Richard Dawkins talks to Nick Higham at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford Sunday 18th March.
I’m going to just come out and say it. I hate the Sheldonian Theatre. Yeah, the first few times I was in there I was blown away but now I see it for what it is. A fire hazard with bits of narrow planks posing as seats, seats which have no backs I might add, and flanked by aisles designed for the malnourished. As if the seats weren’t bad enough in existence by themselves, they bring out the worst in humanity as people clamour for subpar comfort. Anyway, whinge over.
How cool is it to see Richard Dawkins in Oxford? Yes, yes I know he lives here but this is what it’s all about, really, especially if you’re not a student anymore and the once-firm hold you had on academia is ever-slipping away. The Oxford Literary Festival is one of the few ways for us prodigal sons to make our way back in without investing in another full-time degree with all those pesky kids. There were lots of intellectual couples on 'date night' in the audience and quite a few religious folks too. The couples reminded me of how a guy once tried to chat me up with the line, 'by all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.'
Richard Dawkins was supposed to be selling his new book Science in the Soul but he didn’t do a hard sell at all - in fact, the whole hour was treated more as a snapshot into one of Oxford’s great minds. I suppose his back catalogue speaks for itself. As Steven Pinker put it (on the cover of my recently purchased Brief Candle in the Dark): 'It was an opportunity to eavesdrop on the workings of an extraordinary mind.'
Within the first few minutes we’d covered moral absolutism versus consequentialist morality and slippery slope arguments. This was enough time to see that Dawkins is not the kind of person who is interested in using his mind for one-upmanship. He is genuinely interested in the process of thinking things through and using heuristic techniques to get there. Nick Higham pressed and pressed: 'But you’re so provocative and polemic. Say it. You love a good row.'
Dawkins was adamant that he isn’t and doesn’t. It’s never his intention to court controversy. His main priority is to get discussion going. It’s all about the tutorial. Interesting aside: Nobel-prize winner Tinbergen (who the Zoology building was named after and subsequently suddenly evacuated in an asbestos-shaped scandal) was Dawkins’ tutor.
He spoke about the serviceable distance between us and chimps (bear in mind that he was a lecturer in animal behaviour in the Zoology Dept at Oxford) and how can we call ourselves more evolved than other animals when, from an evolutionary biologist perspective, what is the point of suffering? What is the point of us being able to suffer? I didn’t know but would love to. He didn’t tell us other than to explain that pain is supposed to act as a warning to prevent us from doing stupid things. I thought we glossed over animal sentience rather quickly but that was possibly in keeping with Dawkins’ promise to actively steer clear of drama and focus on rationale and logic.
In fact, at this point, I was somewhat struck by the similarities and differences between him and Ricky Gervais. In Ricky Gervais’ most recent show he speaks about how close we are to chimps and how he wants to morph into one. They explore similar themes, Ricky and Richard, but whereas one is all satire, the other is all logical expository scientific thinking. Both have their value.
It’s hard though, isn’t it? Higham pressed again, 'because scientists don’t communicate with non-scientists very well.' Dawkins agreed. 'Yes, we shouldn’t call certain things theories, such as evolution, when they are facts and calling them theories just confuses people and aids and comforts our creationist enemies.' This drew a delighted giggle from the audience. It was a sell-out, by the way, so that was one huge giggle.
Then we had questions from the audience. I was surprised that no one mentioned Stephen Hawking, who died recently (on Einstein’s birthday) because I knew from previous literary festivals that Dawkins had been asked, 'but where’s your wheelchair?' One audience member asked for tips on changing the minds of religious freaks and Dawkins had to admit he never managed to change any of their minds. We talked about survival value (genetic advantage) and memes vs genes. I suppose he had to shoehorn it in for the diehard The Selfish Gene fans in the audience who knew that this is where the term originated.
Throughout it all, you get the impression Dawkins is happier talking about science than religion but people are so hung up on The God Delusion, his blockbuster atheist book, that he will never escape it. After the talk I wandered into Blackwells to escape the crowds in the marquee where he was doing a book signing and there was a full-on jihad because they’d run out of copies of this book.
Science in the Soul and all of Dawkins’ millions of other books are available from pretty much everywhere. The Oxford Literary Festival is running throughout March and you should go see at least one literary event while it is on.