Slate Interviews Dawkins
Slate has just posted this interesting interview with Richard Dawkins. The subject was his new book The Ancestor's Tale. Here are a few excerpts from the interview:
Richard Dawkins, champion of Darwinism and scourge of religion, is a courtly and attractive man, although not much given to humor. If one finds oneself smiling frequently in the presence of this Oxford don—who was recently voted Britain's No. 1 public intellectual—it is out of sheer enjoyment at his gift for rendering the most subtle evolutionary ideas absolutely lucid.
“Sexual selection works as a kind of amplifier, causing small and perhaps arbitrary trends to get exaggerated in a runaway fashion,” Dawkins continued. “It's still a Darwinian process, but it's one that allows for contingent extravagance.”
The word “contingent” made me prick up my ears. Did Dawkins think that the development of a large-brained species like us was an accident, one that probably wouldn't be repeated if the tape of evolution were rewound and replayed? Shades of Stephen Gould!
“That's one of the questions that I deal with in the last chapter of my book,” he said. “The very large brain that humans have, plus the things that go along with it—language, art, science—seemed to have evolved only once. The eye, by contrast, independently evolved 40 times. So, if you were to 'replay' evolution, the eye would almost certainly appear again, whereas the big brain probably wouldn't.”
I'm not sure I buy that argument. It might be that once one lineage has attained human-like intelligence, it becomes effectively impossible for another lineage to do the same. Modern Homo sapiens took over the planet with suprising rapidity after they evolved. They probably caused the extinction of other hominid species as they did so. It might be that great intelligence is such a huge advantage in the battle for survival that the species that possesses it first can effectively prevent other species from doing the same.
The interview closes with this sentiment:
At this point, Dawkins' wife, the actress Lalla Ward, shimmered into the lobby to collect him. One could not help noticing that, in her radiant blondness, she is even more attractive than her husband. Book tours are hard work, so I regretfully relinquished the celebrated author. Still, I could not forbear asking one more question as he walked away.
“You've called religion a 'dangerous collective delusion' and a 'malignant infection,'” I said. “Don't you think you're underplaying it a bit?”
Dawkins turned, smiled a small fox smile, and said, “Yes!”
Golly! I think my religion-hating credentials are pretty solid, but even I wouldn't go that far.