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Richard Dawkins on Charles Darwin

Richard Dawkins

Oxford University's former Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, Richard Dawkins, is one of the world's staunchest defenders of the theory of evolution. He is the author of The Selfish Gene and a well known atheist tract, The God Delusion. So how does he assess Darwin's ideas on the 200th anniversary of his birth?

The BBC World Service's Owen Bennett Jones spoke to Professor Dawkins.

RD: "Charles Darwin really solved the problem of existence, the problem of the existence of all living things - humans, animals, plants, fungi, bacteria. Everything we know about life, Darwin essentially explained."

OBJ: "Did he make any mistakes in your view?"

RD: "Yes he made some mistakes. He lived in the middle of the 19th Century, and, obviously, we know a lot more now than he knew. In particular, he got genetics all wrong. Nobody in the 19th Century knew much about genetics, and so naturally Darwin got that wrong. But given that, it's remarkable how much he got right."

OBJ: "But people say modern discoveries in genetics, actually confirm what Darwin was saying...?"

RD: "Very much so, yes, and it's amazing how far ahead of his time he was."

He's controversial amongst people who don't know anything, but if you talk to people who are actually educated, he's not really controversial
Richard Dawkins

OBJ: "Right, so can you explain that to us? Basically, modern genetics confirms the principle, but he got the detail wrong, is that it?"

RD: "Yes, you need genetics in order to make Darwinian natural selection work. It depends upon genetics. Darwin didn't realise how much it depended upon what you could call "digital genetics" - the idea that a particular gene, you either have it or you don't.

"In Darwin's time people thought it was a bit like mixing substances - you've got some male substances and some female substances and you mix them together, and you got child substance. It's not like that at all.

"It's digital. You either get a gene or you don't. Nowadays with DNA of course we know that it's really like computer code, it's like reels and reels of computer tape. And little did Darwin know, he actually needed that for his theory to work.

"But nevertheless he got it astonishingly right. So you could almost say he nearly forecast digital genetics - although he didn't."

OBJ: "Do you believe his belief is compatible with a belief in God?"

RD: "Many people do, because there are plenty of clergymen, bishops, theologians and things who of course go along with evolution. They have no choice; the evidence is overwhelming. I personally think it's rather difficult, but that's my personal opinion and you'll find plenty of clergymen to disagree."

OBJ: "Because Darwin is now a very controversial figure, particularly in the United States?"


RD: "He's controversial amongst people who don't know anything, but if you talk to people who are actually educated, he's not really controversial. There's no controversy about the fact we are cousins of monkeys, cousins of cows, cousins of aardvarks. That's completely non-controversial among anyone who knows anything about science."

OBJ: "Did Darwin lose his faith?"

RD: "Yes, Darwin lost his faith gradually. As a young man he was destined for the church. He was training to be an Anglican clergyman at Cambridge [University], and then gradually throughout his life he lost his faith, partly because of personal tragedy - losing children and things like that, and partly because his science led him to see the superfluousness of a creator. He never described himself as an atheist; he ended up describing himself as an agnostic - the term which was coined by his friend T H Huxley.

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