Walk into a pre-school classroom in America today and Erika Christakis says it’s likely you’ll see some familiar décor: alphabet charts, bar graphs, calendars, and schedules. It’s all part, says the expert in early child education, of a nationwide drive to make sure kids are ready for school at a younger and younger age.
Guest Host: Katty Kay
British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins was catapulted to fame in 1976 with his first book, “The Selfish Gene.” It revolutionized Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution with the idea that genes are the keys to natural selection. Dawkins was the first professor for public understanding of science at Oxford University. And he is one of the world’s most outspoken atheists, author of “The God Delusion.” His latest book is the first volume of a two-part memoir titled “An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist.” It covers his childhood in Africa through his mid-30s.
- Richard Dawkins author, "The Selfish Gene," "Climbing Mount Improbable," "Unweaving the Rainbow," "The Ancestor's Tale," "The God Delusion," "The Greatest Show on Earth" and "The Magic of Reality."
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “An Appetite For Wonder” by Richard Dawkins. Copyright 2013 by Richard Dawkins. Reprinted here by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved.
MS. KATTY KAYThanks for joining us. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is out this week on a cause dear to her heart. She'll be in California to star in a play to benefit Alzheimer's research. She looks forward though to being back here with you next Monday.
MS. KATTY KAYThis year Richard Dawkins was voted the world's top thinker in Prospect Magazine's poll of 10,000 readers in more than 100 countries. The author of "The Selfish Gene" and "The God Delusion" has just published the first of a two-volume memoir titled "An Appetite For Wonder." Richard Dawkins joins us now from the studio at NPR's New York bureau. Mr. Dawkins, thank you for joining the program.
MR. RICHARD DAWKINSThank you and I love your music by the way.
KAYJust for you.
KAYWe will be taking your calls and questions later on in the program. The phone number here is 1-800-433-8850 and the email address is email@example.com. Richard Dawkins, I wanted to start by asking you if it's a prerequisite for the world's top thinker to have an appetite for wonder?
DAWKINSWhat an embarrassing title. I don't know where that came from, the world's top thinker. It clearly can't be true.
KAYI'm not going to stop using it all hour, though.
DAWKINSAh, okay. Anyone would do well to have an appetite for wonder. It's one of the things that makes life worth living. It is a wonderful life that we have potentially because the wonder of understanding why we exist is something that, I think, is a high aesthetic experience and that's what I mean by an appetite for wonder.
DAWKINSIt was actually the subtitle of one of my previous books, "Unweaving the Rainbow."
KAYWhat do you want people to understand about your life in this memoir?
DAWKINSGosh, what a question. I suppose I want to show how I -- it's just my own story and it's rather embarrassing to be caught trying to tell your own story as though people are interested in that. I did become a scientist. It wasn't obvious that I was going to be a scientist when I was a child.
DAWKINSI had a fairly unusual childhood, I suppose, in British colonial Africa and one might have thought that that would have prepared me to be a naturalist of some sort. I'm not sure that it did. I had a fairly expensive education eventually in England and ended up at Oxford and I think it was Oxford really that really prepared me to be a scientist properly.
KAYAnd you're writing two volumes and you suggest that with great modesty that people might not be interested in your life, but there are going to be two volumes of this memoir. Why?
DAWKINSWell, I signed a contract to do one volume and it was going to be a book twice as thick as this. When I got halfway through, I sort of felt the need for a bit of a sense of achievement having done half the work and also the publication of "The Selfish Gene," my first book at the age of 35, was a kind of watershed in my life. It was sort of a natural halfway point and so it did seem like a good idea to pause at that point and bring out the first volume.
DAWKINSI think the second volume might actually be rather different, too. It doesn't involve childhood. It involves more of my public life, or will involve more of my public life with the rest of my books. So I think it was a natural place to stop and divide it into two.
KAYThat's interesting. Do you see your life as divided between the private life before you became famous and the public life since the publication of "The Selfish Gene"?
DAWKINSI suppose that's kind of what I was saying, yes. It really, my life did take a different turn. Before "The Selfish Gene," I was a research scientist, a lecturer, a tutor at Oxford. My life was dominated by lab coat research and by lecturing. And after "The Selfish Gene," my life was dominated by writing books, giving public lectures, doing television, doing radio, that kind of thing.
KAYYour mother is, I think I'm right, 96?
KAYGood for her. Is this the moment then to be asking those questions about where you came from and what your childhood was like?
DAWKINSWell, yes. I mean, she has been very helpful to me and I have talked to her about memories of my early life. I also read from her own diaries, which were extremely helpful to me. She's a very good writer, a very vivid writer.
KAYAnd you cite them a lot in the book. They're lovely.
DAWKINSI cite them a lot in the book, yes. And she's also a very good artist and there are some of her pictures in the book as well.
KAYSo you begin your memoir with some of the individuals from whom you have inherited what makes up Richard Dawkins.
DAWKINSThat's a bit of fun really. I mean, it's true that the individuals about whom I tell funny stories from the 18th century onwards have contributed some of my genes, but actually only rather a small proportion of my genes. I put them in more for the funny stories than I did for the actual genes, to be honest.
KAYYou write on page -- early on in the book that it's a remarkable fact which you can prove to yourself without leaving your armchair that if you go back far enough in the time machine, any individual you meet who has any living human descendants at all must be an ancestor of everybody living.
DAWKINSThat's an extraordinary fact. It's got to be true. And as I said, it's an armchair fact. You don't need to actually go out and make observations to prove to yourself that it's true. Think of the contrary, go back to a very, very, very distant ancestor and I chose our fishy ancestors of the Devonian era, say some 300 million years ago.
DAWKINSNow I've got a fishy ancestor and you've got a fishy ancestor at that time. It is inconceivable that my fishy ancestor is not the same as yours because consider the alternative. Your ancestor and mine have a line of descendants lasting through 300 million years, chastely independent of each other all the way down to today and now today, any of those descendants could mate with each other.
DAWKINSIt's inconceivable that my fish is not identical to your fish. So if my fish is the ancestor of everybody on earth, then if there's any fish that is not the ancestor of somebody that fish is not the ancestor of anybody. It's sort of logically follows.
KAYWhat you're saying is that we all come originally from the same living being?
DAWKINSWell, I'm saying that. I mean that we know. I'm saying something rather more paradoxically that if there is an individual who is the ancestor of anybody, then she's got to be the ancestor of everybody and vice versa. That's a much more surprising thought than simply that we're all descended from a common ancestor, which of course we are.
KAYWhat do you think your most, more recent ancestors would have made of you?
DAWKINSWell, I do quote a rhyme from Clinton Edward Dawkins, who was at Balliol College, Oxford which is my own college at the end of the 19th century. In Balliol College, there was a little booklet produced called "The Balliol Rhymes," which was sort of scurrilous verses about members of the college and there is one about Clinton Edward Dawkins which is quite interesting.
DAWKINSI'll try and remember it. "Positivists ever talking such an epic style as Dawkins. Gods are nought and man is all, spell him with a capital." So it looks as though Clinton Edward Dawkins was a free-thinker, an atheist in Victorian times, which was unusual in Victorian times.
KAYClearly a relative of yours. But you did have, I think it is seven generations of Anglican clergy in your family?
DAWKINSAh, yes, and my father's mother's family descended from an unbroken line of seven generations of Anglican clergymen, yes.
KAYDoes that mean then that perhaps the most famous atheist in America could himself have been a clergyman?
DAWKINSWell, I think I might well have been a clergyman if I'd been...
KAYIn a previous time.
DAWKINSBefore Darwin, yes, because I have always been interested and that's one of the things I bring out in the book. I've always been interested in the deep questions of existence. Why are we here? What are we here for? What's life all about?
DAWKINSAnd those are the questions which in pre-Darwinian times tended to drive people into the arms of religion. And so very probably I would have been yet another of those Anglican clergyman if I'd been born as they were, before Darwin.
KAYAnd presumably if it was in your family, then there would have been an even greater likelihood of it since people tended to follow their...
DAWKINSWell, there is a certain tendency...
DAWKINS...in that direction quite clearly in that family, yes.
KAYAnd you also had scientists though in your family?
DAWKINSYes, I've had a number of scientists in my family and, with whom I admire, yes.
KAYYour father, tell me about him.
DAWKINSWell, my father was an agriculturalist. He read botany at Oxford. He then became a specialist in tropical agriculture and went to what was then Nyasaland, now Malawi, in the colonial service, the British colonial service and would have stayed there all his career but for a sort of rather unexpected happening that he was left a farm in a distant cousin's will in England. And he decided to come home and farm it.
KAYAnd your mother also, you describe, as knowing the name of every wildflower that she could see.
DAWKINSYes, both my parents were ardent botanists. Both loved flowers and know the names of all the British wildflowers, yes.
KAYDo you think that your childhood in Africa, living out in the wilds of the bush, influenced you to become a biologist?
DAWKINSNot as much as it might have done. It would be nice to think that it did, but I never actually saw any of the exotic animals that Africa has to offer. I never saw a rhino or a leopard or a buffalo or a lion or a giraffe. So I don't think I was inspired in that sort of way. I did see lovely, exotic butterflies and birds so maybe a little bit.
KAYAnd you certainly weren't surrounded by urban concrete?
DAWKINSNo, that's true, definitely not. We tended to be stationed in rather remote places and moved around rather a lot too, but stationed to different places.
KAYIt sounds very idyllic. We're going to talk more about your childhood in Africa and then your move back to England and on to Oxford, just after this short break. Richard Dawkins is the evolutionary biologist, the author of 12 books including "The Selfish Gene," "The God Delusion" and "The Ancestor's Tale."
KAYHe now has his new book out. It's the first part of his memoir. It is called "An Appetite For Wonder: The Making of a Scientist." We'll be taking your calls and questions. 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number, firstname.lastname@example.org is the email address, calls, questions and comments after this short break.
KAYWelcome back. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm. I'm joined here on the program by Richard Dawkins. His new book is "An Appetite For Wonder: The Making Of A Scientist." This is a first in a two-part memoir. Richard, before we went to break, we just started talking about Africa.
KAYYou write about this time of you childhood in idyllic terms. I lived in Zimbabwe for a while when I was a young adult and it was truly magical. Do you have very fond memories of it, to the extent that you do remember your time in Africa?
DAWKINSYes, I do. I went to school in what was then southern Rhodesia, Zimbabwe.
DAWKINSYes. You've been there?
DAWKINSYes, very beautiful. But I imagine when you were there things had deteriorated a bit.
KAYYes, although I have to say the natural beauty of the country was probably more lovely than anywhere I had ever lived.
DAWKINSYes, it is gorgeous.
KAYAnd it stays with you. Has Africa stayed with you?
DAWKINSOh, yes. And I've been back several times as well. And I think appreciate it more now. I mean, at the time I had no idea that Africa was a cradle of humankind. And I would've -- I think that would've moved me if I'd realized that.
KAYIt was a way of life -- that whole colonial way of life and you portray it in the book of the servants that lived with you. It was a sort of almost unreal way of life. Do you look back at that with nostalgia?
DAWKINSWell, it was unreal. It was very privileged.
DAWKINSIt was sort of rather like a kind of Edwardian existence. I mean, not Downton Abbey because that's too autocratic, but plenty of servants. You know, tea served on the lawn under beautiful covers over the milk jug and things like that. Yes, and servants to do everything. So it was a very unreal experience, a real childhood by modern standards.
KAYBut then at the age of eight, as you mentioned, your parents inherited a farm back in England and you left Africa for what must have been a much more chilly South of England.
DAWKINSChilly yes, literally. This was rather unexpected. My -- there's an estate -- it was a family estate belonging to the Dawkins Family since the early 1700s, about 1703. And it had been in another branch of the family, very, very distance cousins. And to much of his surprise, my father inherited this in 1946. He still had no real intention of living there, still intended to go on living in Africa. But then suddenly the long term tenant of the estate died.
DAWKINSAnd so my parents were faced with the decision of whether to give up Africa and come to England. They decided to come to England, which was not entirely welcome from my point of view. But it worked anyway and they made a great success of the farm.
KAYYou mentioned that you'd already been at boarding school in what is now Zimbabwe. You then of course carried on as Brits did back in those days and went to boarding school in England. What as that like?
DAWKINSThat was a similar kind of school. They were both preparatory school boarding schools, rather tough, rather Spartan, cold baths in the morning, a certain amount of bullying, quite a lot of home sickness. It was fairly tough for an eight-year-old, I must say.
KAYYou write about the bullying and the cruelty of children and your own part in that as an observer of it, but not somebody who worked as hard as you might have wished to prevent it.
DAWKINSYes. I was never a bully and I wasn't bullied myself. But I was one of many who didn't actually life a finger to stop the bullying. And I feel bad about that. I think anybody would feel bad about that. It is a strange fact about childhood. I think that there is a cruelty in childhood which I like to think most of us lose in adult, or perhaps not all of us. But children can be extremely cruel.
KAYI've got a comment that's come in on our website, Richard. I wanted to read this to you. It's somebody -- a listener who's emailing saying, "Wonder is the most fundamental thing that separates children from adults. Children have it and then they have it drummed into them to lose it because it's not practical. The small minority of adults who resist this brainwashing form the core of people who are great inventors, scientists and artists." Would you agree with that?
DAWKINSWell, that's an interesting thought. It's one that I've met before. It's rather an idealistic sort of thought. I mean, I think it's certainly true that children are always asking questions, always saying why, why, why, why, why. I sometimes wonder whether they really want to know the answer or whether it's just a kind of ploy. It's perhaps a little bit idealistic to say that, you know, children are all little scientists and have it drummed out of them. But I think it is undoubtedly true that great scientists do retain some of the curiosity of children and don't buckle down to a sort of boring humdrum existence where they accept everything.
DAWKINSI think it's important to look at the world through eyes of wonder, through eyes of unfamiliarity. Imagine you've just been plunked down in the world rather than live there all your life and got bored with it. Get rid of the boredom. Shuffle off the boredom. Think what it would be like if you were suddenly placed in this world, this astonishing world with its greenery, with its rivers, with its mountains, with all the works of humanity. It would be an astounding thing. And that kind of amazement needs to be -- we need that to sort of back us out of our, what I call the anesthetic familiarity.
KAYYou've talked about wanting to, not substitute exactly, but offer children an alternative type of magic to Santa Claus and fairies and elves and goblins and show them, as you suggested, that the magic that is all around us in our universe.
DAWKINSYes. The only children's book I've written is called the magic of reality. And I suppose in my previous answer I was in a way trying to evoke that. There is a magic in reality. There's a magic in understanding reality, a magic in understanding the nature of the world, the nature of the universe, the nature of life, why we're here. The magic of fairytales and spells, the magic of goblins and princesses turning into frogs, whatever it is. I think that's rather cheap. Some people like it, some people think that it's part of childhood. And they'd be sorry if childhood was deprived of it.
DAWKINSI don't think I would've missed it much. I think it actually, in some ways, mislead me. I think being fed a diet of magic spells left me insufficiently critical so that I was gullible enough to think, for example, that if you prayed hard enough for something you'd get it. And if you wish for something hard enough it would happen. I think it's rather a good thing to teach a certain amount of skepticism to children -- practical skepticism. But don't deprive them of the magic of reality.
KAYYou've touched on religion there. You write in your book that you were what you called intensely religious at the age of 13. But by the age of 17 you'd become militantly anti-religious. What happened?
DAWKINSWell, I suppose one of the things that happened was I finally understood the living world, how it evolves, why it's there. The reason I was intensely religious at the age of, well, 14 say, was that I was very persuaded by the argument that living organisms look as though they've been designed. They're elegant, they're beautiful, they work. They've got wings that fly. They've got legs that walk. They've got eyes that see. They've got hearts that pump. It all looks designed. And until you understand Darwinian evolution, you sort of -- if you're naïve you sort of think, well, it must've been designed. And I was naïve at the age of 14 and that's what I thought.
DAWKINSAnd then at the age of about 15 or 16 I understood the true explanation, which is evolution by natural selection. And I think I rather resented having been mislead all this time. And maybe that was what turned me militantly anti-theistic.
KAYWas it someone or something that triggered the change?
DAWKINSWell, I suppose it was Darwin and his successes, and talking about it to my school friends, that sort of thing I suppose. I was influenced by discussions that I had with my peers.
KAYWell, let's go to the phones to Ali who joins us from St. Louis, Mo. Ali, you're on the line to speak to Richard Dawkins.
ALIHi. I was just wondering if you thought we were supposed to evolve the way we did in world of technology, communication, stuff like that.
DAWKINSOkay. That's a very interesting question. We didn't evolve in such a world. We evolved in a very different world. We evolved in Africa where we were hunter, gatherers. And we lived maybe in caves, maybe out in the open. We had very little in the way of technology. And now we find ourselves transported into a remarkably different world. Here I am in New York surrounded by gigantic skyscrapers with the internet, with planes.
DAWKINSIt's an extraordinary transformation for an animal, which is what we are. We are an ape that was honed on the African planes to live on the African planes, to suddenly be transported into this other world. In a way we've done remarkably well. In another way, it's not surprising that many people are driven pretty neurotic by this extraordinary change. But it is an extraordinary thing that this creature, this African ape, which is what we are, manages to cope in this remarkably different environment.
KAYDo you think we're still evolving now? When you look -- and I worry about this all the time -- and you see the speed of communications and information that's coming out to us. And I can't help but think we have to as a species become better at handling this because otherwise our creativity and our space for wonder will disappear because we have such a short amount of time in our brains left over to think for that.
DAWKINSYes, there is that risk. I don't think that we're still evolving in a really helpful direction. I mean, I think what you're implying is that it will be nice if we could be evolving to become better at surviving in our urban technological environment. And that would be true if those individuals who survive best and have the most children really are the best equipped to live in this world. If you look at what marks success in the technological world, all the ways in which we might measure success in living in this extraordinary world, it doesn't translate into surviving particularly well. It doesn't translate into reproducing above all.
DAWKINSFor Darwinian cross selection to work, the individuals that do best in the world are supposed to be the ones that we produce the most. But if you look at the world, the ones that reproduce are not the ones who are most successful in navigating through this technologically complicated world.
KAYI'm Katty Kay. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to join us, do call 1-800-433--8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Carla in Florida -- Kissimmee, Fla. I think that's your cue to join "The Diane Rehm Show."
KAYHi, Carla, you have a question for Richard Dawkins.
CARLAYes. it's kind of along the lines of the last caller. I was wondering -- because I've had this conversation with my professors before -- if all this technology and not just electronic wise but medically -- medical advances too, do you think those are sort of preventing us or slowing down the rate at which we evolve? Do you think that we're kind of stuck here because we're adapting everything else to us rather than ourselves to the environment?
DAWKINSPeople in the 1920s and '30s worried a lot about whether medical advances were having a bad effect upon our evolution. It's become very unfashionable to worry about that now. It is possible that that's true. I mean, it's -- it certainly is true that there are many people walking the earth today who wouldn't be but for medical science and having children who wouldn't be but for medical science.
DAWKINSI like doctors. I like modern medicine. I like to live in a world where people's lives are saved. I wouldn't wish to restrict that. And so I think it's worth it. But you do raise a point that perhaps we shouldn't totally forget about.
KAYOne of your first lectures from the 1960s, Richard, mentions the selfish gene but it took you another decade to write the book that would become your first Best Seller. Why?
DAWKINSYes, that's right. I was rather surprised actually to find those lecture notes. I thought I'd lost them. And I was digging around in the basement of my house and found a bundle of lecture notes dating from 1966, including a lecture which pretty much word for word laid out the rhetoric, I suppose is the right word, which was to be the selfish gene ten years later in 1976. I don't know why I delayed so long. I went on lecturing along those lines in all the intermediate years. I finally got a sabbatical leave in Oxford in 1975 and finally got down to writing the book.
KAYHow much were you breaking with what was then conventional wisdom?
DAWKINSWell, that's interesting. I wasn't really breaking with the wisdom of the neo-Darwinian Synthesis of the -- from the 1930s onwards really until right up to the time when I wrote it. But it did appear to some people as though I was breaking away from it. Because it was almost as though people had forgotten the central message of the neo-Darwinian Synthesis, which is that natural selection works at the level of the gene. Natural selection is the differential survival of genes in gene pools.
DAWKINSAnd I really carried that to its logical conclusion and drew out the conclusions that follow from it. And some of those conclusions did strike some people as rather surprising but they really shouldn't have done because they were inherent in the theory that all biologists at that time followed and still do.
KAYThe next book that you wrote that became a huge seller in the United States of course, you know, is "The God Delusion." Is it possible to be religious and a scientist do you think?
DAWKINSIt's clearly possible because many individual people are. I find it hard quite to understand how they can be. It's easy to be religious in the rather loose sense of being spiritual in the sense that Einstein was religious. And Einstein described himself as a religious man. But he also was adamant that he did not believe in a personal god. He was very scornful of all religions that believe in any kind of personal god. And I think you'll find that a lot of the scientists who profess religious belief are sort of Einsteinian believers. They are -- they regard themselves as spiritual, as indeed do I in a sense. And I think Carl Sagan would've done.
DAWKINSBut they do remain -- there does remain a minority of scientists who really are religious believers in the sense that they follow Christianity or Judaism. And actually do believe that Jesus is their Lord and Savior, that Jesus had a virgin birth and that Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead. There aren't very many scientists who believe that but those that are suggest to me that it's possible to keep incompatible beliefs in your brain at the same time.
KAYRichard Dawkins. The book is "An Appetite for Wonder." We're going to take a quick break. Do stay with us. We'll have more of your questions and comments.
KAYWelcome back. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm. You've joined my conversation with Richard Dawkins. We're talking about his new book. It's the first part of his memoir, "An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist." I want to talk to you more about religion and we've got a lot of emails and callers who want to ask about this, Richard. But first of all, I want to give you a chance to respond to some controversy that came from your account of being fondled by one of your teachers at boarding school. You -- why did you decide to write about it and why do you think that what you wrote was misunderstood?
DAWKINSWell, it was something that happened. It was something that happened to me at the age of about nine and it happened to many of my friends at the same school with the same master. It didn't last very long. It probably lasted about a quarter of a minute I should think. And I, in a sense, made light of it because I was very conscious of the fact that there are other people out there who have really suffered badly from child molestation by a teacher or even worse by a father or a grandfather.
DAWKINSThere has been an enormous amount of suffering caused by such child abuse to children. And it sometimes lasted for many years and may be carried on all into that for the rest of their lives. I felt that if I had claimed that this 15 seconds of unpleasantness that happened to me was on a par with the unpleasantness that has happened to unfortunately many other people, it would've been to denigrate and trivialize the horror of what they had been through.
DAWKINSAnd so I was not about to say this was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. It wasn't the worst thing that ever happened to me. If I had said that I would've been rightly open to the accusation, how dare you elevate this minor -- comparatively minor unpleasant experience that happened to you as though it was on a par with the real horrors which others have endured.
DAWKINSNow why did it cause controversy? It caused controversy because there are many people out there who can't tell the difference between saying something is -- well, suppose I say, A is bad and B is worse. They will immediately jump on it and say, oh so you're defending A are you? You approve of A. Well, of course I don't approve of A. They are both bad but it's possible for a bad thing to have something that's even worse than it. And you don't help with people who've experienced the worst thing if you overemphasize the only bad thing.
KAYYou weren't making comments on moral relativism.
DAWKINSWell, in a sense I suppose I was. I mean, I was saying that there are some things that are worst than others. It's not true to say that every child molestation, every piece of sexual abuse by an adult on a child is equally bad. As it happened the very day -- I think the very day before the Times interview that started all this, I was Tweeting very frequently about a horrific event that happened in the Yemen where a 40-year-old man was legally married to an eight-year-old girl.
DAWKINSAnd he raped her to death on her wedding night. Now that's horrific. That's truly horrible. And I am not apologizing for saying that the 15 seconds of embarrassment and unpleasantness that happened to me is on a par with that. Of course it's not on a par with that. It would be ludicrous, it would be presumptuous of anybody to say that the horror that happened to that poor girl, that 8-year-old girl, raped to death by her 40-year-old husband was the same crime as happened to me. Of course it wasn't. It was much, much, much worse. Anybody who can't see that has a warped sense of values.
KAYThank you for explaining it. Yes. You're quite right, of course. I want to go to Howard, who joins us from Hot Springs, Ark. Howard, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."
HOWARDKatty, thank you very much. I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Dawkins at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, Ark.
HOWARDHe was the distinguished speaker. I must say he's a very handsome man with bright blue eyes. And it was really an honor to meet him. I have also read his book, "The Selfish Gene," and most recently, "The God Delusion." My question -- and it's a great honor to be able to pose this question. My question is since we all start off as infants and we learn that if we petition those great beings up there to solve our problems, doesn't that seem to be a foundation for our adult forms of worship, where we appeal to the great beings up there--the great being up there to resolve all of our problems. And I'll take your response off the air. And it's a great honor to hear this program. Thank you.
DAWKINSWell, thank you. I think Freud said something similar to that, that worship of gods is a sort of takeover from the dependence on parents that all children have. And it's a not implausible psychological theory. I suspect we probably need a bit more than that to explain the religious impulse, but there's probably something in that. Thank you.
KAYRichard, as a Brit who's visiting America I want to ask you this, it comes--it's an email, actually, that's come to us from Alex Rehm, who is Diane's grandson. And Alex writes, "I’m curious how Richard Dawkins sees the current state of religion in America. Have we reached a tipping point where religion will take a backseat to reason in the political arena? Even as polls show an increasing number of people identifying themselves as not religious, somewhat anecdotally, I feel as if it plays a greater role than ever in politics."
DAWKINSYes. It's paradoxical, isn't it? I mean America is by far the most religious country in the -- what should we call it -- the Western world, the technologically advanced world. And it is a surprising thing. The polls are moving in the right direction. The number of people who call themselves the nones -- that's N-O-N-E-S, not N-U-N-S -- the number of people who call themselves the nones are increasing. And they are underestimated. I think it's probably true to say that many politicians think that they need to suck up to religious lobbies because religious lobbies are very vocal.
DAWKINSBut if the politicians would actually look at these statistics on the number of people who have no religion, they might recognize that actually there's a pretty big constituency of non-believers. And if we're talking about sucking up to constituencies, maybe the non-believers deserve to have a little bit of attention, which they've so far not been getting.
KAYOkay. Well, let's bring Kelly, from Charlotte, N.C. into the conversation. Kelly, I think you have a point touching on this for Mr. Dawkins.
KELLYYes. My question -- well, first off I want to say thank you for writing "The God Delusion." It changed my life. And I just have a question, as an atheist parent raising my child in the American South, if you had any advice for us to raise the next generation of atheists or free-thinkers, and if you had any concerns about if we successfully do raise this next free-thinking generation that they may not be as passionate as you and your contemporaries are right now.
DAWKINSWell, I prefer the word free-thinking in this context, because I've always been very unhappy about labeling children with the beliefs of their parents. And I think it's extremely bad to label a small child a Catholic child or a Protestant child or Muslim child. And in the same way I would not wish to label a small child an atheist child. So I would not encourage indoctrination of a child in atheism, anymore than I would encourage indoctrination of a child in any particular religion. I would encourage exactly the word you use, which is free-thinking.
DAWKINSEncourage critical thinking. Encourage children to ask questions. Encourage children to ask for the evidence for everything that they're told. And if they ask for the evidence for religious propositions, they will find that there isn't any. So don't tell them that religion is nonsense. Tell them to ask questions. Ask the question, what is the evidence? There won't be any evidence for any religious claims. There, of course, is evidence for scientific claims. And I think the children will then come to their own conclusion if they are schooled in critical thinking, asking questions, always asking what is the evidence? Don't accept tradition, authority or revelation or faith.
KAYRichard, what is your response to Paul, who writes to us from Dallas, Texas. "We are all agnostics. To be an atheist one would have to prove that God doesn't exist. To do that one would have to know everything or admit that God might exist in what one doesn't know. There are also no known proofs that God does exist, hence the term belief. Therefore, none of us knows, i.e. we are all agnostics."
DAWKINSYes. We should all be agnostics. That's perfectly true. We should be agnostic about Thor and Apollo and Zeus and leprechauns and fairies and elves and pixies and goblins. We should be agnostic about everything that we can't actually disprove. But life is too short to go around believing in fairies and goblins and leprechauns and Thor and his hammer and things like that. So in practice we tend to believe only in those things for which there's at least a tiny bit of evidence. So yes, by all means, be agnostic, but recognize that you're also agnostic about a million other things which you can't actually disprove.
KAYSo if you were being very technical about the term and referring it to yourself, would you say that actually you are also agnostic rather than atheist?
DAWKINSYes. I would say that, but I would add the rider that I’m a tooth fairy agnostic, as well. And that gives -- that should convey the message I think.
KAYMy daughter is definitely not a tooth fairy agnostic.
KAYOkay. I want to -- Gary has a question for you. He writes to us, "What would be your advice for cultivating a sense of wonder in a young daughter or son?"
DAWKINSOh, well, look up at the stars, go for walks, look at nature, talk about -- ask the question where do all these things come from. Look at that tree, look at that butterfly, look at that bee. Talk about where they come from, why they exist, what are they doing, what are they doing to each other. The world is full of food for wonder. And then it would help to look at some books, which convey the same message. Look at Discovery Channel, look at David Attenborough's television programs.
DAWKINSExplore the internet, looking at wonderful creatures, looking at wonderful astronomical phenomena. There's so much food for wonder out there. It's a paradise nowadays for a child to grow up in, this scientific world that we live in.
KAYI’m Katty Kay of the BBC. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to join us, do call 1-800-433-8850 is the number. In the 1960s, Richard Dawkins, you spent some time in Berkeley, Ca. What do you remember from that?
DAWKINSIt was a very political time. It was the late 1960s. It was the height of the Vietnam War. Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, Kennedy having been assassinated. Berkeley was a scene of many demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and it was a height of sort of student unrest, student political activity, which was all over the Western world, but I think Berkeley was one of the centers of it. It was and is also a major center of scientific excellence. And it was a great privilege to be there and to teach very bright students and have excellent colleagues.
KAYDid it make you very political?
DAWKINSYes. My then wife and I took part in demonstrations both at Berkeley and in San Francisco. And we worked in the campaigns of both Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy for the Democratic nomination.
KAYAnd it is something that is still part of your life?
DAWKINSNot in a very active way. I mean I've always voted on the left and still do, but I haven't actually taken part in political campaigns, political canvassing the way I did in Berkeley.
KAYI have an email that's just come in that's asking a more personal question of you. And it's interesting that in the book you talk a lot about science and your childhood and the influences on you. You don’t talk very much about your own love life. Why is that?
DAWKINSI took a decision that I wasn't going to do that. I took a decision that to do that would be to betray confidences.
KAYBut it's an important part of your life.
KAYAnd this is memoir.
DAWKINSIt is, I know. But it's a scientific memoir, it's an intellectual memoir, and so I took a positive decision that I wasn't going to betray confidences. I think I mentioned just one little -- there's one paragraph that you can find if you search hard about an encounter with a delightful cellist who -- and I've used that particularly, that particular story, in order to say that's all, that's it, no more love life.
KAYOkay. I don't know if this is personal or intellectual, but I'm going to ask you this. It's an email that's come into us actually from the Humanist Chaplain at American University here. And he would like to know more about your thoughts on how you see the relationship between your own atheism and humanism. "Many of us would also be interested in hearing more about Dr. Dawkins sense of his own spirituality."
DAWKINSYes. Well, humanism -- and I'm a member of various humanist groups. Humanism is perhaps the more positive face of atheism, where atheism is a belief about the nature of reality. There are no supernatural beings. But what do you put in its place? And humanism is a belief system about humanity standing on its own feet. We don't have supernatural support. And so we need to support each other. We need ideals of humanism. And I support those. I’m slightly uneasy about singling out the human species, as opposed to other species to whom I think we also owe some moral obligation.
DAWKINSBut nevertheless, the word humanism has stuck and it's a good word and it's something that I support.
KAYAnd tell us a little more about your own sense of your spirituality.
DAWKINSI would agree with Einstein and Carl Sagan and Lewis Thomas and the other scientists who have -- and Richard Feynman -- who have waxed poetic about the experience of living in the world and looking at the world through a scientists eyes. I wrote a whole book about this called "Unweaving the Rainbow," which took off from Keats. It's a line from Keats abraded Newton for destroying the poetry of the rainbow by explaining it.
DAWKINSAnd the whole book, "Unweaving the Rainbow," is really about saying, you don’t destroy the poetry, you don't destroy that spiritual feeling that you get when looking at a rainbow and understanding it or when looking at a living cell and understanding it or looking up at the stars and understanding them.
KAYVery good place to end. Richard Dawkins. The book is "An Appetite For Wonder: The Making of a Scientist." Thank you so much for joining the program.
DAWKINSThank you very much.
KAYI'm Katty Kay, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane will be back next Monday. Thank you all so much for listening.
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