Intercepting Richard Dawkins

For the next few days, I’ll be in Tempe, Arizona, to interview scientists at Arizona State University and intercept Richard Dawkins, who is giving a talk there on Saturday evening along with physicist Lawrence Krauss, whose fascinating new book, A Universe from Nothing, was featured in this column.

Though it must be 20 years ago now, I still remember the epiphany I experienced while reading Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene. I don’t recall where I was going, but I was reading the book on a train, and I had to close it for a moment to take in the fact that I suddenly understood evolution in a whole new way. I got the chance to interview Dawkins in 1996, when I was still new at the Inquirer. He had come to nearby Princeton, to talk about his book Climbing Mount Improbable. He was a great speaker and a fascinating interview subject. Here’s a short excerpt from that story.

Scientists have a reputation for butting up against religious beliefs and explaining away miracles, but few are more outspoken in dismissing the role of God than British zoologist Richard Dawkins.

Like an apostle for Charles Darwin, Dawkins, 55, is taking his message about evolution to the people through lectures, television appearances and five books that have propelled him - at least in England - to the popularity of a Carl Sagan. His literary flair, caustic wit, irreverence and out-on-a-limb positions have won him a following.

Sure, there might be a God, ``but there might also be a teapot in orbit around the planet Pluto,'' says Dawkins. For him, God and teapot are equally irrelevant.

Dawkins drew a standing-room-only crowd earlier this month at Princeton University's bookstore, where he read from his latest work, Climbing Mount Improbable. His wife, British soap-opera actress Lalla Ward, also read passages.

The book is his attempt to explain how such seeming miracles as spider webs, bird wings, seashells, eyes or even enzymes could come about by evolution without the help of a supernatural designer.

``The height of Mount Improbable stands for the combination of perfection and improbability that is epitomized in eyes and enzyme molecules (and the gods capable of designing them),'' he wrote in his book.

And later I the story he addresses what’s still a common misconception about evolution:

``People have the wrong assumption that the only alternative to randomness is to have a mind,'' he says. Natural selection, he says, is both mindless and creative.

I read much of his more recent book The God Delusion on a plane. It was an early review copy, so the book was still unknown to most of the public. The stewardess caught a glimpse of the title as was so offended that I worried for a moment she was going to try to throw me off.

Many people believe that religion and science are compatible as long as the religion in question doesn’t try to use supernatural entities to explain the natural world, or to deny science outright. I’m curious to hear what Richard Dawkins has to say on this matter.