British author Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion sold over one million copies and touched off an international debate about the existence of a higher power. Critics denounced him as “Christainophobic” and a “secularist bigot.” In Turkey, the book was banned as “an attack on holy values,” and its publisher was put on trial. Now the evolutionary biologist—the world’s most prominent atheist—has set his sights on creationists and advocates of “intelligent design.” His new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, was just released.
Q: Your new book is subtitled The Evidence for Evolution. Why do you think society needs a primer 150 years after Charles Darwin first laid it out in The Origin of Species?
A: It is a very, very important idea. It is the explanation for all of life—a stunningly simple, yet powerful explanation. If you think about it, before Darwin, we hadn’t the foggiest idea of how we came into being. Now we do. It’s still such an exciting idea that it is well worth everybody understanding it.
Q: You compare creationists to Holocaust deniers—history deniers is the term you’ve coined. Isn’t that a little over the top?
A: No. They are both very similar—both are denying what is a perfectly manifest fact. In the case of Holocaust deniers it’s more recent history, but in both cases the evidence— in favour of the Holocaust and evolution—is simply overwhelming. That doesn’t mean they are morally or politically equivalent. But they are equivalent in denying history.
Q: You cite polls suggesting 44 per cent of Americans believe God created human beings 10,000 years ago. But you also acknowledge that figure really hasn’t changed since the early 1980s. I’m curious about this book’s timing. If the number of creationists isn’t increasing, do you think they are gaining more credence?
A: They are possibly gaining more political power. In the U.S., you are constantly hearing stories of school boards harassing teachers and trying to get textbooks banned.
Q: Traditionally, we’ve associated that school of thought with evangelical Christians, or the Sarah Palin crowd. But you’ve identified Islamic creationists as a growing threat. Why?
A: That’s a particular problem in Britain. I read in the paper today the list of the most popular boys’ names in the country. The first was Jack, the second was Mohammed. That makes me feel a little bit worried.
Q: What is it in particular? Do Islamic creationists hew to a different set of myths?
A: No, they are mostly actually plagiarized from the Christian ones, both biblically and in terms of modern creationism. If you read Islamic creationist literature, it’s pretty much lifted from American evangelical literature.
Q: You’ve mentioned the harassment of teachers of evolution in the United States. What’s the situation like in Britain?
A: I wouldn’t say that it’s bad here, but we have to be vigilant. There are two or three schools which are notorious in Britain. And sometimes when I go around the country, talking to schoolteachers, I do hear that they get a fair bit of hostility from their pupils, often those of Islamic origin.
Q: Hostility in what way?
A: When they try to teach evolution, students fold their arms with a fixed stare of rejection on their face. That sort of thing.
Q: You’ve been at this for nearly 40 years. What sort of attacks have you faced?
A: I don’t have anything to complain about. I actually don’t mind facing an argument about this. But I could see how a schoolteacher whose job it is not just to teach evolution but the whole of science—who hasn’t got the time that I’ve got to devote to this particular topic—could be given a hard time. I can handle heckling on evolution because it’s my own field.
Q: You take exception to people who talk about Darwin’s “theory.” Evolution is an indisputable fact, you write, the evidence is overwhelming. Then why are so many people resistant to the concept?
A: I don’t actually take exception to talking about Darwin’s theory, it’s just that there are two different meanings of the word. There’s the meaning that suggests a tentative hypothesis that might be right or wrong. Then there’s the meaning where it’s the name for a body of knowledge. I have no objection to using the word in that sense. There is a tendency for people to say it is only a theory. That is inappropriate.
Q: But even those who accept evolution often harbour basic misunderstandings of how it works—the widespread fallacy that humans are descended from chimps, for example. Why? Do we just do a poor job of teaching it?
A: I guess we do. Another major problem is the idea that it’s all a theory of chance. If it was you would be right to disbelieve it.
Q: A theory of chance?
A: People will say, “You’re never going to convince me that something as complicated as an eye could come about by sheer chance.” And the answer is that natural selection is the very opposite of sheer chance. Natural selection is a non-random process.
Q: The book does lay out, in great detail, the case for evolution. What is the most compelling piece of evidence?
A: I think the molecular genetic evidence. The distribution of genes right across the animal and plant kingdoms. Before you could look at anatomy—things like bird wings and bat wings and human hands—and notice similarities. Nowadays you can do the same kind of thing, but in hugely more detail. For a start we have the same genetic code for all living creatures. Then we have a large number of genes that are manifestly the same, but with detail differences—they look like different drafts of the same book. In extreme cases, like a human and a beetroot, it’s like the difference between Matthew and Luke’s Gospel—clearly they tell the same story, but with different words. Whereas with a human and a chimp, it’s like two different printings of Matthew, with a few typos in one. So you end with a beautiful family tree of resemblance, where very close cousins like humans and chimps have almost all their genes in common. Slightly less close cousins like humans and monkeys still have recognizably the same genes. You could carry on right on down to humans and bacteria, and you will find continuous compelling evidence for the hierarchical tree of cousinship.
Q: One of the things I was taken with was the negative argument—how easy it would be to disprove evolution. All it would take is one rabbit fossil from the Precambrian era, where all we’ve found is very primitive life.
A: Yes, that’s [British geneticist] J.B.S. Haldane’s example. It’s an extremely powerful point. So many critics look at the gaps in the fossil record of evolution. And you can have gaps—they are just waiting to be filled. But if you could find a single rabbit in the Precambrian era [4.6 billion to 542 million years ago] it would blow it all out of the water.
Q: In recent years, many creationists have embraced “intelligent design”—the notion that the intricacy of life somehow proves that a higher power had a hand in its making. But you argue just the opposite, that life is too complex to be the work of any god.
A: Yes. The beauty of evolution is that it does provide an explanation of how you can get complexity out of simplicity. It does it by slow, gradual degree. At no point are you postulating the sudden coming into existence of a complicated being.
Q: You cite also a number of examples of what you call “unintelligent design.”
A: Yes, there are places where no sensible designer would commit such an error. I had a rather exciting day helping to dissect a giraffe, which I describe in the book. The recurrent laryngeal nerve—which runs from the head to the voice box—goes all the way down into the chest, loops around a major artery, then goes all the way back up again. It goes right past the larynx on the way down. All a decent designer would have to do is loop it off at that point. What we’re looking at is the legacy of history.
Q: The book is also a bit missionary work. You try to show creationists the true path. Do you really expect to win any converts?.
A: Probably not among dyed-in-the-wool creationists. But what I would hope is that among people who haven’t really thought about it very much, that it might help. Because evolution has been left out of their education. I think there could be a very large number who are creationists by default. Those are the people I want to reach.
Q: How should we be teaching this? Is this a week, or a month-long lesson?
A: It shouldn’t take very long to get across the central idea. But maybe we should start a bit younger. In Britain you don’t usually learn about evolution until you are about 15. I should have thought that you should start at about 8. But I could be wrong about that.
Q: There’s a new paper from a psychologist at Bristol University, claiming our brains are hard-wired to believe in God. You’ve argued that religious belief is a by-product of indoctrination or lack of education. Could you see an evolutionary benefit to faith?
A: Oh yes, I think that’s quite likely. Not a benefit to faith itself, but a benefit to the kind of psychological predisposition which shows itself in the form of faith.
Q: What would those benefits be?
A: One might be obedience to authority. You can see where that might be of benefit to a child. You are born into a dangerous world, there are all sorts of ways in which you could die, and you need to believe your parents when they tell you don’t go near the edge of the cliff, or don’t pick up that snake, etc. There could very well be a Darwinian survival value in that sort of brain rule of thumb. And a by-product of that could be that you believe your parents when they tell you about the juju in the sky, or whatever it might be.
Q: In the book, you mention you own an original first edition of Darwin’s The Origin of Species and that it’s your prize possession. You’ve been tagged as “Darwin’s Rottweiler.” Why do you have such an affinity for him?
A: He made arguably the greatest discovery any human has ever made. He was a man of great persistence. He wasn’t probably a natural genius, he worked very hard—even though he was an invalid. He was a great family man, a very nice man. I think he was admirable in all sorts of ways. But I think it’s probably that I’m a biologist and he’s the leading figure of the whole of biology.
Q: On your website, you have a campaign going to encourage fellow atheists to “come out of the closet,” and perhaps even wear scarlet “A” pins on their lapels.
A: First of all, I ought to say we’re very adamant that we don’t want to out people as atheists. We’re in the business of consciousness raising, trying to encourage them; if they are atheist, to be proud of it.
Q: But is this something you see as a linked purpose? Your work is not just to get people to accept evolution, but to make the next leap?
A: Well, that was certainly the purpose of The God Delusion, but not The Greatest Show on Earth. The battle here is against creationism, not against religion per se. But if you are asking me if my more global purpose is a battle against religion, it is.