAWKINS: …with a fair degree of plausibility. There's not the slightest shadow of a doubt that we are cousins of jellyfish, albeit, rather distant cousins.

MOYERS: But how do you account for the fact that human beings have this intimation of something beyond us that, you know, apparently a jellyfish doesn't entertain?

DAWKINS: Well, we have big brains. We have all sorts of things that jellyfish don't have. We have language, we have culture, we have music, we have mathematics, we have philosophy. And we have these intimations which you describe. We are a very, very unusual species…

MOYERS: What's the source of those intimations do you think? Wishful thinking?

DAWKINS: Well, I really don't know. I mean I think that when you've got a big brain, when you find yourself planted in a world with a brain big enough to understand quite a lot of what you see around you, but not everything, you naturally fall to thinking about the deep mysteries. Where do we come from? Where does the world come from? Where does the universe come from? Why can we think?

Those are very, very deep questions. And it's natural for us to hanker after solutions to that. And many solutions have been offered. And I think that's what you're seeing when you talk about those intimations.

MOYERS: Is evolution a theory, not a fact?

DAWKINS: Evolution has been observed. It's just that it hasn't been observed while it's happening.

MOYERS: What do you mean it's been observed.

DAWKINS: The consequences of. It is rather like a detective coming on a murder after the scene. And you… the detective hasn't actually seen the murder take place, of course. But what you do see is a massive clue. Now, any detective…

MOYERS: Circumstantial evidence.

DAWKINS: Circumstantial evidence, but masses of circumstantial evidence. Huge quantities of circumstantial evidence. It might as well be spelled out in words of English. Evolution is true. I mean it's as circumstantial as that, but it's as true as that.

MOYERS: As you probably know, back in 1987, our Supreme Court ruled that creationism, the belief that the earth was created by a transcendent God in six days 4,004 years ago, thereof, that the Supreme Court ruled that creationism was a religious belief that, therefore, could not be taught in public schools. So now creationism has been repackaged, as I'm sure you know, along the line of intelligent design, the notion that life on earth results from a purposeful design, rather than random selection. And that a higher intelligence is actually guiding this progress. Is there any circumstantial evidence to support that claim?

DAWKINS: I suppose it is possible that one might look at the evidence of life, as we see it on this planet, and try to find some sort of evidence that it was intelligently designed. The evidence that has been offered just doesn't even begin to suggest that it is intelligently designed. Once you understand how Darwinism works, then you could easily see that that's a far better, far more parsimonious, far more scientific explanation than intelligent design.

MOYERS: To what extent is this important? I remember the story of the professor who was talking about evolution in class, and the student raises his hand and says, "Professor what difference does it make if some distant grandfather of mine was an ape?" And the professor said, "Well, it would make a difference to your grandmother." But other than that, what is the practical consequence of presuming this?

DAWKINS: Well, I'm not sure about practical consequence. I take a rather more poetic view that when you're in the world, and you're only in the world for a matter of some decades, to have the privilege of understanding where you came from, what your antecedents are, what the reason for your existence is, is such a magnificent privilege. That not to have that, even if it doesn't actually help you in practice, even if the knowledge and understanding of evolution doesn't actually help you to do whatever you do, and you play football, or be a businessman, or whatever it might be.

Yet, you die impoverished. You die having not had a proper life if you have failed to understand what's on offer. And what's on offer today, in the 21st century, is a huge amount, far more than any of our predecessors in previous centuries had. And so I think it's rather like saying, "What's the use of music? What's the use of poetry?" They may not be useful, but what's the point of living at all if you don't have them. To me, that is firmly planted in the real world. The real world is so wonderful that I don't want more than that. And I think there is no more than that. But anybody who thinks they want more than that, I'm inclined to say, "How could you possibly want more than the real world? If you only you could understand how grand and beautiful and immense, and yet still incomprehensible the real world is. How can you want more than that?"

MOYERS: Where does this poetic sensibility come in you?

DAWKINS: I'm shot through with it, all the way through. Everything that I write is…

MOYERS: I know, that's obvious. But where does that come from? You were a choir boy I believe. You read the Psalms, sang the songs?

DAWKINS: Don't try and make it come from religion. It certainly didn't come from religion. No, I think it comes from science itself. It comes from…

MOYERS: I mean I'm talking about the Psalms, I mean the literature.


MOYERS: Psalms as the literature.

DAWKINS: I appreciate very much the literature of the psalms of Ecclesiastes, some of the prophets of Genesis I appreciate very much. But I don't think that's where the sense of wonder comes from. That's just great poetry.

MOYERS: When you were drawn to science, but, at the same time, you write with the clarity that marches in the service of the English language. I just wondered where, that can't just be DNA.

DAWKINS: Oh, of course it isn't. It's DNA filtered through the brain, education, culture. We both read the Bible, we both read Shakespeare, we both get to our language from sources which in, although they may ultimately, in some sense, be based upon DNA, it would be demeaning to say it's just DNA. In the same sort of way you can say that a computer contains huge quantities of literature and knowledge and encyclopedias and dictionaries, but the computer is nothing but ones and naughts. High voltage and low voltage fluctuating up and down.

I mean you know, at one level, that's true. But you know that that's a totally inadequate description of what's going on in the computer. And that's the same thing about a human mind.

MOYERS: What do you think about scientists who try to reconcile science and religion?

DAWKINS: Well, I think there are various ways of doing that. And Einstein, for example, was, as you know, always using the word God. Einstein used the word God as a kind of personification, a sort of literary personification of that which we don't yet understand. And so he recognized, and was awestruck by the deep problems of the universe, and the things that we don't understand. And he used the word God for that. And Einstein described himself as a very religious man. And in Einstein's sense, I too am a very religious man.

MOYERS: How is that?

DAWKINS: Because I too feel there's something deep and incomprehensible, and so far, uncomprehended at least. But what Einstein was not, and what I am not, is a believer in anything supernatural. Because I think that actually brings it down to a lower level. I think that the level of Einstein, where he was actually awestruck by the universe, and by the fundamental unsolved problems of the universe. To bring that down to the level of a personality who takes decisions, who designs things, who listens to prayers, who forgives sins, all of the things that supernatural gods are supposed to do, I think it diminishes it, and demeans it.

MOYERS: I've often thought it rather presumptuous to imagine God concerned about the outcome of the New York Jets or a New York Giants game, or even an American election.

DAWKINS: Yes, exactly.

MOYERS: Yet, religion, by its nature, according to the Christian tradition is the hope for things unseen.

DAWKINS: Well, that's the Christians' problem. I mean, that's not my problem. Why should you believe in something for which there is no reason to believe. Where it becomes positively dangerous is if you start fighting with somebody else who has a different faith from yours.

And each of you is equally convinced that you are right and the other one is wrong. And because, precisely because it appeals only to faith, and not evidence, there is no way you could settle the argument other than killing each other. Whereas, if you disagree, as two scientists disagree, two scientists can sit down together, look at the evidence, and say, "Oh, I was wrong. I overlooked that bit of evidence."

Or, "Here's a new bit of evidence just come in which shows that my previous theory was wrong." Scientists, at least in principle, will come to an agreement when all of the evidence is in. But that's not what faith-based people do. They say, "I know I'm right. End of story." That's dangerous.

MOYERS: Is this why there's no place in your world view for the supernatural, for religious tradition and authority?

DAWKINS: No, that's right. There is a place for religious literature, and religious art, and religious music.


DAWKINS: Because it's so beautiful. I mean, the B minor mass, or the Sistine Chapel, or the book of Ecclesiastes are beautiful works of art.

MOYERS: So beauty is very important as a result of faith.

DAWKINS: Beauty arises out of human inspiration. Humans take their inspiration from where it's going. And in many cases, it has, indeed, come from religion. I'm not so sure it really comes from faith as, in many cases, it probably comes from the money that the church was able to command in order to commission these works.

MOYERS: How do explain the fact that there seems to be no room, or little room in America today, for challenging this, you know, the great faith as we say? For challenging religious authority expression? People back away from it.

DAWKINS: I'm, yeah, I'm a bit baffled by that. I really don't understand it. I mean it shows itself in the fact that I probably not a single member of Congress or the Senate would ever dare to say that they don't believe in a supernatural God.

MOYERS: No atheist would be elected president.

DAWKINS: That's right. But they must be there. I mean it's just not reasonable, that in an advanced, educated civilization, the people who rise to the top politically would be different in this country than every other country in the western world.

MOYERS: Don't underestimate Richard Hofstadter book on anti intellectualism as a main current in American life…

DAWKINS: I don't. And it's very clear that a politician, in order to get elected, has to pretend to believe in a supernatural God. That doesn't mean they actually do. If you look at the figures for the scientists elected to the National Academy of Sciences. This is the elite of American scientists. Which means they're the elite of the world scientists. And something like 90 percent of them don't believe in a supernatural god. Ninety percent. Whereas, if you look at the population at large, it's about 90 percent who do. Well, that's an astonishing mismatch between the intellectual elite, and the rest of the population.

And if the Congress is 100 percent believers in supernatural as they allege, I just don't believe it. They've got to be at least a certain way in the direction of the elite scientists. Because they're obviously clever enough to get elected to Congress.

MOYERS: What do you think happens to a society that tolerates the belief that the universe was created in six days?

DAWKINS: Well, I'm all for tolerance, but I'm worried about a society where a sufficiently large number of the electorate can actually swing the vote, not of course that the age of the earth actually affects current politics directly. But it shows such a divorce from reality. Such an inability to apprehend the real world in which people live.

That I really worry about the judgments that people will make in other fields, such as when they come to when they come… When you think about how young the world is supposed to be, according to this view, it's 6,000… it's less than 10,000 years old. This means the entire universe began sometime after the middle stone age. I mean, what kind of a grasp on reality does that suggest?

MOYERS: But don't you think people who say they believe in that, or they think they believe in it, don't you think they are not really sure, and that what they've substituted for that kind of a certainty, is the consolation that they find in belief. I mean religion as consolation is a very powerful force…

DAWKINS: It is. But it's one thing to get consolation from a belief that there is a supernatural being who looks after you, perhaps takes care of you when you're dead, that kind, that gives consolation.

How can it be consoling to believe in something which is just straight counterfactual? Just simply goes against the facts? Mind you, I just read recently that a substantial number of people who voted Republican this time believe that there is evidence that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq.

They believe they were actually found in Iraq. It's one thing to say, "I believe there were weapons of mass destruction. But they were spirited over the Syrian border or something. They were smuggled away."

That's not what they're saying. They're saying they believe they have been found. Which contradicts everything that the evidence shows. I'm worried about people who are so out of the real world, that they delude themselves about evidence. Not about their opinions. But about evidence.

MOYERS: My favorite essay, in my favorite book of yours, A DEVIL'S CHAPLAIN, is the letter you wrote to your daughter when she was 10 years old. The title of it is "Good Reasons and Bad Reasons for Believing." Would you read the last paragraph of that letter?

DAWKINS: I'd be pleased to.

"What can we do about all of this? It's not easy for you to do anything because you are only 10. But you could try this. Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself, 'Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?' And next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them, 'What kind of evidence is there for that?' And if they can't give you a good answer, I hope you'll think very carefully before you believe a word they say. Your loving Daddy."

MOYERS: Thank you very much.

DAWKINS: Thank you very much.

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December 3, 2004
Prominent zoologist Richard Dawkins has authored many popular books, including THE ANCESTOR'S TALE. Dawkins talked with Bill Moyers about religion in America, evolution and its detractors and science as the best prism through which to understand the mysteries of the universe. NOW WITH BILL MOYERS, 2004
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