Throughout his storied scientific career, Richard Dawkins has never backed down from big or controversial ideas. Whether he's revolutionizing the discussion over genetics and natural selection (as he did with The Selfish Gene, his landmark 1976 book that also expanded the conversation well beyond the scientific community) or making provocative statements in the debate between atheism and religion, Dawkins has never backed down from a good fight, either. (Check The God Delusion and its more than 2,000 customer reviews for a taste of that fracas.)
With his latest release, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, Dawkins pulls back the curtain on his upbringing, eductaion, and the events that led him to a career as a groundbreaking geneticist, as well as behind-the-scenes looks at his early research techniques and ideas. He stopped by our room at Book Expo America in May to talk about the memoir (available September 24), as well as other topics--some big, some controversial, but all definitely Dawkins. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.Jon Foro: Why did you choose to write a memoir at this point of your career?
Richard Dawkins: I’m getting on a bit, and my mother’s getting on, too—she’s 96—so it was a good opportunity to tap her memories about my childhood. Quite a bit of it is about my childhood. I hope it’s funny, I hope it’s entertaining. And I’ve long wanted to do something like this.
A: You adopted computers early on in your research. Are there affinities between thinking about natural selection and programming computers? It struck me, when you were speaking about hierarchical organization of behavior [a sort of modular set of prioritized actions that governs animal behavior], that it’s like object-oriented programming.
RD: Yes, very much so. And I think that programming computers—quite apart from being useful—does actually help you to think. But when you’re thinking about how animals work, how the brain works ... brains must in some sense be programmed, and probably using the same kind of software tricks. But of course there’s no programmer, it’s done by natural selection and genes--the genes that program development of brains. But in some sense, it’s helpful to think about brains as being computers. But of a very different kind, and having software of a very different kind.
JF: Except that computers can be said to be completely deterministic, whereas humans have the opportunity to override….
RD: [laughs] Do you think?
JF: [laughs nervously] Well, I don’t know. I’m asking you.
RD: Yes, I think philosophically speaking, we’re probably all deterministic. But humans and animals have such complexity that we have the illusion of having a kind of free will that we can override it.