I think Oxford University’s Professor of the Public Understanding of Science has gone into shock – traumatic hysteria, to judge by his frozen features. But he has only himself to blame. He shouldn’t go around popularising science in the way that he does. It was only a matter of time before someone like me, a bona fide member of the public, would turn up at his house and try to explain his own theories to him – using, with unjustified confidence, words such as ‘biomorph’, ‘phenotype’ and ‘replicator’.
The professor blinks, then regains his composure. ‘Er, right,’ he says. ‘Something like that.’ I beam triumphantly. Mr Scott, my old biology teacher, would be proud. Prouder than he was when I failed my biology O-level, anyway.
Richard Dawkins and his wife Lalla Ward, an actress turned illustrator, live in a large, pale-brick house in Summertown, north Oxford. It has a gravelled drive and a bike parked outside its Gothic-arched front door, but it’s not exactly an ivory tower – too many wooden floors, kilims and Conran cushions for that. The atmosphere is quite rarefied, though. It is a cloudless, still afternoon, and the 58-year-old professor and I are sitting on white wrought-iron chairs at a white wrought-iron table near the swimming pool in his garden. As the sun creeps round the chimney on the house, I keep edging my chair around to avoid being dazzled. Dawkins has his back to the chimney and in the sunshine his unkempt greying hair gives him a halo.
He is a handsome man, with an angular profile, hooded eyes and tufty eyebrows that make him look like a bird of prey. There is a couple of days’ stubble on his face, which he maybe thinks will help him avoid the description that journalists tend to give of him; that he has the fussy fragile air of a devout and unworldly curate – an amusing observation because, as well as being a world expert on Darwinian evolution theory, Dawkins is also one of the world’s best known and most combative atheists.
Today he still looks like a clergyman, if an unshaven clergyman, with fear and suspicion in his eyes. I think he is thinking that I might be some species of stalker. A deranged fan, maybe. Perhaps I shouldn’t have told him I’d read all six of his books. Or tried to prove it by quoting from them. Or told him I’d been going around quoting them to anyone who would listen.
But I couldn’t – can’t – help it. The man is quotable. He has four entries in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. ‘They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence; they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.’ That’s one of them, from his first bestseller, The Selfish Gene (1976). ‘However many ways there may be of being alive, it is certain that there are vastly more ways of being dead.’ That’s another, from The Blind Watchmaker (1986). My favourite, from Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), hasn’t made it into the Dictionary yet: ‘If you wanted to make a flying animal, you wouldn’t start with a hippo.’ (The wings would have to be so big the mass of muscle needed to power them would be too heavy for the wings to lift – but it’s funnier the way Dawkins puts it.)
Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive and he’s neither in shock nor frightened. Perhaps he always speaks slowly and deliberately, giving short, precise answers that end abruptly and leave you stumbling to fill the cold and scaly silence with another question. It’s not that his manner is severe or impolite. Indeed he makes free with a boyish smile that exposes charmingly wonky teeth. It’s just that he looks either uncomfortable or bored, it is tricky to say which. Perhaps reserved is the word. I ask him if he is shy. ‘Not really,’ he says in a gentle alto, as thin and elusive as water. ‘No, I wouldn’t put it that way.’ A wood pigeon coos in the background.
Certainly, I press on, he is animated and passionate when lecturing or broadcasting. Is that because he adopts a more flamboyant persona for such activities? ‘I don’t get nervous. But I only like to talk on subjects I know about. That is why I never do Any Questions. It would be intensely painful. I don’t enjoy debate. I don’t think the adversarial approach is a good way to get at the truth.’ He looks away distractedly. A plane drones overhead.
The thing is, I continue, the mildness and reticence don’t square with his muscular prose style. He writes beautifully, lyrically, but in his books he often comes across as coolly disdainful and arrogant, irritated even. He has feuds with fellow academics, especially American ones, over the correct interpretation of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. He dismisses those who don’t agree with him as being ignorant and lazy. ‘Darwinism is not a theory of random chance,’ he writes testily. ‘It is a theory of random mutation plus non-random cumulative natural selection. Why, I wonder, is it so hard for even sophisticated scientists to grasp this simple point?’
In print, his most spectacular clash, conducted in The Spectator in 1994, has been with Paul Johnson, the Catholic historian and journalist. Dawkins wrote that he finds Johnson’s framework of belief ‘ignominious, contemptible and retarded’. Johnson challenged the professor to a public debate on religion and when Dawkins refused – on the grounds that he didn’t see why he should involve himself in a publicity stunt for Johnson’s new book – the journalist called him a ‘yellow-bellied prima donna’.
In person, the Dawkins brittleness becomes apparent whenever you try to persuade him to talk about himself. It seems the only way to draw him out is to appeal to his scientific instincts: dress up personal questions requiring a subjective answer as objective, scholarly ones. He has been married three times, for instance. But to reach this topic I have to go via the question of morality in a Godless universe. Evolution, according to Dawkins’s best-known theory, operates at the level of the gene rather than the individual, and we are nothing more than selfish machines blindly programmed to preserve our DNA. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is no design, no purpose, no evil and no good – nothing but pitiless indifference. But if this is the case, I ask him, why do we sometimes behave altruistically, morally? We alone on earth can rebel against the selfish replicators, he answers, we alone are free agents who can learn to be good.
Can he give me an example? Has he learned to be good? ‘I have many weaknesses,’ he says earnestly, twiddling with the arm of his glasses. ‘I’ve probably caused some unhappiness, but it’s never been willing and wanton. I’m extremely soft-hearted and, I think, kind-natured and perhaps some of the unhappiness I have caused has been from being too kind, foolishly so.’
Does he mean he has caused unhappiness by not being decisive enough, by avoiding confrontation in, say, his marriages? ‘Yes, I don’t want to go into detail but I think it’s possible to cause unhappiness by being unwilling to face up to the fact that it’s not possible to be kind to everyone all the time.’ And kindness is something we have to work at? It doesn’t come naturally? ‘Well, yes, as a biologist I would say there is a sense in which that is true.’
To find out about his childhood you have to go via his first brush with Darwinism. It wasn’t exactly an epiphany. ‘Not as much as it should have been. I was a bit sceptical and somehow it didn’t seem to be quite enough to explain all the beauty and the complexity of life. I didn’t really appreciate how powerful the theory is or the fact that it’s the only theory we’ve got. Above all, I didn’t appreciate the enormous amount of time available for evolution to take place – it is this that the human mind has most difficulty grasping.’
He was 16 at the time. Yet from birth Dawkins had been exposed to nature red in tooth and claw. He was born in Nairobi in 1941 and educated at Oundle School. His father, a colonial civil servant stationed in what was then Nyasa – now Malawi – returned to England when he inherited the family farm in Oxfordshire. ‘I have happy memories of Africa,’ Dawkins says. ‘Flowers, butterflies, colours, smells, but nothing terribly coherent because we came back here when I was eight.’ His parents are still alive, and their grandson – by Dawkins’s younger sister – is running the farm. It is mixed – dairy, pigs and arable – and growing up there young Richard came to regard death and sex as an everyday matter of fact.
‘It was always assumed I would take over the farm. I would help out driving tractors. But I don’t think I did much hand-wringing when I decided to enter academia instead.’ He took a first at Balliol College, Oxford, followed by a DPhil and a DSc. Before his return to Oxford to take up a fellowship at New College – and later to become the first Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science – he spent a few years lecturing at Berkeley, California. It was the time of the Vietnam protests and, though he took part in them, he now says he feels a bit embarrassed for having done so. His time in America also made him aware of the lobbying power of the Bible Belt, which last month celebrated the banning of evolutionary theory from schools in the state of Kansas.
Charles Darwin was considered controversial in his day, with politicians debating whether they were on the side of the apes or the angels. Dawkins provokes controversy because he goes further than Darwin. He calls theologians ‘bigoted enemies of knowledge’. He describes the Pope as a dangerous, world-damaging dictator. The concept of God, according to Dawkins, is like a virus, passed from person to person. In one sense, he says, he is surprised to find himself a controversial figure for promoting his ‘selfish gene’ interpretation of evolution theory, more than a century after Darwin. ‘But it’s only in the United States, where there are a lot of fundamentalists. I think it is insulting to Christians in this country to suggest that they are creationists. But on the other hand it has to be said there is still an enormous ignorance of Darwinism here. When you think it is the explanation for our existence and the existence of all life and that it is not difficult to understand – really rather simple, compared to quantum mechanics – it seems absurd that it is one of the last things you are taught in school.’
Dawkins describes Oundle as a conventional Anglican boarding school, and he was confirmed at 13. ‘I’ve got a lot of time for the Church of England,’ he says. ‘I mean, it’s like village cricket. I’ve got a soft spot for it as an English institution. But evolution should be one of the first things you learn at school. It should be something inspiring and exciting for children to remember for the rest of their lives and what do they get instead? Sacred hearts and incense. Shallow, empty religion.’
Dawkins has a gift for communicating ideas – and for conveying his own wonder at the complexity of nature. When you read his books you begin to notice the minutiae of nature around you, the staggeringly sophisticated feat of engineering that is a spider’s web, for instance. ‘Yes, and it is so easy to take these things for granted,’ he says. ‘You have to imagine you are opening your eyes and seeing for the first time. I’ve never had a mystical experience, but I wonder if when people claim they have, that is what has happened, the scales have fallen from the eyes, as though they have just been born, with the intellect of an adult.’ He has aesthetic experiences looking at great cathedrals or listening to classical music, and he thinks these may be what people confuse with religious experiences. ‘I also get it looking through a microscope,’ he adds. ‘I feel overwhelmed. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. And the more you understand about the natural world, the more beautiful it seems.’
He must get sick of being patronised by people who tell him he writes well, for a scientist. ‘It’s up to others to judge if some scientists can write well absolutely, or only well for a scientist,’ he says with a smile. ‘Science is inherently poetic and awe-inspiring so you don’t need to colour your language – you just need to tell it honestly.’ In his latest book, Unweaving the Rainbow, Dawkins answers Keats’s question, ‘Do not all charms fly/At the mere touch of cold philosophy?’ with a robust, ‘No.’ He explains the workings of starlight, sound waves and rainbows, to prove that science should inspire rather than undermine the poetic imagination.
His gift for coming up with vivid metaphors has led some reviewers to label him the Tom Stoppard of science. But this is also to do with his good looks. I ask him if his handsome features and intelligence indicate that his ancestors were successfully selfish in their search for partners? He looks mortified. ‘Er, I don’t want to talk about myself but, in general, any animal is by definition the product of successful ancestors, um, in the Darwinian sense, and so any animal can look in the mirror and say that. But that is on a much longer time-scale. And it’s never occurred to me, personally, looking in the mirror. Er, I did recently find out a little about my family tree. Have you heard of the Balliol Rhymes? They are a collection of comic verse from the late 19th century. A dozen of my family were at Balliol and my great-great-great-uncle Clinton Edward Dawkins was there in the 1880s. The rhyme about him was, “Positivists ever talkin’/Such an epic as Dawkins/Creeds are out and Man is all/Spell him with a capital.” It’s not far off being appropriate to me. Except I would add animals to man. So maybe there is some hereditary influence there.’
Man and animals are all. And God is not dead because he never existed in the first place. I take a deep breath and attempt to summarise another of Dawkins’s arguments for him. For God to create the universe he would have to be hyper-intelligent. But intelligence only evolves over time. Is that about the strength of it? ‘It’s worse that that, the argument for God starts by assuming what it is attempting to explain – intelligence, complexity, it comes to the same thing – and so it explains nothing. God is a non-explanation. Whereas evolution by natural selection is an explanation. It really does start simply and become complex.’
And when he contemplates his own mortality in this Godless universe how does he feel? ‘I accept that this is all there is and that you have to live like hell while you can. I’m pretty calm about death. I don’t fear it. I just have this strong feeling that life is wonderful but finite and that we are immensely privileged to have it.’ He crosses his hairy legs – he is wearing shorts – and rocks back in his chair. ‘I used to think religion was a genuine comfort in death, but I’ve heard from hospital nurses who’ve said to my real surprise that the patients who really seem to be terrified of death are the Catholics. I don’t know why this is. Maybe they are doing a quick calculation of how good or bad they have been. But that is only anecdotal.’
There’s going to be no danger of him losing his nerve at the end? ‘No. I can safely say that.’ He has a teenage daughter, Juliet, from his second marriage. Does she represent a form of immortality for him? ‘Only for my genes, and that’s not really the same thing at all.’ Someone whose books go on being read achieves a kind of immortality, surely? ‘There’s a long way to go before we will know if this will happen in my case. But even that doesn’t compare with actually living forever. As Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to be immortal through my achievements, I want to be immortal through not dying.”‘
Is this evidence of a sense of humour? A former student of Dawkins has told me that the professor doesn’t really have one. He also told me that Dawkins is petulant and vain, and regurgitates the same themes formulaically in each book. I don’t know whether any of that is true, but I do sense that he has a bit of a persecution complex and is a little naive. He can’t really understand why Christians get upset with him simply for telling the truth as he sees it.
He also seems to have an almost inhuman lack of sentimentality. When his daughter was six he asked her why she thought there were flowers in the world. She said they were there to make the world pretty and to help the bees make honey for us. He was touched by this and sorry to have to tell her it wasn’t true: that flowers are in the world to copy their DNA.There is something quite comical about such pathological seriousness. I ask him if, given his loathing of all things superstitious – astrology, clairvoyance, fairytales – he felt the need to disabuse his six-year-old daughter of belief in Father Christmas? ‘Well, I did have a game with her in which we worked out how fast Father Christmas would have to travel to get round all the chimneys in the world in one night. I don’t think the realisation that it was impossible shook her too much.’
Richard Dawkins is getting fidgety. We have been talking for an hour and a half, and he is surreptitiously checking the time on his square-faced watch. The body language – knees drawn up to chest, hands behind head – could not be clearer. I ask if I can use his phone to order a taxi. He does it for me. When he returns he is carrying a new Dutch translation of Unweaving the Rainbow which has just arrived in the post. His wife Lalla pops outside to see if I want another cup of tea before I leave. She is the daughter of Viscount Bangor and the former wife of Tom Baker, with whom she appeared in Dr Who. She met Richard Dawkins at a surprise 40th birthday party for the novelist Douglas Adams. She was talking to Stephen Fry at the time, and when their eyes met it was, well, love at first sight.
His ordeal by interview over, Dawkins relaxes visibly. He tells me that he and his wife read poetry to each other. ‘Lalla reads so beautifully she can make me feel tearful. And when I read I can sometimes feel a catch in my voice. And I feel a bit embarrassed about it, try to conceal it. I don’t think I cry about things that happen in real life often – mainly because I am fortunate enough not to have anything much to cry about. It is more a kind of sentiment over the written word. Poetic language. I suppose it is a little embarrassing for a grown man to allow himself to cry over a book.’
Goodness. He’s finally talking about himself. Quick, quick. His world view has been described as a bleak and despairing one. Is he prone to melancholia? ‘Not at all. I have a wonderful life. Enjoy every minute of it. I love to see other people enjoy their life too. The myth of my having a pessimistic view of life comes from the way in which I express honestly the state of humanity in the universe – which can seem bleak if you set out with unrealistic expectations in the first place. I get worried and depressed about all the work I have to do. If I haven’t met a deadline or haven’t finished a book, I fret about it and wish I was more disciplined.’
Does he have a fragile ego, a need for reassurance? ‘I get hurt by criticism which is misguided and misinformed. The militant atheist label annoys me because it can only be said by someone who hasn’t read my books.’ Just time for one more question. His leisure hours. How are they spent? Recreational drugs? ‘No.’ The footie? A shake of the head. Singing round the piano? A smile at this. ‘Around the piano, yes, that’s a lovely thing to do. Haven’t done it for years. Singing around the piano.’
The door bell rings. The taxi is here. I leave the home of this man, who is in his way still fighting a Victorian battle, with the disconcertingly Victorian vision of him singing around the piano with his family.