In his first book, 1976’s The Selfish Gene, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” for cultural ideas that spread and mutate like genes. Thirty years later he published The God Delusion, a persuasive polemic for atheism that conferred on him the status of public intellectual. By then the term “meme” had itself become a meme, applied to a variety of viral Internet phenomena. More recently, Dawkins has taken up the viral phenomenon known as Twitter. His acerbic tweets about Islam and political correctness have generated a steady stream of outrage — not just from ideological opponents but from atheist confreres embarrassed by, for example, his flip comparison of the Koran to Mein Kampf. (“Not In Our Name,” ran the headline of a column in The Independent by Owen Jones, who accused him of “dressing up bigotry as non-belief.”) It’s all coming to a head just as Dawkins launches the U.S. tour of his new book. The first volume of a two-part memoir, An Appetite for Wonder takes us from his childhood in Kenya to boarding school (and a touch of pedophilia that’s sparked further outrage), on to Oxford and The Selfish Gene. Dawkins spoke to us, reluctantly, about subjects other than his new book — like the question of whether he’s his own worst enemy.
What made you embark on a two-volume autobiography?
Well, anybody can write an autobiography if a publisher thinks it’s interesting enough, and my publishers did. I’m just over 70 years old. It feels like the right time to do it.
I got halfway through and realized that the publication of my first book was rather a natural watershed — it really did change my life. Plus, I suppose I wanted to have a sense of achievement, so finishing volume one did that.
Did it change the way you think about your life?
I’ve been led to reflect on the element of luck in the pathway. I thought to myself how different my life would have been if something would be different — something as trivial as a sneeze.
You recently wondered in print if Shakespeare might have been “even better” if he’d gone to Oxford or Cambridge. What if you hadn’t gone to Oxford?
Oh, no no no, I didn’t mean to suggest that — I just think it’s remarkable that he didn’t receive any schooling after secondary school. But, yes, I think things would have been completely different [for me]. On the other hand, I also speculate that maybe there’s a magnetic pull that drags you back to the pathway.
What do you wish your parents had done differently, raising you?
Well, I think I probably wouldn’t have gone to boarding school. At least not so young. I was sent at 7.
And when you were 11, an instructor molested you briefly, along with other classmates, and you doubted he “did any of us any lasting damage.” In follow-up interviews you’ve used the term “mild pedophilia” and said, “We must beware of lumping all pedophiles in the same bracket.” People took offense.
I hope you won’t press down on that issue, but if you mention it, I did write a longer and I hope more reflective piece on my website, which I’ll refer you to. Are you on a computer now, by any chance?
I think I read it. It ends with a qualified apology.
Well, that’s the least important part. I don’t want it to seem like it’s an apology. I want it to seem like a vindication. The key paragraph I suppose is, umm … [reads a long paragraph from the blog post, which you can find here] ” … Should I have lied, and said it was the worst thing that ever happened to me? Should I have mendaciously sought the sympathy due to a victim who had truly been damaged for the rest of his life? Should I have named the offending teacher and brought down posthumous disgrace upon his head? No, no, and no … ”
You’ve taken a lot of hits for controversial statements. Was this one worse — more personal?
Well, in a way yes, but it more irritated me that people are so illogical: Dawkins says A is bad, B is worse. Therefore he’s defending A. Now that is just totally illogical.
But you also made a relativist cultural argument — that it was hard to “condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours.” Yet you knock down that argument all the time when it’s used to defend religious practices.
But if you take something which is — I mean, really, having a grown man shove his hand down your trousers for half a minute, on the one hand, and on the other hand almost in the very same week, we had a news story from Yemen, where a 40-year-old man was legally married to an 8-year-old girl and raped her to death, he literally raped her to death. Now, there are people out there who think that those two things are both as bad as each other. And that makes me sick.
It’s on religion that you’ve taken the most flak — most recently for tweeting, “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.” Do you regret that?
Well, yes, I think when I compared the Nobel prizes of Muslims to Trinity, it would have been better to have compared it to Jews. That’s a direct comparison of one religion against another, and much more germane.
You’re deliberately trying to rile people up, right?
But it’s just a fact. Stating a fact is not abuse. Stating a fact that makes somebody appear ridiculous because they are ridiculous, again that’s not abuse, that’s simply pointing out the way things are.
There’s such a vast difference in tone between your memoir — or even The God Delusion — and these comments. It feels like there are two Dawkinses, and the one on Twitter is more aggressive. Is it something about the medium?
Partly it’s the 140-character limit. It’s also the fact that in the memoir I’m not talking about religion most of the time. But even at my most brash I’m actually pretty tame compared to the sort of foul language which has become endemic on the Internet. I never call people a douche bag or a fucking idiot, which is very common language. I use sarcasm a lot, I use ridicule, and where religion is concerned I think people hear ridicule as though it was brash. When if it was in the context of, say, politics it would just be heard as ridicule. In politics we’ve come to expect that, whereas in religion what we’ve come to expect is kid gloves.
Now that Christopher Hitchens is gone, you seem to be the loudest atheist standing. Yet you’ve recently alienated some atheists, too. Do you think ridicule is always the best approach?
If I’m talking, say, to a young-earth creationist, I don’t care about persuading him. He’s an idiot. What I want to do is have all the other people who are listening in hear me ridiculing him.
But you’re not persuading people who are turned off by the rhetoric.
It’s important to have both approaches, and I have used both approaches myself. But I do think that there is a place for exposing idiocy. My comments are sarcastic, they’re satirical, but they don’t abuse.
Leon Wieseltier recently wrote that proponents of “scientism” — including friends of yours — lack the “empathy” of the humanities. Do your statements lack empathy for emotional responses to things like child abuse?
I think we have plenty of empathy. But let’s take a particular example. Many people derive comfort from religion because they think that they’re going to survive their own death. And so if you’re frightened of dying it gives you comfort to think that when your father dies you’re going to see him again. Now, I have never denied that that’s comforting. That doesn’t actually make it true, and what’s true actually matters. I’m as emotional as anybody else. I don’t know whether you notice that I write on the poetry of music and things. But I don’t think that you should allow your emotions to cloud your judgment of what’s actually true.
Are you glad you’ve taken on Twitter as a medium?
Can’t decide. It’s difficult. It’s a very quick, efficient way to reach a lot of people, and if you’ve got a lot of followers as I have, it’s a way of getting your message out there very quickly. It does invite a lot of horrible vitriol, and gets it. I think I’m perhaps still learning to use it properly.