Work in progress

Work in progress

talkin about evolution

It won’t thrill his publishers to hear this, but Richard Dawkins appears largely uninterested in standard authorial topics like his new book, his writing habits or even himself. Instead he wants to talk about giant butterflies and tiny moths, worms disguised as snakes, why goats are related to whales and whether beetles have two sets of wings (they do, and for good reason).

What better place to do it than at the Darwin Center at the Natural History Museum in New York, a glossy new temple to the evolutionary process, or the “ee-volutionary proh-cess,” as Dawkins pronounces it in his precise accent. In a sign of the felicitous juxtaposition of person and place, the man dispensing tickets at the front desk recognises this shortish man with the chronically interested expression.
“Mr Dawkins?” he says, as pleased as if he had spotted Jacques Cousteau striding down the beach. “I love your books.”

If there were a celebrity of the evolutionary world, Dawkins would certainly be it. His best-selling books — including The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, laying out his case for a gene-centred view of evolution — have gone a long way toward making evolutionary biology accessible to a wide audience. He lectures to sold-out audiences, receives standing ovations and regularly places in the Top 10 on Prospect magazine’s annual list of the world’s 100 Top Public Intellectuals. His latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (Free Press), is a best-seller.

His previous book, The God Delusion, a furious howl of rage against organised religion, was an international best seller and made Dawkins, unofficially, Britain’s Top Public Atheist. He is active in the humanist movement and last year was a prominent sponsor, along with the philosopher A C Grayling, of the Atheist Bus Campaign, which placed banners saying, “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life,” on the sides of public buses in major British cities.

The Greatest Show on Earth is a lucid, thorough and often exciting survey of evolution, and takes in rats’ teeth, dogs, bacteria, the so-called missing link, crustaceans, giraffe anatomy, hummingbirds, chimpanzees, enzymes — you name it. It is informed in nearly every paragraph by Dawkins’s irrepressible enthusiasm. The same enthusiasm flowed from him as he wandered through the Darwin Center, free-associating about the invertebrates.

One of the nice things about the center is that you can see scientists at work here, in labs visible through huge glass windows. Dawkins paused before one lab. The occupants had left for the day but had posted a notice announcing their current project: reorganising the museum’s beetle collection from the 1930s.
A number of those elderly beetles were on display in full diverse glory — different sizes and colours and arrangements of horns and wings. The sight filled Dawkins with joy. Here was a perfect illustration of a point he makes in The Greatest Show on Earth: that there is no Platonic ideal of any animal, but rather countless variations on a theme.

“You get the wonderful feeling of the beetle body being drawn out and pulled in all directions,” he said affectionately. “It’s kind of like modelling clay. They’re all descended from an ancestral beetle, and all the bits are there, and yet they’re being stretched this way and kneaded that way and pushed that way and bent this way. Once you get it, evolution becomes so obvious.”

Why write a guide to evolution now, when there are already so many books on the topic, some of them by Dawkins? For one thing, 2009 is the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, and the 150th anniversary of his book On the Origin of Species. For another, The Greatest Show on Earth is Dawkins’s own “missing link,” he said, filling in the gaps in his previous works. While earlier books assumed that readers understood the scientific basis for evolution, this one lays it out directly.

Dawkins already deployed ample indignation against creationists and others of their ilk in The God Delusion, so he has less time for all that in his new book. But he does reserve a corner of his contempt for those he calls “history deniers,” who contend that evolution is a hoax and who are, he says, akin to Holocaust deniers. The book contains the transcript of a surreal interview he conducted last year for a British television documentary about Darwin. He was talking to Wendy Wright, president of a group called Concerned Women for America and a dedicated creationist.

In the interview, Wright repeatedly asserts that there is no evidence for evolution, even as Dawkins repeatedly advises her to just go look for it in museums. “I don’t have them here, obviously, but you can go to any museum and you can see Australopithecus, you can see Homo habilis, you can see archaic Homo sapiens and modern Homo sapiens,” he tells her. But it is as if she doesn’t hear him. “If evolution has had the actual evidence, then it would be displayed in museums, not just in illustrations,” she says. So profound are the divisions between the sort of people who believe Dawkins and the sort of people who believe Wright that the two sides rarely meet, robbing Dawkins of the chance to have as many such conversations as he would like.

“When I go to America and give lectures and speeches and interviews, I get no opposition at all,” he said. “It’s a shame, really, because you’d like to feel that you were having the chance to influence people.” For 13 years Dawkins was the Charles Simonyi professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University, a position created for him. He left the post last year when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 67. He still lives in Oxford with his third wife, the actress Lalla Ward; until recently they shared their house with a Coton de Tulear dog named Pamba. Dawkins is still in mourning for Pamba, who died in September, and looked stricken when asked about it. “It’s all nonsense to say that you can’t love a dog as much as you love a human,” he said.

Darwin loved dogs, too. Dawkins mentions that in the book, where it inspires a little footnote: “Who could not love dogs, they are such good sports?” (He likes funny footnotes. Referring to the flightless cormorant at one point, he remembers that his grandparents had an old book about birds in which the entry on the cormorant began: “There is nothing to be said for this deplorable bird.”) Oh, about the book. Dawkins wrote it in about a year, he said, describing himself as “very ill-disciplined” and lacking a good writing routine. He is busy touring the world giving lectures, but plans to write a children’s book “about science generally, and contrasting mythological explanations with scientific explanations,” he said.

He kept up his tour-guide patter in the museum, sweeping past large caches of strange specimens floating in jars, and then some greatly magnified photographs of insects. “There’s an ant; you can see the mandibles,” he said. “That’s a flea, which is a bloodsucker, as you know. I have no idea what that is: it’s very fascinating, very hairy and it looks like Napoleon.”

“Aren’t these lovely?” he continued. “These are scanning electron micrographs, hugely magnified with every little detail, every little sculptured mark. You can almost feel the texture of it. Darwin would have just adored this.”

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