Richard Dawkins: It's insane that people still doubt Darwin

In an excerpt from his new book, the famed atheist wonders what would have happened if Hitler's dad only sneezed

By Richard Dawkins

Published September 29, 2013 4:00PM (EDT)

Excerpted from "An Appetite for Wonder"

Publication of "The Selfish Gene" marks the end of the first half of my life and a convenient point at which to pause and look back. I’m often asked whether my African childhood led me to become a biologist. I’d like to answer yes, but I’m not confident. How can we know whether the course of a life would have been changed by some particular alteration in its early history? I had a trained botanist for a father and a mother who knew the name of every wildflower you could normally expect to see – and both of them were always eager to satisfy a child’s curiosity about the real world. Was that important to my life? Yes, it surely was.

My family moved to England when I was eight. What if they hadn’t? At the eleventh hour I was sent to Oundle rather than Marlborough. Did that arbitrary change seal my future? Both were boys-only schools. A psychologist might suggest that I’d have turned out a socially better-adjusted person if I’d been sent to mixed schools. I scraped into Oxford. What if I’d failed, as probably I nearly did? What if I had never had tutorials with Niko Tinbergen, and therefore followed my earlier plan to do biochemical research for my DPhil rather than animal behaviour? Surely my whole life would then have been different? Probably I would never have written any books.

But perhaps life has a tendency to converge on a pathway, something like a magnetic pull that draws it back despite temporary deviations. As a biochemist, might I have eventually returned to the path that led to "The Selfish Gene," even if I had then given it a more molecular slant? Perhaps the pull of the pathway would have led me to write (again biochemically slanted) versions of every one of my dozen books. I doubt it, but this whole ‘returning to the path’ idea is not uninteresting and I shall . . . er . . . return to it.

The hypotheticals that I posed are relatively large. Take something utterly trivial yet, I shall argue, momentous. I’ve already speculated that we mammals owe our existence to a particular sneeze by a particular dinosaur. What if Alois Schicklgruber had happened to sneeze at a particular moment – rather than some other particular moment – during any year before mid-1888 when his son Adolf Hitler was conceived? Obviously I have not the faintest idea of the exact sequence of events involved, and there are surely no historical records of Herr Schicklgruber’s sternutations, but I am confident that a change as trivial as a sneeze in, say, 1858 would have been more than enough to alter the course of history. The evil-omened sperm that engendered Adolf Hitler was one of countless billions produced during his father’s life, and the same goes for his two grandfathers, and four great-grandfathers, and so on back. It is not only plausible but I think certain that a sneeze many years before Hitler’s conception would have had knock-on effects sufficient to derail the trivial circumstance that one particular sperm met one particular egg, thereby changing the entire course of the twentieth century including my existence. Of course, I’m not denying that something like the Second World War might well have happened even without Hitler; nor am I saying that Hitler’s evil madness was inevitably ordained by his genes. With a different upbringing Hitler might have turned out good, or at least uninfluential. But certainly his very existence, and the war as it turned out, depended upon the fortunate – well, unfortunate – happenstance of a particular sperm’s luck.

A million million spermatozoa,
All of them alive:
Out of their cataclysm but one poor Noah Dare hope to survive.

And among that billion minus one
Might have chanced to be
Shakespeare, another Newton, a new Donne– But the One was Me.

Shame to have ousted your betters thus, Taking ark while the others remained outside! Better for all of us, froward Homunculus,
If you’d quietly died!

--Aldous Huxley

If his father had sneezed at a particular hypothetical moment, Adolf Hitler would not have been born. Nor would I, for I owe my improbable conception to the Second World War – as well as to much less momentous things that happened. And of course all of us can take the argument back through countless previous generations, as I did with my hypothetical dinosaur and the destiny of the mammals.

Taking on board the contingent frailty of the event chain that led to our existence, we can still go on to ask – as I did a moment ago – whether the course of a named individual’s life is sucked back, magnetically, into predictable pathways, despite the Brownian buffetings of sneezes and other trivial, or not so trivial, happenings. What if my mother’s joking speculation were really true, if the Eskotene Nursing Home really had muddled me up with Cuthbert’s son and I had been brought up as a changeling in a missionary household? Would I now be an ordained missionary myself? I think geneticists know enough to say no, probably no.

If my family had stayed on in Africa and I had persisted at Eagle rather than moving to Chafyn Grove, and then been sent to Marlborough rather than Oundle, would I still have got into Oxford and met Niko Tinbergen? It is not unlikely, for my father would have been hell-bent on my following him and half a dozen earlier Dawkinses into Balliol. Despite taking other forks in the road, pathways can converge again. The likelihood that they will do so depends on genuinely investigable matters such as the relative contribution of genes and education to adult abilities and proclivities.

We can leave rarefied speculations about hypothetical sneezes and converging pathways, and return to familiar territory. As a man looks back on his life so far, how much of what he has achieved, or failed to achieve, could have been predicted from his childhood? How much can be attributed to measurable qualities? To the interests and pastimes of his parents? To his genes? To his happening to meet a particularly influential teacher, or happening to go to summer camp? Can he list his abilities and shortcomings, his pluses and minuses, and use them to understand his successes and failures? This is the familiar territory I meant, and it is that trodden, for example, by Darwin at the end of his autobiography.

Charles Darwin is my greatest scientific hero. Philosophers are fond of saying that all philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. I sincerely hope that is not the case, because it doesn’t say much for philosophy. A far better case could be made that all of modern biology is a series of footnotes to Darwin. And that would be a genuine compliment to the science of biology. Every biologist treads in Darwin’s footsteps and, in all humility, none of us could do better than to follow his example. In the closing pages of his autobiography he essayed a retrospective itemization of personal faculties lacked or possessed. Again in humility I shall do the same, taking his method of self-assessment as a model to be followed.

. . . I have no great quickness of apprehension or wit which is so remarkable in some clever men, for instance Huxley.

Here, at least, I can claim mental kinship with Darwin, although in his case the modesty was exaggerated.

My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited; I should, moreover, never have succeeded with metaphysics or mathematics.

Again, same for me, despite the ludicrously ill-founded reputation for mathematical ability that I briefly enjoyed – or endured – in Bevington Road days. John Maynard Smith, as a mathematical biologist himself, engagingly expressed wonderment at how it is possible to ‘think in prose’. He said it in the London Review of Books in 1982, at the end of a joint review of The Selfish Gene and its sequel (aimed at professional biologists), The Extended Phenotype:

I have left till last what is to me the strangest feature of both books, because I suspect it will not seem strange to many others. It is that neither book contains a single line of mathematics, and yet I have no difficulty in following them, and as far as I can detect they contain no logical errors. Further, Dawkins has not first worked out his ideas mathematically and then converted them into prose: he apparently thinks in prose, although it may be significant that, while writing The Selfish Gene, he was recovering from a severe addiction to computer programming, an activity which obliges one to think clearly and to say exactly what one means. It is unfortunate that most people who write about the relation between genetics and evolution without the intellectual prop of mathematics are either incomprehensible or wrong, and not infrequently both. Dawkins is a happy exception to this rule.

Back to Darwin’s autobiographical soliloquy:

So poor in one sense is my memory, that I have never been able to remember for more than a few days a single date or a line of poetry.

That might well have been really true of Darwin, and it doesn’t seem to have held him back. My ability to remember poetry word for word hasn’t helped my science much, although it has enriched my life and I would not ever wish to lose it. Perhaps, too, a feeling for poetic cadence has some influence on writing style.

My habits are methodical, and this has been of not a little use for my particular line of work. Lastly, I have had ample leisure from not having to earn my own bread. Even ill-health, though it has annihilated several years of my life, has saved me from the distractions of society or amusement.

My habits are anything but methodical, and that – not ill health in my case – has surely annihilated what might have added up to years of more productive life. The same accusation could be levelled at the distractions of society or amusement (and playing with computers in my case), but life is for living as well as producing. I have had to earn my own bread. But – while happy to ignore the attacks I have (yes, really) received for being white, male and adequately educated – I cannot deny a measure of unearned privilege when I compare my childhood, boyhood and youth to others less fortunate. I do not apologize for that privilege any more than a man should apologize for his genes or his face, but I am very conscious of it. And I am grateful to my parents for giving me what will strike some as a favoured childhood. Others might consider it less than a blessing to have been sent away to the spartan regime of boarding school aged seven, but even there I have reason to be grateful to my parents, for whom this style of education was a great expense, necessitating sacrifices from them.

Darwin had earlier let his modesty guard drop a little when he considered his – by any standards formidable – powers of reasoning:

Some of my critics have said, ‘Oh, he is a good observer, but has no power of reasoning.’ I do not think this can be true, for the Origin of Species is one long argument from the beginning to the end, and it has convinced not a few able men. No one could have written it without having some power of reasoning.

Mr Darwin (never Sir Charles, and what an amazing indictment of our honours system that is), that last sentence should win a prize for world-class understatement. Mr Darwin, you are one of the great reasoners and one of the great persuaders of all time.

I am not a good observer. I’m not proud of it and I try eagerly, but I am not the naturalist my father and his father would have wished. I lack patience and have no great knowledge of any particular animal or – despite one privilege of my upbringing – plant group. I know the songs of only half a dozen common British songbirds, and can recognize only about the same number of constellations in our night sky or families of our wildflowers. I am much better at the phyla, classes and orders of the animal kingdom – and so I should be, having studied zoology at Oxford: for no other university placed such an emphasis on that classical approach to the subject.

The evidence suggests that I am a reasonably effective persuader. Needless to say, the subjects about which I persuade are small beer compared to Darwin’s – except in the sense that, amazingly, the job of persuading people of Darwin’s own truth is still not over, and I am one of the labourers in Darwin’s vineyard today. But that story belongs in the second half of my life, during which the majority of my books were written: it belongs in the companion volume that should follow in two years’ time – if I am not carried off by the unpredictable equivalent of a sneeze.

From "An Appetite for Wonder" by Richard Dawkins Copyright © 2013 by Richard Dawkins. Reprinted courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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