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Faith and Belief: Richard Dawkins evolves his arguments

Richard Dawkins, best known as the author of "The Selfish Gene" (1976) and "The God Delusion" (2006), is at the Atheist Alliance International Convention in Burbank to discuss his new book, "The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution" (Free Press: 470 pp., $30), but he can't get from one banquet hall to the next without someone asking to take a picture with him.

Modest and professorial, Dawkins is mobbed, celebrity-style, no matter which audience he tells there is no God. As for Mother Nature, he adds, she doesn't care either -- natural selection is not a good-natured process, but one that favors mutant efforts to get ahead. The evidence for evolution, he concludes, is irrefutable; all living things evolved from a common ancestor, so grow up and stop whining. There is no master plan. We (our genes, that is) are on our own.

No wonder the creationists want to kill the messenger. Dawkins has been accused of aggression, militancy, arch-adaptationism and even -- don't say it -- reductionism. His critics hurl themselves against him in article after debate after full-length book, peppering him with questions: What about the gaps in the fossil record? How about the possibility of an intelligent designer? Would you believe the Earth is only 10,000 years old?

Forty percent of Americans, according to polls taken by Gallup at regular intervals since 1982, "deny that humans evolved from other animals and think that we -- and by implication all life -- were created by God within the last 10,000 years." Such figures vary around the globe. A full 85% of Iceland's population believes we developed from earlier species, but only 27% share that view in Turkey, an Islamic country. In Britain, Dawkins' home turf, 13% of the population actively denies evolution.

Dawkins has come to know such people intimately since "The God Delusion" became a cause célèbre. (The book has sold 2 million copies in 31 countries.) Prior to its publication, he assumed the fact of evolution, believing most readers were on board. In "The Greatest Show on Earth," he's more proactive, laying out the issue of evolution and natural selection with subheads like: "WHAT IS A THEORY? WHAT IS A FACT?" He writes of "softening up" his readers, as if kneading dough. By mid-book, however, Dawkins is his old scientist self, delighted by his subject, tossing off phrases such as: "What happened next is almost too wonderful to bear."

This is the upside of popular science writing. It's why Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould and Stephen Hawking left their labs to write. They trade in awe, the desire to restore to science the sense of sublime wonder that drew them to it in the first place. They share a contagious belief in the beauty of the universe. Readers eat it up.

"You can't imagine how gratifying it is to have a reader come up to you and say, 'You changed my life,' " Dawkins says, surrounded by clattering dishes in a Burbank cafe, after leaving the atheist convention to find a little peace. He has a bit of a lost, blinking demeanor, balanced by his precision of language and insistence on clarity. Asking him what he does for fun is certain to bring on a kind of befuddlement. "Ah yes, the recreation question," he says.

Dawkins was born in Nairobi in 1941 and left for England when he was 9. His father, an agricultural civil servant, inherited a dairy farm that had been in the family since 1723: Jersey cows, some pigs, some "arable." Though he's not the sentimental type, Dawkins admits to "an English nostalgia for village life, including church. I never go, find it excruciatingly boring, but still, I have some nostalgia for evensong on a summer evening."

He had his first doubts about God the same year he left Africa, and he fell for Darwin in his mid-teens. "Who wouldn't be drawn to such a powerful explanation?" he asks. "A good theory explains a lot but postulates little. Natural selection explains everything about us; our brains, bodies, eyes, and yet what it postulates is childishly simple. And no one got it until the mid-19th century!"

After studying zoology and animal behavior at Balliol College, Oxford, Dawkins taught zoology at Berkeley before returning to Oxford as professor for the public understanding of science, a fellowship endowed by Hungarian software billionaire Charles Simonyi. He only recently left this post to write, lecture and run the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, an organization dedicated to rationalist, humanist research and science education.

Dawkins is very keen to establish that his new book is not "The God Delusion." He wants, as much as possible, to distance it from conversations about God. "I have a strong feeling that the subject of evolution is beautiful without the excuse of creationists needing to be bashed," he says. He has a history of releasing his ideas into the world and letting others carry them. In this way, his books are his laboratories. "The Selfish Gene," in which he developed the idea of "memes" (cultural genes; units of cultural evolution), has spawned countless books and courses and even social movements -- conversations, he says, "that I haven't participated in but cast a fond eye upon."

Each book has been a response to some fallacy, an effort to dispel a common misconception. "The Selfish Gene" was meant to unravel the notion of group selection; "The Blind Watchmaker" to respond to the idea that natural selection is random; and "The God Delusion" to expose the dangers of insistence on God. Dawkins searches for the simplest, most powerful explanations. In his own intellectual evolution, he has peeled off, one by one, from his mentors to arrive at a lonely, beautiful place -- the non-beneficent universe. "Life seems so incredibly complicated," he says.

From such a perch, what are the possibilities for the future? "Biological evolution is a slow process," he says, "much slower than cultural evolution. The vast majority of species go extinct, but we are a remarkable species. Given our advances in technology, we have good reason to think we might survive extinction. It's possible that in 10 million years our descendants will still be here."

Dawkins is less sanguine about the fate of science. Despite exciting new discoveries, a dearth of students are going into scientific fields. And for all the crowds who come to see him and other science writers, there doesn't seem to be a lot of private money going to independent research.

"They flock to hear us," he says of the wealthy young entrepreneurs who are often in his audience. "We draw better crowds than bestselling novelists." And yet, children around the world are not getting the science education that would inspire them to careers in science -- the sense of awe, the "vastness of space and time."

To counteract this, Dawkins' next book will be for 12-year-olds, an expansion on a letter about the importance of critical thinking that he wrote to his daughter, Juliet, now a medical student, when she was 10. In it, he describes the dangers of "tradition," "authority" and "revelation" as reasons for believing anything.

"Dear Juliet," this new book begins. "Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me. Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know? How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the sun and are really far away? And how do we know that Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the sun? The answer to these questions is 'evidence.' "

Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

susan.reynolds@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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