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Dawkins to deliver Tanner Lectures

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‘Capricious things don’t happen’

Evolutionist Richard Dawkins will deliver this year’s Tanner Lectures: ‘The Science of Religion and the Religion of Science.’ (Photo by Lalla Ward)

Speaking by phone from his office at Oxford University, biologist Richard Dawkins politely declined to talk in detail about his upcoming lecture series at Harvard, “The Science of Religion and the Religion of Science.”

Dawkins, who holds the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, will deliver this year’s Tanner Lectures on Human Values Nov. 19, 20, and 21. While he would prefer to let the lectures speak for themselves, he had no such reluctance about discussing his recent book, “A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love” (Houghton Mifflin, 2003).

The title is from a letter by Charles Darwin: “What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horridly cruel works of nature.” Darwin was no believer in the “argument by design,” the notion that the world’s living systems are so exquisitely engineered, so beautifully interdependent, that only God could be responsible for the order they display; Dawkins has no use for this idea either.

The Tanner Lectures are free and open to the public. Lectures 1 and 2 are at 5 p.m., Nov. 19 and 20, in Lowell Lecture Hall at the corner of Oxford and Kirkland streets. A seminar with Dawkins; Keith DeRose, professor of philosophy, Yale University; and Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard, will take place at 10 a.m., Nov. 21, in Wiener Auditorium, Taubman Building, Kennedy School of Government.

In the book’s title essay, he affirms his belief in natural selection, not God, as the driving force behind the order of the natural world. But at the same time, he urges his fellow humans to stand up against the blind, wasteful competition that without the slightest hint of intention gives shape and order to nature.

“As an academic scientist,” he writes, “I am a passionate Darwinian, believing that natural selection is, if not the only driving force in evolution, certainly the only known force capable of producing the illusion of purpose which so strikes all who contemplate nature. But at the same time as I support Darwinism as a scientist, I am a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics and how we should conduct our human affairs.”

This combination of groundbreaking scientific theory and engaged cultural and philosophical criticism has characterized Dawkins’ career, which has paralleled in many respects that of his friend and sometime professional antagonist, the late Stephen Jay Gould. Like Gould, Dawkins has the rare ability to write about science in an engaging, accessible, and challenging way.

He first book, “The Selfish Gene” (1976), an international best seller, argued that the gene, not the individual organism, is the significant unit of natural selection. In his second book, “The Extended Phenotype” (1982), he further developed this idea, suggesting that all animal behavior, including the complex social and cultural behavior of humans, could be seen as a manifestation of the gene’s struggle to survive and replicate itself.

His later books have combined science with polemics, arguing that only the theory of evolution provides an adequate explanation for how life on earth assumed its present form, and demonstrating, often in a strikingly evocative and vivid way, how evolution works. These books include: “The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design” (1986); “River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life” (1995); “Climbing Mount Improbable” (1996); and “Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder” (1998).

What might the author of these books have to say about religion? First, it seems clear that an evolutionist who views human culture as an outgrowth of our genetic code (our “extended phenotype”) must take religion seriously, at least as a powerful and persistent aspect of culture.

Yet it is highly unlikely that Dawkins will embrace the notion that science and religion are converging, that they support each other’s conclusions and point of view and can exist in a happy synthesis.

In an essay titled “The Great Convergence,” he affirms the essential incongruence of science and religion’s basic premises and questions the integrity of scientists who suggest otherwise. But he is quite willing to acknowledge a feeling of religious awe in the presence of nature’s wonders.

“I do think – and this is what my second lecture will be about – that there is something quasireligious in science, the sense of awe, the sense of wonder, the sense of almost spiritual response to the universe, which I believe I have and many other scientists have developed to a high degree, but I would resist confusing that with the supernatural.”

By the supernatural, Dawkins has in mind forces that ostensibly override the laws of nature. He characterizes the religious view as the belief “that there are capricious interventions by some sort of supernatural being, some sort of intelligence, that interfere with the world, that interfere with the universe, in ways that violate the laws of physics. My view of the laws of physics is that they are at present no doubt somewhat mysterious, but they are lawful in the sense that they are not violated. Capricious things don’t happen. There are no bogeymen, there are no poltergeists that start moving things around at will when people pray or when people cast spells or that kind of thing,” he said.

In an essay titled “Good and Bad Reasons for Believing,” originally written as a letter to his 10-year-old daughter, Dawkins extols direct observation and scientific investigation as reliable methods of arriving at truth, and dismisses as spurious the kinds of evidence on which most religions base their claims – tradition, authority, and revelation.

Having demolished its evidential basis, Dawkins questions why religion should be accorded special treatment. In “Dolly and the Cloth Heads,” he asks why clergy, whose ignorance of science is often stunning, should be taken seriously when they opine on subjects such as cloning. In an essay on the events of Sept. 11, 2001, “A Time to Stand Up,” he calls religion “the most inflammatory enemy-labeling device in history,” and calls on people of intellect to resolve “to respect people for what they individually think, rather than respect groups for what they were collectively brought up to believe.”

Far from being a sustained attack on religion, the book contains many pieces in which Dawkins pays tribute to individuals of the past and present who embody the sort of clear-eyed dedication to truth that he admires. There are several essays on Darwin’s prescience and the explanatory power of his ideas; a moving essay on the progressive British educator Frederick William Sanderson; a eulogy for Dawkins’ friend Douglas Adams, author of “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”; and several essays reflecting Dawkins’ admiration for and ongoing dialogue with Stephen Jay Gould.

Whatever his subject, Dawkins is a powerful writer who never soft-pedals his ideas or minces words. No doubt his lectures next week will be equally provocative and challenging.

The Tanner Lectures on Human Values is a nonprofit corporation administered at the University of Utah. It is funded by an endowment and other gifts received by the University of Utah from Obert Clark Tanner and Grace Adams Tanner.

At the request of a founding trustee of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, these lectures are dedicated to the memory of Clarence Irving Lewis ’06, Ph.D. ’10, who served on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences from 1920 to 1953.

Co-sponsored by the Office of the President and the University Center for Ethics and the Professions, the series is designed to advance scholarly and scientific learning in the field of human values, and the purpose embraces the entire range of moral, artistic, intellectual, and spiritual values, both individual and social.