March 5 2009 12:00 AM

Richard Dawkins on what drives people — and hijacks them


Winds of change are putting fresh blood into British biologist Richard Dawkins’ cheeks.

Or did a puff from his cheeks produce the wind? It figures — Dawkins has given us one more chicken-andegg biology problem.

Two years ago, the distinguished Oxford don wrote “The God Delusion,” pivoting toward polemics after a career spent researching and explaining the evolution of life.

In recent years, half a shelf of new atheist books, including Dawkins’ cheeky entry, climbed the best-seller lists, raising a long-dormant question: Are people ready to jettison, or at least question, religious faith as a way to explain and manage the world?

“I’m starting to think the answer to that may be yes, and very encouraging it is, too,” Dawkins said in a telephone interview from his office in London. “I haven’t done a proper Gallup Poll sort of analysis, but I get that feeling.”

“I don’t suppose we’re converting any dyedin-the-wool religious people,” he said. “But I do think we’re emboldening people to come out and realize that this is what they’ve thought all along, maybe secretly.”

As Dawkins opens a U.S. lecture tour at Michigan State University Monday, he is also buoyed by the prospect of a new American administration that values science.

“The entire world is heaving a huge sigh of relief at your elections,” Dawkins said. “We were not able to vote ourselves, and everybody in the world, practically, is delighted that the American voters finally did the right thing.”

President Barack Obama even gave a shout-out to “non-believers” in his inauguration speech.

“I was not surprised, given what I know of him, and what an intelligent, educated man he is,” Dawkins said. “But slightly surprised, given what American elected officials have to pretend in order to get elected.”

“In any event, it was an act of courage and I salute him for it.”

Despite his optimism, Dawkins has long endured criticism that his scientific message is bleak. “If a scientific worldview is depressing, that’s just too bad,” he said bluntly. “You can’t change reality.”

But he was quick to add that it shouldn’t be depressing.

“It’s such an enormously uplifting experience to understand why you exist, which is what science is pretty much now capable of telling you.”

Dive into any or all of Dawkins’ books for an extended tour of the staggering physical, chemical and biological processes that led up to your falafel lunch yesterday. From “The Selfish Gene” in 1976, through “Unweaving the Rainbow,” “The Blind Watchmaker,” and “The Ancestor’s Tale,” Dawkins has celebrated the origin and evolution of life in lucid, compelling language meant to reach beyond academia. In many cases, he has advanced that knowledge himself, or brought about a fundamental shift in perspective.

“There is grandeur in this view of life,” Charles Darwin wrote of evolution. If you need more than that — a bigger purpose — you may be wiggling a mental fin out of water, in Dawkins’ view.

That’s what Dawkins will tell his listeners at MSU Monday. By analyzing the idea of purpose itself — why it’s useful and where it goes haywire — he will braid together his work as a genetic biologist and his more recent critique of religion.

“Human intelligent purpose, deliberate purpose, is something we all experience objectively,” he said. “We set goals in our minds and we try to achieve them.”

But when we say a bird’s wing is “for” flying, or a fish’s fin is “for” swimming, we’re talking about a different kind of purpose. The swimmingest fins and flyingest wings are the end product of evolution — an unimaginably lengthy process of elimination that stumbles along without predeter mine d direction. It’s an illusion of purpose Dawkins calls “archi-purpose.”

Dawkins calls the familiar, human feeling of purpose — the drive that helps you build up a business, make it through medical school, or finish a tough jigsaw puzzle — “neo-purpose.”

“Neo-purpose,” Dawkins said, “has been put there by natural selection for a good reason, just as wings and talons and teeth have been. The sort of purpose we hold in our brains is, in itself, is a Darwinian adaptation.”

Hence the title of Dawkins’s talk: “The Purpose of Purpose.”

problem, Dawkins said, is that purpose can hijack our better judgment.
Have you seen Aunt Jane’s obscene closet full of shoes lately? Or the
Middle East?

“Sometimes people can become so addicted to their
particular purpose it ceases to be a good thing for them or for anybody
else,” Dawkins said. “This is what drives people to suicide bombing and
to try to conquer the world and all sorts of things like that.”

where Dawkins’ work in genetic biology
converges with his anti-religious stance. He traces much of the
misguided, destructive “neo-purpose” in the world directly to religion.
Scientific atheism, with its skeptical checks and balances, is the

Dawkins loves to tell a story about one of his
encounters with geneticist James Watson, a co-discoverer of DNA. Watson
was annoyed by people who weren’t satisfied with life’s marvels and
want to know “what it’s all for.”

“It’s not ‘for’ anything,” Watson
told Dawkins. “We’re just products of evolution.”

Dawkins lovingly
recalled Watson’s rejoinder in “The God Delusion.”

“You can say ‘Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don’t think there’s a purpose,’ but I’m anticipating having a good lunch,” Watson told Dawkins.

had a very good lunch, too,” Dawkins said.

And lunch, fine as it may
be, is only one of many comforts to be sucked from the universe,
Dawkins said.

There’s music and friendship and love and art and, of
course, science. “We can learn from each other and we can be inspired
by other people,” he said.

Another pleasure awaits still-closeted
atheists, and Dawkins enthused over it with ruddy-cheeked cheer.

are many more of you than you think there are,” Dawkins said. “Find
each other, discover each other, have the courage to speak out,” he
said. “Things are moving.”

Richard Dawkins

7:30 p.m. Monday, March 2 Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall $20; free for MSU faculty, staff and students 1-800-Wharton