Richard Dawkins at the Wisconsin Union, A review and more!

Tuesday, the 11th of March, 2008, Professor Richard Dawkins came to Madison, Wisconsin. As I mentioned before, he was here for two talks, and I was going to try to get him on my show for an interview. It was a busy day for me in class, and in lab as well, plus my backpack was broken and I had to use two shoulder bags all day, but I carried around my books, notes, computer, and recording equipment for what was a jam-packed day.

First, there was the talk in the afternoon, of which I caught the latter half. It was a casual affair, a discussion between Dawkins and mostly students. If you want a more complete description of this event, visit Missives from the Frontal Lobe or The Uncredible Hallq. My reason for being there was to approach Dawkins after the discussion to ask him for an interview.

The discussion went pretty well, with questions ranging from what would reduce religiosity in the world, to what he thought of Unitarians. Afterward, people mingled a little, and Katherine asked him a question that got him a little riled up – as it brought up Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s lack of satirical wit with their portrayal of him in a South Park Episode. Personally, I think he should brush it off – I found their joke about a schism amongst atheists very funny, while their portrayal of Dawkins as a cheap shot, comparable to when they turned Mel Gibson into a poo-scrawling ape in the episode about The Passion of the Christ. Sometimes South Park can make a good joke (Like Here Comes the Neighborhood) but sometimes it really shows when they can’t come up with anything clever and resort to stupidity. So Dawkins could take it as a compliment that the SP creators had nothin’ on him.

So with Dawkins a little miffed, it was my turn to approach him and ask for an interview. I submitted an interview request to his office the previous week (If the Maize Genetics Conference hadn’t taken my attention I would have remembered to send it earlier), and his office told me it would be doubtful if I could get an interview while he was in Madison. It doesn’t hurt to try, and asking in person is far better than an easily overlooked email – I always have better success in person. After finding out that he hadn’t gotten any messages from his office about my request, I asked if he might be willing to do an interview for my science podcast, and I could do it over the phone if it was more convenient. He declined.

I don’t blame him – he gets so many requests it boggles the mind, and I wasn’t able to fully articulate what my show was about, nor did he know about the jar of honey that was in it for him, so I thanked him and left, to go take some gel pictures in the lab and come back for the talk in the evening.

Ariela met up with me downtown at a parking structure, where I could finally drop off some of my shouldered burdens, and grab my copy of The Selfish Gene and of course, my secret weapon, which I loaded into the car that morning. I had decided that Richard Dawkins was going to get not the regular 3/4 pound jar of honey that I give to my guests, but a full 2 1/2 pound mason jar full of the good stuff. He’s been writing about and popularizing science as his life’s work in addition to his research, contributing to debates about the philosophy of science (and of biology), is currently a prominent social activist, and will be retiring later this year. He deserves a fat jar of my honey, whether he’s on my show or not!

Armed wit a book, a jar of honey, and my voice recorder, Ariela and I showed up and found a seat in one of the box seats on the lower level toward the back. It wasn’t too good for pictures, but there was a nice wall in front of us that was perfect for perching the recorder.

The recording picked up my goofy laugh and a few whispers, but the sound quality is pretty good, considering. I muffled the clapping so it won’t hurt your ears and uploaded it and added it to the Mindcast Extras podcast. You can download it directly, or subscribe to the podcast (iTunes).

Sean Carroll, who’s a well-known evolutionary biologist and science communicator in his own right, introduced Dawkins, quoting Sean Penn’s review of Dawkins’ recent book: “If this book doesn’t change the world, we’re all screwed.” Carroll’s office is in the building next to mine – rest assured I’ll be asking him for an interview, too! Soon as I’m done with one of his books.

Dawkins came on and immediately wanted the lights to be turned on so he could at least see the audience. He also jabbed at the photographers which kept crawling up to him on the side – and asked them to get their pictures over with! I don’t need to give you the play-by play, because you can listen to it yourself, so let me give you the general idea.

His talk was funny, well-composed, and logical. Since his book, The God Delusion, many people have responded to his writing either totally misconstruing what he meant, not addressing his central claims, painting him in a bad light deliberately, or saying they agree with him but he’s just too strident. He dashed apart each one of these and more, showing how silly they were. He talked about how important science education is, and talked about ongoing efforts to undermine it. He also presented his compelling argument against labeling children with the religion of their parents.

In hindsight, it is obvious, as all brilliant insights are. We label children in this country with the religion of their parents, without thinking about it. “Catholic children” and “Protestant children” abound in newspaper articles, written by even well-educated and thoughtful journalists, who would balk at the suggestion of calling a child a “Marxist child,” a “Keynesian” or “Monetarist” child, a “Republican child,” and to put it to the extreme – how about a “Rationalist” or “Mystic” child?

Each of these are absurd. Why? Because children have not, and cannot be expected to have thought about these issues. Especially when it concerns religion – for many people religion is a very important part of their lives, and some religious groups try to make sure that you have really decided that you want to be a part of the religion before allowing you to swear oaths in religious practices. And if you really think about it, if there is a god, deciding that you believe in one is a very important decision, not to be taken lightly, or assumed that a child will eventually decide they way you label them.

(As a side note, I recall that I was labeled as a ‘little scientist’ in elementary school, at a very young age. I didn’t even know what it meant – but teachers and daycare workers noticed traits in me that were unmistakable. Was I a scientist child? No, but I was on the path to becoming one, though I didn’t know it.)

You could say that all children are in fact born atheists. Specifically, weak atheists, meaning that they lack a belief in a god – which must be taught to them. But this is a trivial distinction – they have not thought about it. If you instead define an atheist as someone who has thought about it and decided that they do not believe in a god, that they are then atheists, this label evaporates. Children have not thought about it, nor can be expected to, and therefore have not decided what they believe because they don’t know what they believe. Indeed, it would be wrong to label a child an “Atheist child” as much it would be to call one a “Muslim child.”

Using this example, if you define a religious person as someone who has thought through and decided that they believe in God, or are Buddhist or Hindu for example; you cannot call a four-year-old religious, whether a Tibetian Buddhist, or a Rudran Hindu.

A friend of mine who also attended the event suggested a counter-argument against Dawkins’ arguments – we call children “American” children and “French” children, how is that different? Let’s consider it. National labels have multiple meanings, such as national identity, culture, ethnicity, and citizenship status. In some respects, by Dawkins’ logic, you can’t label a child in that way, in other ways, you certainly can:

  • Citizenship – The status of children as citizens of The United States of America is clear, and when I hear “American Child” that’s the first thing I think of. (Besides the quip that many other countries are contained in the Americas) You’re a citizen whether or not you’ve thought about it.
  • Culture – Obviously, as children are in the process of learning culture, you can’t automatically label them as being “culturally American,” especially because depending on the circumstances, children can be citizens of the country yet be raised to be culturally Mexican, or Chinese, etc. Culture can be in degrees, and it can also be a mix, especially if the culture of your ethnic group is different from the culture of the country you’re living in.
  • Ethnicity – depending on the country, the ethnicity may match up to their country of origin, somewhat. Ultimately, we’re all originally Africans, but to call a child “French” if they are ethnically French seems justified. You are also from an ethnic lineage whether or not you have decided you are or not, though definitions are fuzzy.
  • National Identity – National labels can also have meaning with respect to your sense of nationalistic patriotism. A 4-year old really cannot have a genuine sense of National Identity for the same reasons they can’t have a religious or cultural identity – they haven’t thought about it. I remember some kids being all “Go America!” and kids are drilled into memorizing the Pledge of Allegiance without knowing what it means, or what they are saying. These things are empty professions of patriotism, a sense which takes time and thought to develop. Certainly, we want kids brought up in this country to feel connected to the nation as a whole and want to make it better, but can a 6-year old really know that they like America better than anywhere else?

So you can call a child an American or French or English or Latvian or Krakozhian (!) child, when you mean it with respect to their citizenship, and possibly their ethnicity, but in most cases not their culture, and certainly not their national identity. I have not heard a single person give a compelling counter-argument to Dawkins’ assertions, even though there have been 20-some odd books and countless articles (and probably sermons) arguing against him. The logic is straightforward, consistent with the use of other labels,

Another argument that appears unassailable is the argument from design. Nay, not the biological argument from design, which got its bowels handed to it by Darwin and almost every biologist since, but the theological argument from design. Who or what created God?

The argument is as follows, and stands half as a serious argument, and half as a caricature of the fallacious argument from design promoted by creationists. If life is so complex as to have necessitated being designed by a higher intelligence, then that intelligence must be more complex still, from the articles which are said to have been designed. For example, if someone must have made the human brain, a biological computer with emotions and personality, etc, an incredibly complex entity, then the designer must be even more complex – being able to not only conceive of the brain in question but also figure out how to design it from scratch. Then, the logic follows, that since that designer must be so much more complex than the human brain, then its very existence compels you to conclude that it, too, must have been designed. Dawkins calls this the Ultimate 747 argument.

Responses to this argument are mixed – some take a mystical tack and deny that anything can be known about said designer, (how do you know it exists?) whereas some argue that it must have existed eternally, which can be taken as an argumentative dodge. It doesn’t explain anything at all, but merely posits a situation where that may satisfy the constraints, but doesn’t get you any closer to a solution, or even knowledge of the existence of this designer itself. As Dawkins has said before, “That’s rather convenient.”

But the other major response he has received is that the designer of the Universe is instead a very simple entity. It’s not some bearded guy in a chair who talks to people and appears in tacos, it’s merely “energy” or some other thing that pervades all existence, and started the whole grand experiment 13.7 Billion years ago. In his presentation, Dawkins shredded this common response as well. He has been very specific in defining what kind of god he’s been talking about – and that is the predominant originator-interventionist-conversational-personal deity that the majority of people in this world believe in. So criticisms that focus on redefining God into a simple being aren’t talking about the same thing anymore.

Lastly, Dawkins repeated his assertion that the universe would be an entirely different place if there was a god. This is where I depart slightly from Dawkins et al. on this matter. (PZ Myers echoed this viewpoint in episode 74) At this point, I couldn’t say one way or another whether the universe would look a certain way whether or not a god existed. I don’t see any need to hypothesize a deity to explain any aspect of the universe, nor can I point to anything that could most certainly not exist if there was one. Certain ideas of God, I believe, are incoherent and most certainly do not exist, others are merely based upon cultural ideas or observations that are false, and I therefore find no evidence for them, and no reason to believe in them. Benevolent deities could exist, but they run into the Problem of Evil (I do not believe appeals to Free Will undermine this argument – it doesn’t violate any concept of free will to keep a baby from burning alive). We could all have it wrong and the True God could be a god of E. coli, and we’re merely holy vessels to help their spread throughout the Universe, and provide a battleground for the holy wars of dominance of one strain over another.

In addition, almost no matter what kind of god existed, it could conceal every possible shred of evidence for its existence, and some have argued (C.S. Lewis) that a deity would have to conceal evidence for its existence. Then, how could you know one way or another?

Indeed, people who refer to supernatural causes define supernatural as being “above” nature, and not testable by any natural means (Some can be hypocritical and simultaneously claim that they know there is a god because of X – which is essentially a test). If you can test for the existence of a particular phenomenon, it is therefore a natural phenomenon.; if you can test for the existence of a god, is ceases to be supernatural, by definition. To make reference to anything supernatural, is to claim that there can be no evidence for your position. There may be things that people consider to be “supernatural” but are really “natural,” and these possibilities are not excluded.

Discussing supernatural phenomena in scientific terms does not work, except in one sense. I think you can safely say there’s no scientific evidence for Y, but that in and of itself does not establish that Y does not exist, particularly when you cannot make a scientific test for its existence. Speaking of supernatural phenomena and entities is rightfully in the domain of philosophy, not science.

In contrast to Dawkins, who has made it clear that he is treating the existence of God as a scientific question, I don’t think you can treat it as such. But, given that supernatural references are untestable, and cannot be treated scientifically in any sense, I consider them useless as explanations. If you treat it scientifically, it crumbles into incoherence, so we have essentially the same view with respect to its utility, but differ with respect to its status as a scientific question.

After the talk, Dawkins answered quite a few questions, one of them was pretty funny. “What do you say when someone sneezes.” He laughed and said, “You want me to say Bless You!” He explained that he is culturally Anglican, though philosophically an atheist. He celebrates Christmas, and says “oh my God” as an exclamation. We don’t have to wipe references to religion from our day to day life, he expressed.

Personally, I like saying “Great Darwin’s Galapagos,” a hybrid of “Great Scott”, a play off of the influence of Darwin on religion, and a reference to the great surprise he had when he studied the life endemic to those islands. “Great Galapagos” could also work and is shorter, give it a try. Hey, at least it isn’t Leapin’ Lizards!

When the event was over, and applause died down, everyone shuffled out and hurried home in the cold (it was actually a toasty evening for a Madison Winter), or stood in line to get an autograph. I overheard one person acknowledge that the lecture was “preaching to the choir,” in that most people who were willing to stand in line and get prized tickets to a sold out event were probably already nonbelievers themselves. I would like to address this briefly.

While it is true on the issue of religion and perspectives on science in the auditorium, there was likely little disagreement amongst the attendees, when compared to a random mix of people. But his purpose was not to convert people to nonbelief – it was to raise consciousness about several issues, such as what I outlined above. To get 1300 people to correct others when they say “Jewish child” (except with regard to ethnicity) is laying the groundwork for social change with regard to language. The use of language is not trivial here – labeling a child with an identity early on can have lasting effects on their life. Catholics and Protestants in Ireland continue to wage a Montague/Capulet conflict, and their children are inducted into the conflict of their parents without a choice.

There will always be differences between people that could be used as labels to create artificial moral differences, but is this one helping in any way? If you’ve played Halo on Xbox Live, you know that you can easily slip into identifying with the Red or Blue team, which is assigned randomly to all players. But you can switch teams in Halo, and a single evening of gaming has you playing on many teams. Religious labels, however, are harder to change, especially if you weren’t given a choice in the first place.

Additionally, by speaking out about religion, he is doing what many people are afraid to do. Being nonreligious in this country is a difficult minority to be a part of in the respect that religion is quite ubiquitous. It can be easy for some because it is an easily concealed status. But at the same time, because it is easily concealed, no one can see that this group of people is just like everyone else with all their good and bad social and political qualities.

That is why Richard Dawkins started the “Out” campaign. See the Scarlet Letter “A” pinned to his suit in the picture above, as he smiles at an attendee? So far, it has become the most successful self-identification campaign for nonbelievers. Acceptance comes in small steps.

Ariela was in line before me, and thanked Dawkins for an essay he wrote on how biology is mis-used for social and political agendas with regard to gender. She said that when she gave the essay to her sociology professor, she liked it as well and used it in class.

Since I already had his signature on my copies of The Ancestor’s Tale and The God Delusion, I decided to bring my copy of The Selfish Gene, his literary debut. When I read it years ago, I was fascinated by his gene-centric view of evolution, and by coincidence, when I read Chapter 12, Nice guys finish first, I was bothered by an ugly personal relationship situation. The whole book was intellectually stimulating, but in this chapter, his writing encouraged me in a personal way to be who I am. So when it was my turn next, I gave a similarly brief explanation of the personal meaning involved, and I got my autograph.

Now, of course, it was time to whip out the mason jar of honey. I said that although he declined to do an interview, I give each guest on my show a jar of honey from my bees, and I was going to give him a full-sized mason jar-full for doing all the writing and science popularizing that he has done over the years. I said I wanted him to have it anyway, and he was quite surprised and pleased! People still standing in line had a laugh and took pictures – who expects a jar of honey? I said that since he was traveling I can mail it to his office in England, and he said that would be nice. So one last thank you and a pose with his jar of honey and we were done!

(Mega-size picture here)

Look at that picture, isn’t that the biggest smile on Richard Dawkins’s that you have ever seen?! I should claim a celebrity endorsement for my honey! Kidding, of course. If you click on the Mega-sized picture, you can make out my signature on the jar.

So pretty soon this jar will get mailed out to him, with my card and a short letter enclosed to him wishing him a happy retirement, among other things. Who knows, perhaps I might get an interview with him someday in the next few years – he should be plenty sweetened up by then! And plus, how long does it take to go through a whole jar? He’s going to need a replacement eventually!

Published by

Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.