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The not-so-angry evolutionist

British biologist Richard Dawkins is the author of the new book "The
Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution."

Biologist Richard Dawkins is turning down the atheist rhetoric as he promotes "The Greatest Show on Earth," his new book about the evidence for evolution. But don't you dare suggest that he's going soft on religion.

Dawkins is public enemy No. 1 for creationists and other detractors of Darwin's theories - and to be fair, he's fired off his own series of salvos against religious believers in books such as "The God Delusion." That has earned him a place among the founding fathers (and mothers) of the New Atheist movement. It has also thrust him into the middle of a culture war that has spread far beyond the scientific realm and onto the set of "The Colbert Report."

"The Greatest Show on Earth," however, is not intended as an anti-religious book. "I've done that, it's another T-shirt, this is not the place to wear it again," Dawkins writes. Rather, the British scientist traces the scientific investigation of biological change as if it were a crime-scene investigation - building up what he considers an ironclad case for evolution in action.

Newsweek may call Dawkins "the angry evolutionist," but in his latest book, Dawkins at least makes an attempt to lower the temperature. He reserves his harshest words for "history-deniers" who refuse to accept the evidence for evolution, comparing them to Holocaust-deniers or hypothetical "ignoramuses" who insist the Roman Empire never existed because they weren't around to see the Caesars.

Dawkins traces the investigation step by step, including the fossil record and the latest DNA evidence as well as the small-scale changes we see in bacteria, dog breeds and even the size of elephant tusks. All the clues point to nature as the perpetrator of biological change, using "weapons" such as climate and predation.

Some mysteries are still unsolved, however. Dawkins cited four of his favorites last week during a talk at the University of Washington:

  • The origin of life: It might surprise some of Dawkins' critics to hear that he offers no explanation for what kick-started life in the first place. "That is a complete mystery," he said. Scientists have plenty of suspects to check out, however.
  • The origin of sex: Dawkins said scientists are also puzzling over "what sex is all about" - in evolutionary theory, that is. After all, sexual reproduction isn't strictly necessary for the evolutionary process to do its thing. Some researchers surmise that sex arose to help weed out harmful mutations or provide more options for propagation.
  • The origin of consciousness: Where does subjective consciousness come from? Dawkins sees this as the "biggest puzzle" facing biology. Scientists have their ideas, and one of the latest ideas is that consciousness serves as the Wi-Fi network for an assortment of "computers" inside your brain.
  • The rise of morality: What drives us to do good, even for people we don't even know? The expectation of reciprocity provides a partial explanation, but "it doesn't account for the extremely high degree of moral behavior that humans show," Dawkins said. He surmises that altruism might have arisen as a "mistaken misfiring" of neural circuits involved in calculating the mutual give and take among kin.

Such misfirings are not necessarily a bad thing: Just this week, researchers reported that altruism on the widest scale had its roots in culture rather than genetics. Primatologist Frans de Waal has written a whole book arguing that we should build upon our biological hard-wiring for empathy. And one psychologist argues that most of our sense of right and wrong comes from not-so-obvious "dark morals" rather than a sheer sense of reciprocity.

Dawkins said morality may be a byproduct of biological drives that are hard-wired into our brains as favored rules of behavior. "The rule of thumb is actually what the brain obeys," he said, "so we have a lust for good, just as we have a lust for sex."

And a lust for faith as well? Dawkins doesn't go that far, though he does acknowledge he's a "cultural Christian" who enjoys singing a hymn or Christmas carol every now and then. He has no patience for religious believers who refuse to accept evolution as a fact. But as long as someone is willing to listen to the evidence, even if they haven't thought all that seriously about evolution before, Dawkins is willing to present the "Greatest Show."

"It's those people that I'm trying to reach," he said.

On the day before Dawkins' talk, I chatted with him about "The Greatest Show on Earth" (which literally takes its title from a T-shirt slogan) as well as the double-edged controversy it has engendered. Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:

Cosmic Log: "The Greatest Show on Earth" has already created quite a splash. There's been a debate raging over whether you're an "accommodationist," and one reviewer ["Flock of Dodos" filmmaker Randy Olson] claims that you have a case of "Tourette's syndrome" when it comes to anti-religious sentiment. How are you dealing with this?

Richard Dawkins: Well, those two things you quoted are immediately contradictory, aren't they?

Q: Yes, they are.

A: It's rather hard to win sometimes. That "Tourette's syndrome" reference is really rather ridiculous. I think he's talking about "The God Delusion" anyway, rather than "The Greatest Show on Earth." "The God Delusion" is written in a temperate style. Of course you can see it as insulting to religion, but religious people would take insult from almost anything. It's not shouting; it's humorous. It makes fun of things that deserve to be made fun of.

But "Tourette's syndrome" is a ridiculous characterization. I suspect he's been reading what religious critics have said rather than actually reading the book itself. In any case, it's completely inappropriate for "The Greatest Show on Earth," which is all about evolution and has really nothing to do with religion at all.

As for the "accommodationist" reference, I think that stems from the fact that I was asked a question, "Is it possible to be both an evolutionist and a Christian?" And I said, well of course it is, look at Francis Collins [an evangelical Christian who is the former head of the Human Genome Project and current director of the National Institutes of Health]. There certainly are minds that are capable of accommodating both. That was written up as me becoming an accommodationist, which has become sort of a dirty word in atheist circles – referring to those people who are atheist but pretend not to be in order to suck up to religious people. I have not become that.

Q: Right.

A: I do it all with good humor, however.

Q: I've heard it said that you're just trying to put your case across, and trying to be charming with people you don't necessarily agree with. I suppose it's difficult, especially when you're trying to keep the science on one track and keep the philosophy on a different track. Or do you see those tracks as very much related?

A: I think they're pretty much related. Questions about the existence of the supernatural are actually scientific questions. I don't think philosophers have any particular expertise to bring to bear. Certainly theologians haven't any expertise to bring to bear on anything. These are largely questions that scientists should be able to deal with.

Q: I really had the sense that with "The Greatest Show on Earth," you were trying to get back to the basics: How do we know evolution is true? There have been efforts to write about that subject in the past. Is there something in the way you're approaching this subject that you think sets it apart from those previous efforts?

A: There are lots of excellent books out there. It's a subject that's so exciting, so interesting, so rich that there can be a lot of books about it. Whether I bring to bear some style or type of writing that sets me apart, I can't judge. That's for you to judge.

Q: Where do you see this fitting in with a book like "The Ancestor's Tale"?

A: "The Ancestor's Tale" is about the actual history of life as it happened. This one is about the evidence that evolution is a fact. "The Ancestor's Tale" assumes that evolution is a fact and sets out the actual details of the history of life. This one is a very different book. It's about the evidence from all the sciences that evolution is true.

Q: One of those lines of evidence has to do with DNA and molecular genetics – subjects that didn't exist when Darwin did his work. …

A: Yes, well, Darwin of course didn't know any genetics at all, and nobody knew about DNA until the second half of the 20th century. It is utterly remarkable that DNA is a scientific digital code. It's text, it's exactly like written human language, with letters – you can actually count the number of letters. It means you could really compare every animal with every other animal, or plant, or bacterium, letter by letter, word by word, in their actual genetic text.

You can see this gene in a human is the same as this gene in a dog. It's the same gene doing the same job. It's not identical – and that's interesting, because you can actually count the number of differences. But you can trace the same gene doing the same job, right throughout the animal kingdom. There are other genes you can trace right throughout the mammals. Other genes you can trace right throughout all the living kingdoms.

You can actually plot a picture of the pattern of resemblances and differences between every animal and plant and every other animal and plant, and you find out that it fits on a beautiful, hierarchical, branching tree, which can only sensibly be interpreted as a family tree. When you do the same thing with a different gene, you get the same tree. Do the same thing with a third gene, and you get the same tree. It's overwhelmingly powerful evidence. And by the way, it also works for pseudogenes, which don't do any work at all but which are still recognizably there and still readable. They too fall on the same hierarchical tree pattern.

The only alternative explanation for this being a family tree is that God deliberately set out to deceive us in the most elaborate and devious way.

Q: Are there things about these new lines of evidence that serve to modify Darwin's theories? One thing that comes through in your book is how right Darwin was. But on the other hand, Darwin's theories aren't holy writ, so there are some findings that have modified what Darwin said.

A: In science we don't do holy writ, we do evidence. Darwin was remarkably ahead of his time. He amassed an enormous amount of evidence. He had prodigious knowledge and corresponded with people all over the world. He read a lot. The evidence Darwin had was indeed enormous, but it was completely lacking in certain respects – above all in genetics, as I've just been talking about.

The genetics of Darwin's time was completely wrong, apart from Gregor Mendel, who was a contemporary of Darwin. But unfortunately Darwin never read his works. Even Mendel was surpassed in a very big way by Watson and Crick, and the molecular biology revolution of the last half of the 20th century – which has now made genetics into a branch of information technology. And this has enormously increased the sheer weight of evidence in favor of Darwin. Darwin would simply have loved that.

Q: One of the things that people don't always understand about the scientific process is that you occasionally have to work with incomplete information. In the book, you've compared the evidence for evolution to the evidence developed during the investigation of a crime scene. You have to work with what you have. That leads some people to say that if scientists are not 100 percent certain about what they have, or if they change their minds, then what good is science? It's "just a theory."

A: The point about the detective and the crime-scene analogy is not that the information is incomplete, or not 100 percent. It can indeed be – if not 100 percent, then 99.99 percent. The point is that it's not eyewitness evidence. You can't actually see a murder taking place. You can't actually see most of evolution taking place, obviously, because it happened in the distant past. But the evidence for a crime can be exceedingly strong, even without eyewitness evidence.

Eyewitness evidence is actually not the most powerful evidence anyway. Eyewitness evidence even in human crimes is notoriously poor. Eyewitnesses get all sorts of things wrong.

Q: In the book, you mention the classic experiment with the gorilla and the basketball players, where you're so focused on watching the players in a video that you miss seeing someone in a gorilla suit walking through the scene.

A: I do have one chapter on seeing evolution before our very eyes, but most of evolution can't be seen that way. Nevertheless, the clues that remain are far better and far more numerous than any crime scene. The point of the detective analogy is not that the evidence is somehow incomplete or inadequate. It's extremely good evidence. It's just not eyewitness evidence.

Q: And you often hear the objection from people that "if you're claiming that life arose from a single-celled ancestor, why don't we see that happening again."  I guess it goes back to that point, that the time scale for evolution is so incredibly long that it's hard for people to have a conception of that.

A: The origin of life could have been a very rare event. After all, it only had to happen once. Darwin himself also made the observation that if it did happen again, the new form of life would be snuffed out or eaten, probably by bacteria, almost before it got started. We'd never see it.

Q: That relates to astrobiologist Paul Davies' concept of "weird life" – whether there is some sort of second, not-yet-detected track for life on Earth. You're betting that there's not.

A: Yes, Paul Davies has this interesting idea that life may have arisen more than once. One way to look for it would be to go to other planets, but that's rather difficult to do. Meanwhile, maybe there is more than one form of life on this planet. Maybe we haven't looked in the right place for it. It's a bit like the man who looks for his keys under a street lamp, even though that wasn't where he lost them – because that's where the light is.

Q: In another section of the book, you recount a conversation with someone who just couldn't accept the idea that Homo sapiens arose from other hominids, Have you found that there is a strategy for making an impression on such people, or do you just have to stand your ground?

A: Well, I think there are a lot of strategies. I've been using such strategies throughout my career. You have to identify the stumbling blocks to understanding, and one of the major stumbling blocks is the time scale. The time scale is huge, and the human mind is not easily equipped to grasp that time scale. So people naturally express a kind of personal incredulity.

There are numerous methods around to explain the magnitude of geological time. For example, write the history of the world, with one century per page. You start with the present, write a page, go back to the previous century and write a page, go back to the previous century, and so on. How many pages would you need in order to get back to William the Conqueror, or back to ancient Babylonians? Then how many pages would you need to get back to the dinosaurs, or the origin of fish, or the origin of life? You end up with bookshelves that are miles long. That conveys to people the magnitude of the time span that's involved.

Another big stumbling block is that an awful lot of people think evolution is a theory of random chance. It isn't. If it really were a situation of random chance, of course it wouldn't work. Any fool can see that. Natural selection is the very opposite of random chance. Natural selection is non-random survival of genes that work.

Q: You do a great job of tying that to domestic breeding – in this case, the conditions that are found in the natural world serve the same function as a breeder serves in selecting the organisms that are most suited to a particular situation.

A: That was a technique that Darwin himself used. Everybody understands domestic breeding, and everybody can see the dramatic consequences of breeding dogs, for example, which came from wolves not that long ago. So you can see a lot of evolutionary change packed into just a few centuries. All you then do, if you're explaining it as Darwin did, is just remove the human breeder and let nature do it instead.

Nature does it inadvertently, unconsciously, non-deliberately – by some animals surviving and some not surviving. That is the precise analog to the role of the domestic breeder choosing which puppies to breed from.

Q: Do you think sometimes that the human mind just has to classify objects in such a way that it's difficult to grasp the sort of evolutionary change that has formed the world as we know it?

A: Yes, this is the view of Ernst Mayr, the grand old man of evolution who died a couple of years ago at the age of 100. The human mind partitions the world into essential objects: "A rabbit is a rabbit is a rabbit. There's an unbridgeable gulf fixed between a rabbit and any other species." People can't grasp the idea that it's not true that a rabbit is a rabbit is a rabbit. It gradually changes over time. There's a constantly sliding definition of what it is to be a typical rabbit. That goes for any species.

Q: So how do expect this debate to evolve in the future? Can you look into a crystal ball and see how society is going to be dealing with evolutionary theory?

A: I'm not good on crystal balls. I'm not a very astute observer of the social scene. I continually get surprised. I'm enormously encouraged as I go around this country by the enthusiasm of the reception that I get.

I very seldom actually meet a creationist. I don't know where they're hiding. Polls tell me they're extremely numerous, but they don't seem to come out of their holes when I'm around.

This Cosmic Log item from last week mentions several recently published books on evolution, including "The Greatest Show on Earth." The earlier work that Dawkins mentioned, "The Ancestor's Tale," is an oldie but goodie - which makes it an apt selection for the Cosmic Log Book Club. The CLUB Club highlights books with cosmic themes that have been published long enough to show up at your local library or secondhand-book shop.

Join the Cosmic Log team by signing up as my Facebook friend or following b0yle on Twitter. And reserve your copy of my book, "The Case for Pluto," which is coming out this month.