Richard Dawkins is Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He is the author of many books including the international best-sellers “The Selfish Gene“, “The Blind Watchmaker”, and “Climbing Mount Improbable.”
QUESTION: Professor Dawkins, could you explain your belief that human beings are just “gene machines”?
MR. DAWKINS: When I say that human beings are just gene machines, one shouldn’t put too much emphasis on the word “just.” There is a very great deal of complication, and indeed beauty in being a gene machine. What it means is that natural selection, Darwinian natural selection, which is the process that has brought all living things to be the way they are, is best seen at the gene level, is best seen as a process of differential survival among genes, and therefore living organisms and their bodies are best seen as machines programmed by the genes to propagate those very same genes. In that sense we are gene machines. But it is not intended to be at all a demeaning or belittling statement.
QUESTION: Now, if we are gene machines, presumably then our behavior is also programmed by genes — you have made that case. But Christians would say that there is a thing called free will, and that free will gives us a genuine choice about our actions, that effectively free will allows us to override biology. What is your response to that as a scientist?
MR. DAWKINS: I am very comfortable with the idea that we can override biology with free will. Indeed, I encourage people all the time to do it. Much of the message of my first book, “The Selfish Gene,” was that we must understand what it means to be a gene machine, what it means to be programmed by genes, so that we are better equipped to escape, so that we are better equipped to use our big brains, use our conscience intelligence, to depart from the dictates of the selfish genes and to build for ourselves a new kind of life which as far as I am concerned the more un-Darwinian it is the better, because the Darwinian world in which our ancestors were selected is a very unpleasant world. Nature really is red in tooth and claw. And when we sit down together to argue out and discuss and decide upon how we want to run our societies, I think we should hold up Darwinism as an awful warning for how we should not organize our societies.
QUESTION: So you are not saying then that our genetic programming is fully deterministic?
MR. DAWKINS: It’s an important point to realize that the genetic programming of our lives is not fully deterministic. It is statistical — it is in any animal merely statistical — not deterministic. Even if you are in some sense a determinist — and philosophically speaking many of us may be — that doesn’t mean we have to behave as if we are determinists, because the world is so complicated, and especially human brains are so complicated, that we behave as if we are not deterministic, and we feel as if we are not deterministic — and that’s all that matters. In any case, adding the word “genetic” to deterministic doesn’t make it any more deterministic. If you are a philosophical determinist, then adding the word “gene” doesn’t increase the effect.
QUESTION: If, as you have said, there is a tendency from our genes for us to be selfish, would that perhaps suggest that we need institutions like religion to encourage us to override this innate selfishness?
MR. DAWKINS: The phrase “the selfish gene” only means that genes are selfish. It doesn’t mean that individual organisms are. On the contrary, one of the main messages of the selfish gene is that selfish genes can program altruistic behavior in organisms. Organisms can behave altruistically towards other organisms — the better to forward the propagation of their own selfish genes. What you cannot have is a gene that sacrifices itself for the benefit of other genes. What you can have is a gene that makes organisms sacrifice themselves for other organisms under the influence of selfish genes.
I think we certainly benefit from social institutions which encourage us towards moral behavior. It’s very important to have law. It’s very important to have a moral education. It’s very important to try to inculcate into children moral rules, such as “do as you would be done by.” It’s very important to do moral philosophy, to try work out the principles we want to live. But when you say religious principles, there I think I would part company. I see no reason why they should be religious. But I certainly think that they should be developed by society and not necessarily following biological dictates.
QUESTION: What is your response to the view that some Christians are putting forward that God is the designer of the whole evolutionary system itself?
MR. DAWKINS: In the 19th century people disagreed with the principle of evolution, because it seemed to undermine their faith in God. Now there is a new way of trying to reinstate God, which is to say, well, we can see that evolution is true. Anybody who is not ignorant or a fool can see that evolution is true. So we smuggle God back in by suggesting that he set up the conditions in which evolution might take place. I find this a rather pathetic argument. For one thing, if I were God wanting to make a human being, I would do it by a more direct way rather than by evolution. Why deliberately set it up in the one way which makes it look as though you don’t exist? It seems remarkably roundabout not to say a deceptive way of doing things.
But the other point is it’s a superfluous part of the explanation. The whole point — the whole beauty of the Darwinian explanation for life is that it’s self-sufficient. You start with essentially nothing — you start with something very, very simple — the origin of the Earth. And from that, by slow gradual degrees, as I put it “climbing mount improbable” — by slow gradual degree you build up from simple beginnings and simple needs easy to understand, up to complicated endings like ourselves and kangaroos.
Now, the beauty of that is that it works. Every stage is explained, every stage is understood. Nothing extra, nothing extraneous needs to be smuggled in. It all works and it all — it’s a satisfying explanation. Now, smuggling in a God who sets it all up in the first place, or who supervises the details, is simply to smuggle in an entity of the very kind that we are trying to explain — namely, a complicated and beautifully designed higher intelligence. That’s what we are trying to explain. We have a good explanation. Why smuggle in a superfluous adjunct which is unnecessary? It doesn’t add anything to the explanation.
QUESTION: What do you say to the argument that some people are raising now that it’s all very well for evolution to be the mechanism once you have a self-replicating structure like DNA — but how do you get that complex structure in the first place? Maybe DNA is the work of God?
MR. DAWKINS: It’s a different argument to say how did the whole process start – how do we begin with the origin of life? The origin of life — the key process in the origin of life was the arising of a self-replicating molecule. This was a very simple thing compared with what it’s given rise to. By far the majority of the work in producing the elegant complexity of life is done after the origin of life, during the process of evolution. There does remain the very first step — I don’t think it’s necessarily a bigger step than several of the subsequent steps, but it is a step. And it’s a step which we don’t fully understand — mainly because it happened such a long time ago, and under conditions when the Earth was very different. And so it’s not necessarily possible to simulate again the chemical conditions of the origin of life. There are various theories for how it might have happened. None of them is yet fully convincing. It may be that none of them ever will be, because it may be that we shall never know fully what the conditions were. But I don’t find it at all a deeply mysterious step.
QUESTION: You have called religion a virus. What do you mean by that?
MR. DAWKINS: The word “virus” is used in various ways. The original way is the proper way like the influenza virus or the measles virus — a bit of DNA which gets into the cell and programs it to its own end. Computer viruses are an analogy — it’s a very good analogy, because a computer virus is a piece of computer code written in computer language. It says, “Duplicate me and spread me around and maybe do some mischief on the way,” and it works because computers obey the instructions written in computer language. If you write a program that says “duplicate me, spread me around,” it will spread by the medium of floppy disks and so on.
Now, the human brain may be vulnerable to being parasitized in the same kind of way as the cell is by DNA viruses, and as computers are by computer viruses. An example would be the chain letter — the letter that you get through the post and says, “Make 10 copies of me, and send me to 10 friends.” And of course if everybody literally obeyed slavishly, like a computer would, then the world would soon be knee-deep in paper, because it’s a very rapid exponential increase in bits of paper. Humans aren’t quite that stupid. But they are sufficiently stupid to fall for certain kinds of inducements, such as, “If you don’t believe this and pass it along you’ll go to hell when you die.” That’s a threat. It’s a threat that sufficient numbers of people believe to agree to pass on the equivalent of the chain letter –the message, the gospel, whatever it may be.
There’s an added inducement, an added fact, which is that the brains of children, I think for probably very good Darwinian reasons, are especially susceptible for good reasons. A child, a young child, needs to learn a great deal — not only a language, but lots of other things, from its culture — from the elders of its society, from its parents. This means that children are going to be pre-programmed to believe whatever they’re told at a certain tender, vulnerable age. And I use the word “vulnerable,” because automatically like the computer they are then going to be vulnerable to parasitization by any other kind of information that is given them, which may not be good information. So the information, “Don’t put your hand in the fire, because you’ll be burned,” or “Don’t tread on yellow-and-black-striped snakes, because you’ll be bitten” — that’s good information.
The child has no way of knowing what’s good information. And so some other piece of information “X” — it doesn’t matter what it is — it may be completely nonsensical. But if the child is told at a certain tender age, that when you grow up you must pass on the same X to your own children, then that X is going to get passed on from generation to generation, regardless of what it is. And you predict from this that what people believe in one part of the world will be arbitrarily different from what people believe in another part of the world — nothing to do with difference in truth. There is no difference in the truth about the cosmos in Roman Catholic countries or Protestant countries or Islamic countries. Yet children in Islamic countries are told one thing and children in Catholic countries are told another thing, and they all believe what they are told. At least for a while some of them manage to shake it off later — but many don’t so the message gets passed down the generations indefinitely — and I think that’s one of the things that explain the existence of religion.
QUESTION: What is your view of more liberal religious views that are held by people like your Oxford colleage Arthur Peacocke, who is both a biochemist and an Anglican minister?
MR. DAWKINS: More sophisticated theological views, people like Arthur Peacocke and John Polkinghorne — obviously they’re not creationists in any simple sense — they’re not fundamentalists, they’re not stupid. So do I respect them more? Well, in one respect obviously I do, because really you could have an intelligent conversation with them — they’re not ignorant. On the other hand, I can’t understand what they’re doing it for. I mean, I don’t understand what it is that is being added, either to their lives or to the storehouse of human wisdom by bringing in this additional dimension of explanation. We have science. Science is by no means complete — there’s a lot that we don’t know — but we’re working on it. Both of those two gentlemen are scientists, and they know what that means. They understand it and they respect it. We’re working on building up a complete picture of the universe, which if we succeed will be a complete understanding of the universe and everything that is in it. So I don’t understand why they waste their time going into this other stuff which never has added anything to the storehouse of human wisdom, and I don’t see that it ever will.
QUESTION: If you could wave a magic wand and have the world be the way you think it should be, what would you see as being the proper relationship between science and religion today?
MR. DAWKINS: If I am asked is there a role for religion, would I just like to wave a magic wand and wipe it out? It’s not quite so straightforward as that. It could sound patronizing, but I could imagine that the consequences of simply wiping it out with a magic wand could — there could be social, psychological consequences which could be rather drastic. I mean, there are people who have come to depend upon it. There are people who rely upon it like a crutch. And so simply to wipe it out might be rather like taking the placebo pills that somebody has been used to taking all their lives and which have kept them happy and healthy, and suddenly saying, “Sorry, you can’t take your pills anymore.” So I wouldn’t wish to be so glib as to say I just want to wipe it out.
But as far as serious intellectual discourse is concerned, as far as actually trying to understand the world where humanity is concerned, yes, I think we are wasting our time doing that. I don’t mean to say that all theologians are wasting their time — I should have said that earlier. I mean, it’s important to recognize that what theologians actually do in many cases is not what I call theology — it’s Biblical history or literary criticism of ancient Hebrew text, and that’s fascinating and should be done, just as the same exercise on English historical texts should be done. I’m all for that. I love history, I love literature, and I love Biblical history and Biblical literature, and I am very keen that that should be done as a proper branch of scholarship.
But theology as opposed to Biblical history and literature — when you argue about the true inner meaning of the trinity, or the transubstantiation, and try to come up with some symbolic meaning — I think that is a total waste of time. I mean, a good satirical parallel might be to suppose that one day in the fullness of time science discovers that the DNA double helix is false, that we got it all wrong, and DNA is not a double helix. Now, any scientist would say, “Right, pity about that, but we’ll now work on finding out what it really is.” My satire on theology would be: “Ah, but in some other sense the DNA double helix surely has some meaning for us. What is the DNA double helix trying to tell us in the world today?” Maybe the twisting of the two strands of DNA has some significance for the uniting of human beings one with another — we must set aside the purely mundane issue of is it true, which is crude and facile — we are not talking about truth in any simple sense — we want to find the underlying symbolic truth. There never was an underlying symbolic truth. Either it’s true or it isn’t.
At the present we think DNA really is a double helix. If ever that’s found to be false we throw it out of the window and we start again, and we don’t try to rediscover some inner symbolic meaning, which is exactly what they’re trying to do with things like the Book of Genesis. They have thrown it out as historical fact, which is what it always was thought to be, and which many of its authors presumably intended it to be — and they have now replaced it with a symbolic meaning: the true meaning of the Book of Genesis is this that or the other. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. I think that it is a waste of time. I think it’s nonsense.
QUESTION: Why do you think that in an age of science so many people, even in the West, and particularly in America, continue to believe in religion?
MR. DAWKINS: I don’t understand why so many people who are sophisticated in science go on believing in God. I wish I did. You’d have to ask them. I know that in some cases what they mean by God is very different from what the ordinary people that they talk to think they mean by God. There are physicists who are deeply awed, as I am, by the majesty of the universe, by the mystery of origins — the origins of the laws of physics, the fundamental constants of physics, and who are moved by this to say there is something so mysterious that it is almost like God, and maybe use the metaphor of God. God is in the equations. God is in the fundamental constants. And that’s fine. I mean, that’s just redefinition of that which we find mysterious at the basis of the universe.
But other people misunderstand that, because to them God is that which forgives sins, that which transubstantiates wine, that which makes me live after I died — and that is a totally different matter. And yet the misunderstanding is ripe for the picking. People will listen to sophisticated physicists, using God as this kind of metaphor for the deep constants, the deep problems, the deep principles of physics, and say that in that sense I believe in God. The reaction is, “Oh, this great physicist believes in God — that means I’m free to believe in the trinity and in the crucifixion and in the reincarnation of Christ — and all that stuff, which of course has nothing whatever to do with the fundamental constants of physics, which is what these physicists are talking about.
QUESTION: I want to come back to the issue of viruses, because a theologian once said to me, “If religion is a virus, then we must accept the concept that science might also be a virus.” What do you say to that?
MR. DAWKINS: It’s often said that if we say that religion is a virus, then why isn’t science a virus? Coming back to the metaphor of computer viruses, you could say that any computer program is a virus, even a really good word processor that everybody buys because they need it — is a virus. It spreads because everybody wants it. The difference is that a computer virus spreads not because everybody wants it, but because it simply says in its instructions, “Spread me.” It’s a difference of simplicity and pointlessness. The word processor program spreads because it’s a good program, because it’s sophisticated, because people find that it works, finds that it improves their productivity — all sorts of complicated reasons why it spreads.
Now, that’s analogous to why some elephants survive better than other elephants or some kangaroos survive better than other kangaroos. Fundamentally at the gene level elephants are just like gigantic colonies of viruses which are all programming the elephant to make more DNA via the indirect process of making an elephant first. But it doesn’t do justice to the process, because an elephant is such a complicated creature, such a complicated thing, that we focus our attention on the elephant, and we see that it is doing it by another means. And the reason why one elephant survives better than another is it has a superior trunk or better feeding behavior, or sharper tusks. There are all sorts of complicated and elegantly beautiful reasons why one elephant passes on its DNA better than another elephant. But with a virus – a measles virus or a common cold virus, it is not like that. It is exceedingly simple. The virus just says, “Make copies of me.” “Make copies of me.” And so the machinery obeys it.
Now, science it seems to me is like the elegant word processor. A scientific idea — some die, some live — there is a kind of Darwinism of scientific ideas. Philosophers such as Pappas have made the point. But the reason why they spread, the reason why some die and some live, is that they are tested, they are good ideas, they inspire people. They survive the test of experiment. And models built from them lead to predictions which are tested and so on — a complicated, sophisticated business, like an elephant. Whereas religious ideas, such as “If you don’t believe in this you’ll go to hell,” seem to me to be crudely self-serving in the same kind of way as a computer virus is. I suppose you could make the case that a whole church, the whole Russian Orthodox Church, or the whole Roman Catholic Church, is a sufficiently complicated colony of such viruses that it starts to look a bit more like an elephant, and maybe that’s why they survive so well. And I’m happy to go along with that analogy. But I don’t think it’s helpful to use a demeaning word like “virus” for an elephant, and I don’t think it’s helpful to use a demeaning word like “virus” for science.
QUESTION: Going back to the notion of genes – to what extent do you think human behavior is geneticly determined?
MR. DAWKINS: Much of my work has been on animal behavior and much of my writing has been on animal behavior, and so although I think of the whole organism as a gene machine, I particularly concentrate on its behavior as one of the main, most interesting manifestations. And so much of my writings are about why this behavior or that behavior in the animal furthers the interests of the genes that built the nervous system that makes it behave in that way.
Now, the question arises: Do we do the same thing for humans, or should we do the same thing for humans? Well, humans are animals — we’re apes — we’re African apes. On the face of it there is no reason why we shouldn’t. But for any animal we have to ask that kind of question in a sophisticated way. For one thing, any animal may now be living in a different environment from the environment in which its ancestors lived and in which its genes are naturally selected. And so what you may be seeing is behavior which if you interpret it correctly would have been doing something good for the genes back in the natural environment, but which is now doing something else which is only good for the genes in a sort of indirect, sophisticated sense.
With humans there’s no problem in seeing why sexual desire has Darwinian survival value. Anybody can see that. And we therefore have little problem in generalizing it too. We no longer go around with a club and sort of beat the female over the head with it, or whatever our ancestors did. But we now use sophisticated modern means of achieving the same end. It doesn’t mean that there are genes for buying smart sports cars the better to impress a member of the opposite sex. There are genes for intent — for doing whatever is necessary to impress the opposite sex, in whatever environment you find yourself in. And since the environment changes the means will change. Now, that’s still a relatively simple, rather crude example — may even given offense to people, and I don’t mind in the least.
But there will be other kinds of things which are less obvious — like people may think about why business executives are said to demand bigger and bigger desks as they get more senior, or bigger carpets, or whatever it may be. And you can come up with amusing explanations like, the bigger desk in a modern-day environment would be equivalent to something else in the Pleistocene of Africa when the natural selection was going on. And now it’s interpreted as a bigger desk, because we have big brains and we live in a world of desks and office blocks and telephones and things, which are quite different from those in which our genes were naturally selected. But you mustn’t attempt to give a Darwinian interpretation to every detail.
Moreover, this is now a quite different point — when brains became sufficiently big they took off in other directions, which no longer have really any connection with gene survival at all. We drive ourselves to achieve goals — like painting a picture or writing a book, which by almost any stretch of the imagination cannot be said to directly benefit our survival or that of our genes. Perhaps you could say the tendency to drive oneself towards a goal has Darwinian survival value. The tendency to set up a target which one then works by all means available to try to achieve — perhaps that has Darwinian survival value. But nowadays the targets we set up are things like finishing a book, whereas the target setting-up engine, which is in our brain, was originally set up for a different purpose, like catching a buffalo or finding a water hole. So the mechanism was put there for one purpose, but now our brains have gotten sufficiently big that it has taken off into other directions. And this really gets me back to what I was saying before, about free will and the fact that we can deliberately take the decision to emancipate ourselves from the world of natural selection in which genes were naturally selected, and make a new world for ourselves to live in, which is an anti-Darwinian world.
QUESTION: In what way could we liberate ourselves from the Darwinian world? If this is a philosophical issue as opposed to a scientific one, what do you mean by that?
MR. DAWKINS: Some people are puzzled by the sense in which it’s possible to take a deliberate decision to emancipate ourselves from the Darwinian world. Well, we know we do it, because every time we look unreceptive we are doing something anti-Darwinian. What happens is that Darwinian natural selection has built into us sexual desire for obvious good Darwinian reasons. In nature, where there are no contraceptives, sexual desire leads you to copulate. Copulation leads to children. That’s all the genes need. In the modern world contraceptives have been invented, so it’s possible to enjoy copulation without the follow-up, without having children. And we do. And many of us do it all the time. And it is something which is manifestly and factually counter-Darwinian — anti-Darwinian, anti the dictates of the selfish genes. We have been given brains which were shaped to enjoy sex. We have also been given brains that have been shaped to enjoy various other kinds of hedonistic pleasures. We have noticed consciously that hedonistic pleasure or other more worthwhile pastimes are sometimes incompatible with having lots of children all the time that you have to look after. And so we get the best of both worlds by consciously deciding to enjoy both the sex and the other things that would have been competed with — by the need to look after children. We have achieved the best of both worlds from our own brain point of view, but not of course from the gene point of view.
QUESTION: Might religion itself be viewed as something that enhances survival?
MR. DAWKINS: I should have mentioned that religion may very well have a conventional Darwinian survival value. I have talked about religion as a virus, which is survival value at the level of the meme rather than the gene, the meme being the intercultural inheritance. But it could of course have survival value at the conventional gene level. Religion could enhance the survival of individuals who are religious. Or some people believe in some kind of group selection — it could enhance the survival of a group. It’s not difficult to see the advantages for a group, a tribe, which has a war-like god which enjoins its young men to sacrifice themselves for the good of the tribe, to fight with suicidal ferocity and bravery — certainly it worked in the Crusades. Certainly it worked with the Japanese Kamikaze fighters. Certainly it works with Islamic suicide bombers. Such a tribe, such a group, could have great success in war, and therefore spread itself, spread the genes of the group, and of course spread the memes of the group, spread the ideas of the group.
But what about individual survival? It’s possible too that religion might enhance individual survival. There is even some medical evidence that religious people in our society are slightly healthier on average than non-religious people — perhaps because they suffer less from stress-related diseases. It’s known that stress gives rise to disease. It’s also known that many diseases, especially stress-related diseases, can be cured by placebos — pills that have no medicinal effect, but people think they do, and so they do.
I could easily believe that religion could enhance health and hence survival, and that therefore there could be indeed be literally Darwinian survival value, Darwinian selection in favor of religion. None of that of course bears at all upon the truth value of the claims made by religions.
QUESTION: If you do not explain free will in a religious sense, how do you explain the ontology, the coming into being of free will?
MR. DAWKINS: The question of free will is a profound philosophical problem. And, as I said before, nothing is changed by adding the word “genes.” So you could ask a question about how do you explain free will in a non-religious way — not just to a Darwinian or somebody who believes that we are gene machines, but to anybody who takes a philosophically deterministic position.
So forget all about genes and think entirely about the philosophy of determinism. Now, everybody who calls themselves a determinist knows subjectively that they have the sensation of free will. We all know what it feels like to feel free. The only argument is whether fundamentally we are determined. That’s one position which I wouldn’t mind taking up. I don’t find any difficulty with that position. I am quite prepared to believe that when I think I’ve taken the decision — when I feel that I, with my own free will, have exercised a free choice, I’ve decided to do one thing rather than another — I’ve decided to immigrate or decided not to immigrate, or to buy this house rather than that house — it feels like free will. But it’s perfectly possible that actually my decision to immigrate or not to immigrate was influenced by events in the brains which were influenced by other events, influenced by other events, which fundamentally all have a definite physical cause.
But it doesn’t matter. There is no difference between the way it feels to have free will if there is this kind of fundamentally illusory free will that I’ve been talking about, or if in some other sense (which actually I can’t quite imagine what it would like) we really did have free will. It wouldn’t feel any different. It certainly wouldn’t affect any of the arguments we ever have in selfish genery, when we ask whether we are free to depart from the dictates of the selfish genes and practice some anti-Darwinian behavior, such as contraception. Clearly that’s no more difficult to imagine than deciding whether to immigrate or not to immigrate. The facts are that we do make such decisions. The facts are that we do take a decision to use contraception. And the — contraception the mere existence of contraception — something as mundane as that — or the mere existence of the fact that one could take a decision to immigrate — is not going to solve one of the great philosophical problems of all time. That’s going to be there in any case. It doesn’t actually affect how we feel or what we do.