Let’s get things straight – the above is not the title of Richard Dawkin’s most recent book The Greatest Show on Earth. But it might as well be (and you get the feeling that Dawkins is slightly miffed that Coyne got the better title in last year’s plethora of books about evolution celebrating the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of Species).
If anyone could be described as my “hero” then it is probably Dawkins so I am delighted to be attending The Press Literary Liaison on Thursday. Dawkins is an entertaining speaker, an outspoken atheist and a champion of science (he was the Professor for Public Understanding of Science in the UK until 2008).
His arguments for the case for evolution are rational, evidence based, logical and very thorough. He discusses how we know the Earth is very old from from counting tree rings to radiometric dating. He explains in very easy to understand terms evidence that animals change over time, both in history and today. This includes an experiment with flasks of bacteria in a lab that have been evolving independently for over 20 years, molecular (DNA) evidence, evidence from embryology, and the “unitelligent” design of many animals.
With so much evidence to support Evolution and nothing found to contradict it, for Dawkins, the fossil record simply the “icing on the cake”.
Both he and Coyne introduce their books with a worrying statistic that less than 40% of adults in both America and the UK “believe” in Evolution and prefer Creationist explanations for life.
Dawkins is a man who is right and who knows he is right. His frustration at the supporters of creationism and intelligent design is apparent from the transcript of a radio debate. Dawkins repeatedly tells a creationist opponent that fossil evidence is available in the Smithsonian and to go look, but she adamantly denies such evidence could exist “or she would know about it”. Dawkin’s repeated and insistent imploring to “go look” shows why he has earned the nickname “Darwin’s Rottweiller”.
He does come across as somewhat arrogant and smug (his writing is peppered with name drops) but he is one of the best at explaining biology; engaging and entertaining his readers. So I am very excited about going to hear him talk.
Other resources about Evolution:
Generally speaking I am most emphatically not a fan of science or in fact of scientists; apparently I am in the minority. Richard Dawkins on the “big screen” was chock-a-block and with a much younger, decidedly more alternative and dare I say, mannish audience.
Radio New Zealand National’s Sean Plunket was the chair and he cut an imposing figure, although I couldn’t help thinking how tired he must be and how surely this must constitute a late night for someone who has been up since 4am to do Morning Report with dear old Geoff.
The technology worked marvellously and the session combined both Dawkins and the release of the inaugural Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book of the Year Award, won by The Awa book of New Zealand science edited by Rebecca Priestly. Dawkins, wearing a fetching pink tie (or maybe zebra print), first talked of his desire for The selfish gene to be popular as he regards the communication of scientific concepts to be an important responsibility for scientists. His desire was to write books for both the general public and fellow scientists adding that “scientific papers were often incomprehensible even to other scientists”, and that the act of preparing complex scientific ideas for the consumption of the lay person further honed and clarified concepts.
Asked whether the controversy The god delusion had created was distracting either for Dawkins or other scientists in the evolutionary biology field he replied that ‘ the yapping chorus of ignorant dissent” and the debate with pro-religion detractors was generally time-wasting. That’s them told.
Sean Plunket suggested that perhaps the West was too tolerant of religion and faith, Dawkins replied that nice, liberal people (yes you!!) bent over backwards to accept religious beliefs but that this exaggerated respect and acceptance of faith made it too easy for people who use their religion as a weapon. He believes that if faith allows an individual to become a suicide bomber in support of their religion then society is at risk.
Dawkins noted the decline in church attendance across Western society but didn’t see a correlating increase in rationality; instead he thought many were taking refuge instead in astrology, lay lines or voodoo. He himself went to an Anglican school but felt that generally the Anglican Church exhibited only a mild strain of the religious virus.
Plunket asked if Dawkins felt he was in any danger of becoming a Prophet for secularism or a High Priest of atheism, in reply Dawkins said he saw the danger but personally hated the idea of any cult or idolatry, wanting instead people to think independently and critically for themselves. Finally asked if on pain of death he had to choose a religion to follow what it would be, Dawkins replied he’d opt for the “church of the flying spaghetti monster”. Worra laugh!!