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Talking about Evolution with Richard Dawkins

Think Tank Transcript: Evolution/Richard Dawkins

ANNOUNCER: 'Think Tank' is made possible by Amgen,recipient of the Presidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen,helping cancer patients through cellular and molecular biology,improving lives today and bringing hope for tomorrow.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundationand the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. Most Americansbelieve that Charles Darwin basically had it right, that human beingsevolved from the so-called primordial soup. But most Americans arealso religious and likely believe that God created the soup.

We will explore these ideas and others with an outstandingscientist and one of the worldís leading scientific popularizers. The topic before this house: Richard Dawkins on evolution andreligion. This week on 'Think Tank.'

MR. WATTENBERG: Richard Dawkins is a professor at OxfordUniversity, where he holds the Charles Simone chair of publicunderstanding of science. Dawkins has written many books on thetopic of evolution, including 'The Selfish Gene,' 'River Out ofEden,' 'The Blind Watchmaker,' and most recently, 'Climbing MountImprobable.'

Dawkinsí writings champion one man -- Charles Darwin. In 1831,Darwin set out on a five-year journey around the world on the H.M.S.Beagle. His travels took him to the Galapagos Islands off the coastof Ecuador, where he catalogued a startling variety of plant andanimal life. Darwin saw in such diversity the key to the origins ofall life on earth.

Today naturalists estimate that there are 30 million species ofplants and animals. According to Darwinís theory, all creatureslarge and small are the end result of millions of years of naturalselection.

The reaction to Darwinís theory was explosive. Criticsdeclared that Darwin had replaced Adam with an ape. Atheistsapplauded. Benjamin Disraeli, the prime minister of England, summedup the debate at the time. He said, 'The question is, is man an apeor an angel? Many laugh. Now I am on the side of the angels.'

Today the controversy persists. Evolution is generallyaccepted, religion endures, begging the question, is there aconflict?

Professor Dawkins, welcome. Perhaps we could begin with thatfascinating title, 'Climbing Mount Improbable.' What are you talkingabout?

MR. DAWKINS: Living organisms are supremely improbable. Theylook as if they have been designed. They are very, very complicated. They are very good at doing whatever it is they do, whether itísflying or digging or swimming. This is not the kind of thing thatmatter just spontaneously does. It doesnít fall into position whereitís good at doing anything. So the fact that living things aredemands an explanation, the fact that itís improbably demands anexplanation.

Mount Improbable is a metaphorical mountain. The height ofthat mountain stands for that very improbability. So on the top ofthe mountain, you can imagine perched the most complicated organ youcan think of. It might be the human eye. And one side of themountain has a steep cliff, a steep vertical precipice. And youstand at the foot of the mountain and you gaze up at this complicatedthing at the heights, and you say, that couldnít have come about bychance, thatís too improbable. And thatís what is the meaning of thevertical slope. You could no more get that by sheer chance than youcould leap from the bottom of the cliff to the top of the cliff inone fell swoop.

But if you go around the other side of the mountain, you findthat thereís not a steep cliff at all. Thereís a slow, gentlegradient, a slow, gentle slope, and getting from the bottom of themountain to the top is an easy walk. You just saunter up it puttingone step in front of the other, one foot in front of the other.

MR. WATTENBERG: Provided you have a billion years to do it.

MR. DAWKINS: Youíve got to have a long time. That, of course,corresponds to Darwinian natural selection. There is an element ofchance in it, but itís not mostly chance. Thereís a whole series ofsmall chance steps. Each eye along the slope is a little bit betterthan the one before, but itís not so much that itís unbelievable thatit could have come about by chance. But at the end of a long periodof non-random natural selection, youíve accumulated lots and lots ofthese steps, and the end product is far too improbable to have comeabout in a single step of chance.

MR. WATTENBERG: One of your earlier books, a very well knownbook, is 'The Selfish Gene.' What does that mean? You call humanbeings 'selfish gene machines.' Is that --

MR. DAWKINS: Yes. Itís a way of trying to explain whyindividual organisms like human beings are actually not selfish. SoIím saying that selfishness resides at the level of the gene. Genesthat work for their own short-term survival, genes that have effectsupon the world which lead to their own short-term survival are thegenes that survive, the genes that come through the generations. Theworld is full of genes that look after their own selfish interest.

MR. WATTENBERG: And the prime aspect of that is reproduction?


MR. WATTENBERG: And so thatís what drives all organisms,including human beings, is the drive to reproduce their own geneticmakeup?

MR. DAWKINS: Thatís pretty standard Darwinism.


MR. DAWKINS: We are -- in any era, the organisms that livecontain the genes of an unbroken line of successful ancestors. Ithas to be true. Plenty of the ancestorsí competitors were notsuccessful. They all died. But not a single one of your ancestorsdied young, or not a single one of your ancestors failed to copulate,not a single one of your ancestors failed to rear at least one child.

MR. WATTENBERG: By definition.

MR. DAWKINS: By definition. And so -- but whatís not bydefinition, which is genuinely interesting, is that you havetherefore inherited the genes which are a non-random sample of thegenes in every generation, non-random in the direction of being goodat surviving.

MR. WATTENBERG: What is motivating great musicians, greatwriters, great political leaders, great scientists? I mean, what areyou doing now? Youíre obviously passionate about what you write andwhat you think and what youíre doing. That is absorbing your life. That does not involve, I donít think, the replication of your geneticmakeup.

MR. DAWKINS: Thatís certainly right, and because we arehumans, we tend to be rather obsessed with humans. There are 30million other species of animal where that question wouldnít haveoccurred to you.

MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah, but most of our viewers are humans. Now, how does that work out for -- are humans different?

MR. DAWKINS: Humans, like any other species of animal, havebeen programmed -- have evolved by genetic selection. And we havethe bodies and the brains that are good for passing on our genes. Thatís step one. So thatís where we get our brains from. Thatís whytheyíre big.

But once you get a big brain, then the big brain can be usedfor other things, in the same sort of way as computers wereoriginally designed as calculating machines, and then without anychange, without any alteration of that general structure, it turnsout that theyíre good -- they can be used as word processors as well. So thereís something about human brains which makes them moreversatile than they were originally intended for.

Now, you talked about the fact that Iím passionate about what Ido and that I work hard at writing my books and so on. Now, the wayI would interpret that as a Darwinian is to say certainly writingbooks doesnít increase your Darwinian fitness. Writing books --there are no genes for writing books, and certainly I donít pass onany of my genes as a consequence of writing a book.

But there are mechanisms, such as persistence, perseverance,setting up goals which you then work hard to achieve, drivingyourself to achieve those goals by whatever means are available.

MR. WATTENBERG: And you believe that is in our genetic makeup?

MR. DAWKINS: Thatís what I believe is indicated.

MR. WATTENBERG: Some people have more of it, some people haveless of it.

MR. DAWKINS: Thatís right. Now, in the modern world, which isnow so different from the world in which our ancestors lived, what weactually strive for, the goals we set up, are very different. Thegoal-seeking mechanisms in our brains were originally put there totry to achieve goals such as finding a herd of bison to hunt. And wewould have set out to find a herd of bison, and weíd have used allsorts of flexible goal-seeking mechanisms and weíd have persisted andweíd have gone on and on and on for days and days and days trying toachieve that goal.

Natural selection favored persistence in seeking goals. Nowadays we no longer hunt bisons. Nowadays we hunt money or a nicenew house or we try to finish a novel or whatever it is that we do.

MR. WATTENBERG: In this town, political victory.

MR. DAWKINS: Yes, right.

MR. WATTENBERG: Why is this so important? I mean, youobviously feel that this idea of evolution of primary importance. Imean, this is what makes the world goes round. Is it, in your viewat least, the mother science?

MR. DAWKINS: Well, what could be more important than anunderstanding of why youíre here, why youíre the shape you are, whyyou have the brain that you do, why your body is the way it is. Notjust you, but all the other 30 million species of living thing, eachof which carries with it this superb illusion of having been designedto do something supremely well. A swift flies supremely well. Amole digs supremely well. A shark or a dolphin swims supremely well. And a human thinks supremely well.

What could be a more fascinating, tantalizing question than whyall that has come about? And we have the answer. Since the middleof the 19th century, we have known in principle the answer to thatquestion, and weíre still working out the details.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, I read that, and a long time ago I readsome of Darwin. Darwin doesnít really answer the question why we arehere. He answers the question of how we are here. I mean, why in a-- when you normally say, well, why are we here, you expect atheological answer or a religious answer. Does Darwin really talkabout why we are here in that sense?

MR. DAWKINS: Darwin, if I may say so, had better things to dothan talk about why we are here in that sense. Itís not a sensiblesense in which to ask the question. There is no reason why, justbecause itís possible to ask the question, itís necessarily asensible question to ask.

MR. WATTENBERG: But you had mentioned, you said that Darwinafter all these years has told us why weíre here.

MR. DAWKINS: I was using 'why' in another sense. I was using'why' in the sense of the explanation, and thatís the only sensewhich I think is actually a legitimate one. I donít think thequestion of ultimate purpose, the question of what is the fundamentalpurpose for which the universe came into existence -- I believe thereisnít one. If you asked me what --

MR. WATTENBERG: You believe there is not one?

MR. DAWKINS: Yes. On the other hand, if you ask me, what isthe purpose of a birdís wing, then Iím quite happy to say, well, inthe special Darwinian sense, the purpose of a birdís wing is to helpit fly, therefore to survive and therefore to reproduce the genesthat gave it those wings that make it fly.

Now, Iím happy with that meaning of the word 'why'.


MR. DAWKINS: But the ultimate meaning of the word 'why' I donot regard as a legitimate question. And the mere fact that itíspossible to ask the question doesnít make it legitimate. There areplenty of questions I could imagine somebody asking me and I wouldnítattempt to answer it. I would just say, Thatís a silly question,donít ask it.

MR. WATTENBERG: So you are not only saying that religiouspeople are coming to a wrong conclusion. You are saying theyíreasking a silly question.


MR. WATTENBERG: There is a scientist in the United Statesnamed Michael Beahy -- Iím sure youíre involved in this argument --who is making the case -- he is not a creationist, he is not acreation scientist, or at least he says heís --

MR. DAWKINS: Well, Iím sorry, he is a creationist.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, he says heís not.

MR. DAWKINS: He says heís not, but he is.

MR. WATTENBERG: He says heís not. But his theory is that of ahidden designer, that there is something driving this process. Andcould you explain how you and he differ on this?

MR. DAWKINS: Yes. Like I said, heís a creationist. 'A hiddendesigner,' thatís a creator.

MR. WATTENBERG: You say heís a hidden creationist.

MR. DAWKINS: Well, heís not even hidden. Heís astraightforward creationist. What he has done is to take a standardargument which dates back to the 19th century, the argument ofirreducible complexity, the argument that there are certain organs,certain systems in which all the bits have to be there together orthe whole system wonít work.

MR. WATTENBERG: Like the eye.

MR. DAWKINS: Like the eye, right. The whole thing collapsesif theyíre not all there.

Now, Darwin considered that argument for the eye and hedismissed it, correctly, by showing that actually the eye could haveevolved by gradual stages. Bits of an eye -- half an eye is betterthan no eye, a quarter of an eye is better than no eye, half an eyeis better than a quarter of an eye.

MR. WATTENBERG: I mean if it has some sight, but if you justcreated the windshield wiper, it doesnít --

MR. DAWKINS: Exactly. So I mean, there are things which youcould imagine which are irreducibly complex, but the eye is not oneof them.

Now, Beahy is saying, well, maybe the eye isnít one of them,but at the molecular level, there are certain things which he saysare. Now, he takes certain molecular examples. For example,bacteria have a flagellum, which is a little kind of whip-like tailby which they swim. And the flagellum is a remarkable thing because,uniquely in all the living kingdoms, itís a true wheel. It actuallyrotates freely in a bearing; it has an axle which freely rotates. Thatís a remarkable thing and is well understood and well knownabout.

And Beahy asserts: this is irreducibly complex, therefore Godmade it. Now --

MR. WATTENBERG: Therefore there was a design to it. I donítthink --

MR. DAWKINS: Whatís the difference? Okay.


MR. DAWKINS: Therefore there was a design to it.


MR. DAWKINS: Now -- (audio gap) -- too complex. The eye isreducibly complex, therefore God made it. Darwin answered them pointby point, piece by piece. But maybe he shouldnít have bothered. Maybe what he should have said is, well, maybe you canít think of --maybe youíre too thick to think of a reason why the eye could havecome about by gradual steps, but perhaps you should go away and thinka bit harder.

Now, Iíve done it for the eye; Iíve done it for various otherthings. I havenít yet done it for the bacterial flagellum. Iíveonly just read Beahyís book. Itís an interesting point. Iíd like tothink about it.

But Iím not the best person equipped to think about it becauseIím not a biochemist. Youíve got to have the equivalent biochemicalknowledge to the knowledge that Darwin had about lenses and bits ofeyes. Now, I donít have that biochemical knowledge. Beahy has.

Beahy should stop being lazy and should get up and think forhimself about how the flagellum evolved instead of this cowardly,lazy copping out by simply saying, oh, I canít think of how it cameabout, therefore it must have been designed.

MR. WATTENBERG: You have written that being an atheist allowsyou to become intellectually fulfilled.

MR. DAWKINS: No, I havenít quite written that. What I havewritten is that before Darwin, it was difficult to be anintellectually fulfilled atheist and that Darwin made it easy tobecome an intellectually -- and itís more. Itís more. If you wantedto be an atheist, it would have been hard to be an atheist beforeDarwin came along. But once Darwin came along, the argument fromdesign, which has always been to me the only powerful argument --even that isnít a very powerful argument, but I used to think it wasthe only powerful argument for the existence of a creator.

Darwin destroyed the argument from design, at least as far asbiology is concerned, which has always been the happiest huntingground for argument from design. Thereafter -- whereas before Darwincame along, you could have been an atheist, but youíd have been a bitworried, after Darwin you can be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. You can feel, really, now I understand how living things haveacquired the illusion of design, I understand why they look as thoughtheyíve been designed, whereas before Darwin came along, youíd havesaid, well, I can see that the theory of a divine creator isnít agood theory, but Iím damned if I can think of a better one. AfterDarwin, you can think of a better one.

MR. WATTENBERG: I mean, isnít the standard rebuttal to thatthat God created Darwin and He could have created this wholeevolutionary illusion that you are talking about? And I mean,getting back to first causes that you sort of --

MR. DAWKINS: Yes. Yeah. Not that God created Darwin, but youmean God created the conditions in which evolution happened.


MR. DAWKINS: Well, ultimately Darwin, too.

MR. WATTENBERG: I mean ultimately.

MR. DAWKINS: Yes, itís not a very satisfying explanation. Itís a very unparsimonious, very uneconomical explanation. Thebeauty of the Darwinian explanation itself is that itís exceedinglypowerful. Itís a very simple principle, and using this one simpleprinciple, you can bootstrap your way up from essentially nothing tothe world of complexity and diversity we have today. Now, thatís apowerful explanation.

MR. WATTENBERG: Itís not any simpler. In fact, itís morecomplex than the -- than Genesis. I mean, 'And God created theheavens and the earth.' That --

MR. DAWKINS: You have to be joking.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, I mean, 'God created the heavens and theearth' -- I can say that pretty quickly. I mean --

MR. DAWKINS: You can say it, but think what lies behind it. What lies behind it is a complicated, intelligent being -- God, whomust have come from somewhere. You have simply smuggled in at thebeginning of your book the very thing that weíre trying to explain. What weíre trying to explain is where organized complexity andintelligence came from. We have now got an explanation. You startfrom nothing and you work up gradually in easily explainable steps.

MR. WATTENBERG: But then I can ask you the same question:where does the nothing come from? I mean, this is a -- I mean, Idonít want this to degenerate into a sophomore beer brawl, but Imean, you know, that is -- isnít that the ultimate --

MR. DAWKINS: You can ask that. Thatís the ultimate question.


MR. DAWKINS: Thatís the important question. But all I wouldsay to that is that itís a helluva lot easier to say where nothingcame from than it is to say where 30 million species of highlycomplicated organisms plus a superintelligent God came from, andthatís the alternative.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, now, you wrote in 'The Selfish Gene'this. 'Living organisms had existed on earth without ever knowing whyfor 3,000 million years before the truth finally dawned on one ofthem. His name was Charles Darwin.'

That sounds to me like a religious statement. That is a --that is near messianic language. And you are making the case thatthese other people have this virus of the mind. That tonality says,I found my God.

MR. DAWKINS: You can call it that if you like. Itís notreligious in any sense in which I would recognize the term. Certainly I look up to Charles Darwin. I would look up to anybodywho had the insight that he did. But I wasnít really meaning to makea particularly messianic statement about Darwin.

I was rather saying that not just Darwin, but this species,homo sapiens -- or for the -- the time that has elapsed between theorigin of humanity and Darwin is negligible compared to the time thatelapsed from the origin of life and the origin of humanity. And soletís modify that statement and make it a bit more universal and say,life has been going on this planet for 3,000 million years withoutany animals knowing why they were there until the truth finallydawned upon homo sapiens. Itís just happened to be Charles Darwin,it could have been somebody else.

Our species is unique. We are all members of a unique specieswhich is privileged to understand for the first time in that 3,000-million-year history why we are here.

MR. WATTENBERG: I see. There was a study recently reported, Ibelieve, in that great scientific journal 'USA Today,' but itís onethat had a certain resonance with me and I think other people. Itsaid that people who are religious live longer and healthier lives. And it seems to me on its face, perhaps to you as well, that thatmakes some sense. I mean, people who do have a firm belief systemand donít worry about a whole lot of things are healthier. Weíveseen this in all the mind-body sorts of explorations that have beengoing on.

But does that perhaps put a Darwinian bonus on believing inreligion?

MR. DAWKINS: It could well do, yes. Itís perfectly plausibleto me. Iíve read the same study and I think it might well be true. It could be analogous to the placebo effect, you know, that manydiseases -- obviously theyíre cured by real medicines even better,but nevertheless if you give people a pill which doesnít containanything medicinal at all, but the patient believes it does, then thepatient gets better, for some diseases.

Well, I suppose that religious belief can be one big placeboand it could indeed have highly beneficial effects upon health,particularly where stress-related diseases are concerned.

MR. WATTENBERG: So if I want to advise my viewers, I couldsay, for example, what Professor Dawkins says is true, but harmful; Iwould like you to believe something thatís false, and healthy.

MR. DAWKINS: Yeah, you could say that. I mean, it dependswhether you value health or truth better, more.

MR. WATTENBERG: Which would you value?

MR. DAWKINS: For myself, I would rather live a little bit lesslong and know the truth about why I live rather than live a few -- itprobably isnít very much longer, actually, which is -- letís be very--

MR. WATTENBERG: Suppose it was substantially longer and wewere talking about your children rather than you.

MR. DAWKINS: Yeah, okay. I mean, these are fascinatinghypothetical questions and I suppose there would come a trade-offpoint. I mean, thereíd probably come a point when -- but I do thinkitís important, since this is a very academic discussion weírehaving, I think it would be positively irresponsible to let listenersto this program go away with the idea that this is a major effect. If itís an effect at all, itís an elusive statistical effect.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, thank you very much, Professor RichardDawkins.

MR. DAWKINS: Thank you.

MR. WATTENBERG: For 'Think Tank,' Iím Ben Wattenberg.

A note of interest to our viewers. Pope John Paul II recentlymade headlines on the subject of evolution. On October 24, 1996, thePontiff declared that evolutionary theory and faith in God are not atodds. He decreed that even if humans are the product of evolution,their spiritual soul is created by God.

We enjoy hearing from our viewers very much. Please send uscomments and questions. Tell us what kind of programs and guests youwant to see. You can reach us at: New River Media, 1150 17thStreet, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036; or via e-mail directly at: thinktank@pbs.org. Or check us out on the Web at www.pbs.org.

ANNOUNCER: This has been a production of BJW, Incorporated, inassociation with New River Media, which are solely responsible forits content.

'Think Tank' is made possible by Amgen, recipient of thePresidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen, helping cancerpatients through cellular and molecular biology, improving livestoday and bringing hope for tomorrow.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundationand the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

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