Humanist Perspectives: issue 161: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins
by Claude Braun

Who is the world’s foremost humanist alive today? A few years ago, the award could have been given to the astronomist Carl Sagan. Today, one wonders whether the evolutionary biologist, science advocate and brights founding member, Richard Dawkins might not be the perfect candidate. Dawkins was made Humanist of the Year in 1996 and is now closely involved with the British Humanist Association. At 65, he is as active as ever, building the brights movement into a major political lobby, defending science against attacks from creationism, writing widely read books, dispensing conferences to huge audiences, triggering tidal waves of opinion on the world wide web, and now, setting up charities for secular humanitarianism. He has been nicknamed “Darwin’s rottweiler”, an affectionate throwback to Thomas Huxley who was nicknamed “Darwin’s bulldog”.

Richard Dawkins is currently the Charles Simonyi Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Science as well as the Royal Society of Literature.

His latest book, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 2006), is a brilliant piece of cool headed argumentation not only against religion, but much more interestingly and importantly, for science, atheism and humanism — directed at and for the general educated public. He has written numerous books, but The Selfish Gene, published in 1976, will no doubt go down in history as his most influential. It deals, as he says, scientifically, with territory normally believed by religionists to be of their exclusive prerogative, namely altruism.

On Saturday October 21st, Dawkins gave the prestigious Beatty Memorial Lecture at McGill University in Montreal, where the general public could attend, free of charge. The talk’s title was “The Strangeness of Science”. There were about 400 persons in attendance. Any great public lecture ought to form an elegant circle which the listener will spiral from forming his or her own intellectual, emotional and moral insights. The listeners were not disappointed. In his introduction Dawkins cited authors of the ilk of John B.S. Haldane, Richard Feynman and David Deutsch who, when doing science, not only had a wildness of imagination but revelled in the absurd. As Dawkins elegantly demonstrated, biology and physics are fertile grounds for such pursuits.

Take physics for example. The atoms that have composed us are long gone and they keep going away, and yet we stay. Likewise, a proton is to its electron as is a fly to a football field. And yet a rock seems so … well, dense. Everything seems to have weight, yet weight does not exist inside things, it is a field property. Strange … In biology, scientific paradigms are no less strange: the probability of the conditions for life being gathered from atomic randomness for example or the lining up of mutations leading to four phylogenetically entirely independent mechanisms of flight (pterodactyls, insects, bats, birds).

Science is strange, explains Dawkins, because our ecological niche is not science. We are adapted to a world set in a tiny range of sizes, speeds and gravitational forces, roughly bug to whale-sized objects, moving at speeds between zero and 100 miles an hour, weighing something from a gram to a tonne, reflecting light in a puny slice of the electromagnetic spectrum (visible colors). Bats probably perceive colors as echo. Water beetles probably cannot conceive a world in any other space than a plane. Bacteria probably cannot fathom gravity. Reality, for us, is the world for which our brains have become selected and specialized. Two animals with quite similar looking bodies, the mole and the squirrel, probably perceive the world very differently, one underground and earthy, the other above ground and aerated. A dog perceives smells as deftly as humans perceive piano notes.

Humans live in a highly social world. There is hardly a moment when we are not with other people. This is why humans are so inclined to anthropomorphize. We get angry, for example, at computers for willingly insulting us. Our brains are wired for life as troglodytes. We not only behave and cognize as apes, we are apes — who by the way, also attack lightning with sticks. The purpose of Dawkins’ talk was to underscore the wonder and marvel of science — in the register of his favourite theme, namely scientific popularization. And it was on that note that he concluded his address. “Science breaks us out of the box of evolution and enables us to imagine the unimaginable”.

Dawkins is currently setting up a charitable foundation, the Richard Dawkins Foundation (RDF). The foundation’s goals include humanistic scientific research, public education, development of a website, merchandise (DVDs, books, etc.), a data base of lecturers, publication of humanistic documents, religion-free charity, and consciousness raising. He has applied for charitable status for the RDF for fiscal purposes in Britain and the US. During the question period, at his McGill lecture, he admitted that he would love to have collaboration from Canadians for a similar status in this country. Any volunteers? Visit www.richarddawkins.net.

Claude MJ Braun is Professor of Psychology and co-founder of the Centre de Neurosciences Cognitives, Université du Québec à Montréal.

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