What Questions Would You Ask Richard Dawkins?

Most (though not all) of the questions I’ve heard asked by interviewers of Richard Dawkins seem to me tedious and uninspired. Generally, the same basic questions are asked about his atheism and about evolution, and he rehearses back the same tired answers. (See here for an example.) But if I ever had a chance to interview Dawkins, here’s some questions I’d ask that I’ve never heard him answer before:

  1. You’re writing a children’s book. I have two small children myself, a three year old and a five year old, and I’ve started teaching them Greco-Roman and Biblical mythology, and the images in art books associated with them. My five year old, for example, knows the story about Saturn eating his children, and she has seen an image of the Goya painting of this. She also knows stories of Moses and Jesus, and what some people believe about them. Do you think that giving children classical mythical and biblical frameworks for the development of their psyches and imaginations is a good idea—or a bad idea?
  2. You’ve said that telling a child that they could go to hell for disbelief is a form of child abuse. I agree. But does it then follow that you would make children being raised in “fire and brimstone” households wards of the State? In short, how much latitude and discretion do you think parents should have in the raising of their children? Would you, for example, allow young earth creationists to homeschool their youngsters?
  3. If a cluster of genes were discovered that increased intelligence by an average of 30 IQ base points, and there was a reliable procedure for getting those genes into embryos, would you support the right of young and wealthy parents to get such genes implanted in their offspring?
  4. As a lifelong academic at an elite university, can you foresee a time within the next century when our most elite universities are populated by significant numbers of genetically enhanced humans? And would you find such a prospect of genetically elite “super students” in any way problematic for democracy, and who might run the world in the 22nd century? Do you think, in short, that there is any real danger of the human race diverging into the “genetically enhanced” and the “naturals”?
  5. In The God Delusion, you said that you’d like to see believers who start your book be unbelievers when they finish it. But what about those for whom life is already, in Robert Frost’s phrase, “a diminished thing”? Is atheism really good for all the “Eleanor Rigby” individuals out there who might pick your book up? In other words, what do you say to those people for whom a conversion to atheism might well spell the end of all vital social ties to their communities and families—and for whom those ties are, realistically, the only things between them and real isolation, neurosis, and loneliness? Isn’t an invitation to atheism, for so many people who are already living alone and with tenuous ties to others—and who may be unattractive, uncreative, in ill health, and without high intelligence or good job prospects—an invitation to even greater pain, however unillusioned? Is disillusionment worth the social cost to such individuals? Do you, in short, really want Eleanor Rigby, who ‘lives in a dream’, to lose her illusory sources of solace? To what purpose?
  6. Is your certainty that God doesn’t exist so high that you see it as a moral obligation to inform others of your views, and to share with them all of the good reasons not to believe in God’s existence, lest they waste their lives away in delusion?
  7. Are you so certain that God doesn’t exist that you think the world would be a better place if there were no exotic religious plants in the world at all? In other words, do you really want a world that is universally monoatheist (where everybody is an atheist)?
  8. What makes you think, if atheism were to win the day (say, a century from now), and almost all human beings on Earth were atheists, that they would be sensible humanist atheists like yourself, and not, say, Nietzschean atheists, or Machiavellian atheists, or atheists with absurd pseudoreligious practices (like those found in UFO cults)?

And here are two Planet of the Apes questions I would ask of Dawkins:

  1. Do you think Charlton Heston’s character Taylor, in Planet of the Apes, can function as a model for what it means to be a good atheist? If so, in what sense?
  2. At the end of the film, Taylor blithely enters the apes’s religious taboo region—The Forbidden Zone—only to discover that humanity obliterated itself in a nuclear war. Like Oedipus (who learns too much truth about the world and tears out his eyes), Taylor falls to his knees, pounds the sand and cries, “God damn you! God damn you all to hell!” Do you think that if humanity abandons belief in God writ large, and gains full control of its destiny, especially its genetic destiny, it might rue the day that it did so? Is there any danger, going forward, of playing God?  

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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26 Responses to What Questions Would You Ask Richard Dawkins?

  1. jn says:

    Question 1: Will there ever be a world without alcoholism, drug abuse and religion? Will Richard Dawkins be any more successful in his crusade against irrational thinking than the temperance movement was in stamping out the demon drink?

    Question 2: Life is too hard. I can’t compete. Everyone seems smarter, stronger and more attractive than me and I don’t think that I shall ever achieve
    anything in life. Natural selection explains to me why life is so hard but it doesn’t make me feel any better. I’m one of life’s losers. I should be extinct
    like a dodo. Should I go out and get drunk, commit
    suicide or maybe believe that the pink flying unicorn
    cares about me and that there is some magic land of happiness when I die?

    • ProCreationist says:

      you may not be interested in hearing what a Christian has to say about your comment, but I know a God who doesn’t care who you are, He loves you all the same. And because He loves you and wants fellowship with you as a kind a loving father/creator he offers us a way to pay off our sins and join Him in Heaven. Our way to rid ourselves of sin and be forgiven is Jesus Christ who was executed and then rose again in front of over 500 eye witnesses three days later. If you don’t believe me that’s ok, lots of people don’t. I just though I’d let you know that I was a loser too before I found my savior.

  2. santitafarella says:

    JN:

    Your two questions are good ones. I’d never thought of atheism in terms of the prohibition movement of the 1920s, nor of the consequences to the psyche of absorbing natural selection if you perceive yourself as a “loser.”

    —Santi

  3. Bsmalls says:

    I am a strong believer in evolution, but I do have a question that I can’t seem to find an answer to.

    My question is, in things like animal breeding, if you have one animal with a desired trait that you want to pass on to the an offspring. Would you not need to find another animal with a similar trait? The way I understand evolution is that one animal has a slight mutation and it’s passed on. How is it passed on if this animal breeds with another of it’s species with no sign of this same trait? It seems like if all members of this species is the same, then these mutations would be bred out fairly quickly. However, I can see that some passive genes can act dominant, such as two brown eyed parents having a blue eyed baby because, perhaps, the mother’s mother has blue eyes. I know that evolution can take millions of years, is this why? Dog breeding is a more focused form of evolution and we can track a breeds’ progress because it’s not really a trial and error led by natural selection.

    • ProCreationist says:

      well dog breeding really isn’t evolution if you are refering to macroevolution. It is microevolution or a variation of the same kind of animal. No information is gained in the change from wolf to dog, information is lost. Dogs today are much less advanced then their original ancestors. I don’t see how any information could ever be added to a genome so I don’t see how evolution is possible.

      • ScepticalSir says:

        You add more ‘information’ to a genome by adding more base pairs in the genome. This is a common define mutation in genetics. Also, I am not understanding the logic behind saying dogs are less advanced than wolves. I only see a person basing belief in religion and saying it follows because god created the wolf and man created the dog, therefore dogs are less advanced. That is a null point, because you are trying to use reason after giving an unreasonable axiom.

    • ScepticalSir says:

      I believe the trait would only get bred out if the gene was on one of the sex chromosomes from the parent that was not passed. Then, it would have to be in the phenotype of the creature. It may only show up partially, not at all or seem entirely different from what the parent showed, but it is still a mutation. If we think about the length of time we have to evolve and the number of mutations occurring in the many life forms on Earth, it seems easy enough to see how it is possible for the mutation to survive.

  4. ProCreationist says:

    How did blood evolve? Obviously the first living thing didn’t have blood so what was the first creature that had blood, who did it mate with, why did blood evolve, how much blood did this first creature with blood have, where along the line did animals become dependant on blood and why did plants no evolve in a similar way?

  5. Gordon says:

    If humankind was shaped by the drive to survive, why do our hands have such incredible dexterity? I was watching an excellent classical pianist flawlessly playing intricate runs of 16th and 32nd notes up and down the keys of a beautiful grand piano (also made by human hands). I can see how evolution would favor critters that had the ability to wield a club, strangle a foe or operate a hoe (the garden tool, not the female of questionable repute) – but why such amazing and precise movement of the fingers? I see no need for this degree of dexterity to have evolved in order for us to have survived. Perhaps saxophonists and brain surgeons were esteemed and preserved by our early ancestors?

    I’ve often pondered the blood question above, as well. Also why did the first heart form and start beating? What was the first animal to have an actual heart, and what came first, the heart or the veins? So many questions…

    • ProCreationist says:

      I completly agree Gordon. Evolution has called itself a fact because of DNA and fossils (though I question some of those as well) but how would organs have evolved at all? They say we lost our tale because we didn’t need it (although I would very much like to have a tail, it would be very useful) so if organs, like say the liver had developed in stages wouldn’t you lose it before it fully evolved because the bit that you aquired would be useless? It just looks like one big circle of impossible events.

      • Bob Chatman says:

        Both of your views are interesting to hear, but you demonstrate no understanding of evolutionary theory. You may find reasonable explanations for this at http://www.talkorigins.org which was built for this very reason.

        Evolution itself is not a theory. I step through many of the relevant discussions here: http://blog.gneu.org/2010/02/evolution-is-not-a-theory/

        There is a mountain of evidence, including DNA and Fossil evidence, but also delving into many other realms such as the study of vestigial organs, which has all built off of each other and counter supports itself. The web that has been created to hold current evolutionary theory up it is still falsifiable.

        Regarding dexterity, that is not an evolutionary trait. That pianist has trained themselves for years to become as good as they are. Countless activity related elements of animals are trained and not granted at birth.

        Regarding blood any why that evolved, one possible reason could be that animals are different from other kingdoms – we possess motility. Motility is a biological term which refers to the ability to move spontaneously and actively, consuming energy in the process. One of the roles of blood is to circulate oxygen to our muscles, which is necessary for motility, and rapid enough to allow extended use of these muscles. We have evolved this trait and it allows us to move where we choose when we choose at a rate that some plants would consider amazing.

        Discussing why plants lack of having this trait is a bit odd, because it implies that they are conscious of their evolutionary choices. Evolution is a blind process, and depends, considerably, on a living beings environment, but it is not a choice.

      • ScepticalSir says:

        This comment is explained by Dawkins. Where do you get the idea that there are not any steps in the evolution of an organ that are functional? Dawkins uses the example of the eye to explain how this is possible. Read the book where people use scientific theory, not the book translated through language barriers based on hearsay over thousands of years from people without any scientific evidence.

      • ProCreationist says:

        This question was not at all explained by Richard Dawkins to be possible. All he was able to show was hope it might have happened if it were possible. He gave a big just-so story that explained nothing. What he still needs to explain is HOW those changes occured. Furthermore, why honestly strain your brain and try to come up with a natural answer if design simply makes sense? Oh wait, that’s right. Scientists nowadays are more concerned with naturalistic answers than true answers.

  6. ProCreationist says:

    But how would blind processes get a viens, blood and vital organs to pump the blood all at once? And if it was not all at once, somewhere along the line we would need them all at once so how did it all work out so well? There are dozens of examples of things that depend on each other. If I was walking through a forest and a machine gun droped out of a helecopter flying overhead and landed in front of me, then 5 minutes later a lion jumped out at me and I managed to defend myself with the gun….the odds of that happening are soooo slim. I don’t see how chance and nature and natural selection could produce something that we would eventually NEED.

  7. Bob Chatman says:

    You are misrepresenting the theory. The blog i linked to discusses evolution and the misuse of the term theory when applied to Evolution. The theory is “evolution by means of natural selection,” which is now paired with what is termed “punctuated equilibrium.”

    Talk origins walks through much of the evidence for it as well as some of the “quandries” that creationists have come up with.

    Evidence for Evolution: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/.
    Probability and Origins: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/abioprob/abioprob.html
    Irreducible complexity, refuted: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/behe.html

    Here are the common creationist questions/arguments against creationism, all refuted: http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/index.html

    • ProCreationist says:

      yes I am aware of talkorigins.org…. I have raked through alot of their website (which I have found very confusing to operate btw) and have even sent them an email. In fact my ‘blood/vien/heart/other vital organs’ question has shot through 4 well known evolutionist websites without reply. And when I look to this website for help, you refer me to one of them that couldn’t help me in the first place. Thank you I think I’ve given this theory enough chances by now.

      • Bob Chatman says:

        Irreducible complexity is a hypothesis that is strongly rooted in ignorance, and it is flawed for that reason. You are pretty much saying that because you cannot conceive of it and nothing you have read can explain it well enough to you it must be that the theory of evolution by means of natural selection with punctuated equilibrium and a number of other things is bunk and deserving of being thrown out?

        This is a very silly position to hold indeed.

        In place of creationism I assume?

  8. Anonymous says:

    Bob, judging from the content of your fourth paragraph, it appears you did not understand my question. There is innate dexterity that we all have and there is acquired dexterity through practice. My question was not meant to address the skill acquired through practice, but the speed and intricacy of movement that have developed in the human hand, that have not developed in other species.

    A more specific example to clarify: without practice or training I can fan my fingers in a sideways motion at a speed so fast, they blur before my eyes. This speed of sideways motion in my fingers is something we all possess (barring injury or defect), and it seems to me that the evolutionist would say this ability developed in our species because it gave us some advantage for survival. What specific competitive advantage did this development give us, that allowed us to survive, the lack of which caused ancestral forms (who did not have such ability) to die? They are gone and we are here. The motion of our hands is wonderful for typing on computer, playing the sax or guiitar, shuffling cards and many other things unnecessary for survival. However, take away a huge amount of this ability and we will still be able to hunt, fish, build shelter, pick fruit and fight enemies, just as well as the person who has the full modern digital speed and motion. What specific survival advantages caused those who possessed greater and greater finger speed and mobility to survive and dominate?

    By the way, we do need to be respectful of the site owner here and try to stay on-topic so we don’t end up making this look like just another place where atheists and creationists debate and exchange web links. Not saying thats what’s happening but don’t want to cross the line.

    My opinion is that there is a Creator who worked through evolution to create us and other species. I cannot muster the faith to believe that if you give it enough time, matter will, unassisted, come to life and gradually become what we are, a complex organism that loves, laughs, cries, enjoys beauty and contemplates it’s own existence. I see many (in fact MANY) areas of mind and body where we seem to be constructed far beyond what is necessary for mere survival. My question above is one example. I like to explore these issues to get others’ opinions and insight.

    I am often dismayed that people of faith enjoy the benefits of science (even genetics) but argue against it; also dismayed by some prominent atheists who blame people of faith for all of the ills in the world, ignorant of what many of us are doing to help others and alleviate suffering.

  9. Gordon says:

    That wasn’t meant to be anonymous,

    Gordon again

  10. ProCreationist says:

    whether or not i replace it with creationism is besides the point. You just told me that I am wrong because evolution is just to bazaar for me to understand. What? I’m sorry, i will try not to turn this into a debate as anonymous has pointed out, i will respect his website, but my question remains. How and WHY would this have happened? Is evolution random or can things co-evolve because either one doesn’t make sense to me.

  11. Pingback: Irreducibly Complex Argument « Rationality for the Irrational

  12. J.D. Abbey says:

    I would ask Richard: At TED in 2005 you hypothesized that bats could differentiate color by sound. I’m wondering if you mean this by Synesthesia or do you actually believe that with more sensitive hearing we would be able to differentiate colors with echo location?

  13. Jordan says:

    I’ve just finished reading the selfish gene and something has come to my mind. How exactly would poisonous caterpillars with warning colours evolve? Any caterpillar that poisoned something that ate it would have no benefit and would not mature and breed more than other members of it’s species. Say for example a dull green caterpillar has a mutation in a gene that cause a particular protein it produces to cause harm to a bird that ate it. The bird would in future avoid eating those caterpillars but the mutated gene for making the poisonous protein would not be passed on as the caterpillar still got eaten. This may other a short-term benefit to other members of it’s species but no other members would have the poisonous gene so the population would remain harmless. I can see how warning colours could evolve but only once the population is poisonous. If a whole population was poisonous but completely indistinguishable from other species birds would still eat them, their toxicity would confer no benefit. If the poisonous population had a distinguishable colour pattern (say black and red) birds would still die from eating them but any birds who avoided the bright coloured caterpillars would produce more offspring. Eventually the bird population would recognize the warning colours. I can also see independent evolution of warning colours without toxin production. If a caterpillar colour pattern imitated a wasp (like cinnabar caterpillars) birds would avoid them as wasps evolved their warning colours in a similar mechanism but they did not die (as they stung attackers). None of this explains poisonous caterpillars however, unless of course the toxicity was merely a by-product of the plant they ate. This would offer a benefit but would not have been produced ‘deliberately’.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      That’s a really clever observation. I wonder what Dawkins would say to that. I might ask a biology professor at my college how he or she might respond.

      Personally, I’ve long been convinced that evolution occurred and continues to occur and that natural selection has an important role in the process, but there seems to be some gap between natural selection as THE causal mechanism and the full range of stunning effects that we actually observe.

      –Santi

  14. Ko says:

    I’m going to see Richard Dawkins and I can ask him one question: I might just ask him one of these I need to be very creative

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