PLAYBOY: Are you pro-life?
DAWKINS: People who say they’re pro-life mean they are pro-human life. A four-cell embryo or a 64-cell embryo, or indeed one much larger than that, has no nervous system. You should have rather less compunction in killing such a creature than you would in killing an earthworm, because an earthworm has a nervous system and very likely can suffer. So objecting to the abortion of very young human embryos is utter nonsense. Objecting to older human embryos being killed is not utter nonsense. There’s no reason to suppose that their capacity to suffer is any greater than the capacity of an adult pig or cow to suffer.
PLAYBOY: Do we know which came first—bigger brains or bipedalism?
DAWKINS: Bipedalism came first.
PLAYBOY: How do we know that?
DAWKINS: Fossils. That’s one place the fossils are extremely clear. Three million years ago Australopithecus afarensis were bipedal, but their brains were no bigger than a chimpanzee’s. The best example we have is Lucy [a partial skeleton found in 1974 in Ethiopia]. In a way, she was an upright-walking chimpanzee.
PLAYBOY: You like Lucy.
DAWKINS: Yes. [smiles]
PLAYBOY: You’ve said you expect mankind will have a genetic book of the dead by 2050. How would that be helpful?
DAWKINS: Because we contain within us the genes that have survived through generations, you could theoretically read off a creature’s evolutionary history. “Ah, yes, this animal lived in the sea. This is the time when it lived in deserts. This bit shows it must have lived up mountains. And this shows it used to burrow.”
PLAYBOY: Could that help us bring back a dinosaur? You have suggested crossing a bird and a crocodile and maybe putting it in an ostrich egg.
DAWKINS: It would have to be more sophisticated than a cross. It’d have to be a merging.
PLAYBOY: Could we re-create Lucy?
DAWKINS: We already know the human genome and the chimpanzee genome, so you could make a sophisticated guess as to what the genome of the common ancestor might have been like. From that you might be able to grow an animal that was close to the common ancestor. And from that you might split the difference between that ancestral animal you re-created and a modern human and get Lucy.
PLAYBOY: You’ve accused creationists of fighting dirty.
DAWKINS: Sure they do.
PLAYBOY: Is that why you and other evolutionary biologists won’t debate them?
DAWKINS: Partly. It also gives them a respectability they don’t deserve. A colleague of mine likes to respond, “That would look great on your CV, not so good on mine.”
PLAYBOY: What arguments do creationists typically hit you with?
DAWKINS: Ignorant nonsense. They say things like “Well, if we’re descended from chimpanzees, how come chimpanzees are still around?” It isn’t difficult.
PLAYBOY: You often hear evolution described as “just a theory.” Is it?
DAWKINS: The word theory can mean a hypothesis. But the word is also used in a more serious sense as a body of knowledge. It’s better to use the word fact. Evolution is a fact in the same sense that the earth orbits the sun.
PLAYBOY: There is disagreement about what drives evolution.
DAWKINS: Natural selection is the driving force, but there is disagreement about what the selection pressure was. For example, we know the human brain grew bigger. Was it because the more ingenious individuals were the best at finding food or evading predators? Or was it because they were the most sexually attractive? It’s possible an enlarged brain is rather like a peacock’s tail. Darwin proposed a second version of natural selection, which he called sexual selection. If peahens choose peacocks for the brightness of their finery, then never mind about surviving. The ones with the biggest tails survive less well, because the tail is a burden. Nevertheless if they’re more attractive to females, then the genes for making big tails are more likely to end up in the next generation. It is quite possible the human brain also got bigger due to sexual selection. Intelligence is sexy. Maybe the most intelligent males had the gift of the gab. They may have been good talkers, good at remembering the sagas and myths of the tribe, or dance steps.
PLAYBOY: Or that she likes antelope.
DAWKINS: Something like that. If a peahen chooses a male with a long tail, it’s because she knows he couldn’t have survived with a tail like that unless he had something going for him. It’s all about showing females you are resistant to disease. There’s a dual selection—females become better diagnostic doctors, and males become better at being diagnosed, even if they’re actually ill.
PLAYBOY: What role does chance play in evolution?
DAWKINS: Mutation, the raw material for natural selection, is random in the sense that it is not systematically directed toward improvement. But natural selection is highly nonrandom, because it’s choosing improvements from that pool of variation that mutation throws up. There’s also an awful lot of chance in which species go extinct. When a comet hit the earth, all the dinosaurs went extinct except birds. A few mammals survived, and we’re descended from those few mammals, perhaps those that were hibernating underground.
PLAYBOY: You’ve described life as a “replication bomb.”
DAWKINS: If you look around the universe, there’s dead world after dead world. Physics goes on and chemistry goes on, but nothing else happens. And suddenly in one place there’s an explosion, which comes about because of replication. For some reason, the laws of chemistry give rise to a molecule that self-replicates. Maybe this planet is the only time it’s ever happened. But the arising through some accident of chemistry of a molecule that makes copies of itself has momentous consequences.
PLAYBOY: Creationists often try to ambush you, such as the Australian film crew that hit you with “Can you give me an example of a genetic mutation or an evolutionary process that can be seen to increase the information in the genome?” and then, because you paused, portrayed you as not having an answer.
DAWKINS: The way it happens is through gene duplication. You have lengths of the genome that do some useful thing, and then a chunk gets copied and pasted somewhere else, where it’s free to evolve in a different direction.
PLAYBOY: So why didn’t you respond?
DAWKINS: I was thinking, Am I going to throw these people out? This is a question only a creationist would ask, and they hadn’t told me they were creationists. What they did was splice the question and the long pause with my answer to a different question, so it looked as though I was being evasive. It was an absolutely scandalous piece of mendacity.
PLAYBOY: Most objections to evolution seem to come down to complexity. People can’t understand how something like an eye could have evolved.
DAWKINS: No matter how complex the eye may be, it’s not as complicated as a god.
PLAYBOY: Creationists love to cite gaps in the fossil record, such as the large one that precedes the Cambrian explosion, the period about 530 million years ago during which there was exponential growth in complex life-forms. How can you explain it?
DAWKINS: Of course there are gaps; fossilization is a rare event. But if we didn’t have a single fossil, the evidence for evolution would be absolutely secure because of comparative anatomy, comparative biochemistry, geographical distribution. The gap before the Cambrian explosion is interesting because it’s a big one. But if you think about it, there are major groups of animals that have no fossils. For example, today we saw in the natural history museum an almost microscopic creature called a tardigrade. They don’t fossilize because they’re soft. Presumably before the Cambrian, most of the ancestors of the Cambrian creatures were soft and small.
PLAYBOY: How do we know they existed if there are no fossils?
DAWKINS: That’s not quite the right question, is it? Their descendants existed in the Cambrian, so unless you seriously think they were created in the Cambrian, they must have existed. You may say that’s not evidence, and I’m saying you could say the same of any soft creature for which we have no fossils. How do we know it wasn’t created in 1800? It doesn’t make sense.
PLAYBOY: What about this one, another favorite of creationists: If modern animals such as monkeys evolved from frogs, why haven’t we found any fossils from a transitional creature such as a fronkey?
DAWKINS: The fallacy is thinking of modern animals as descended from other modern animals. If you take that seriously, there should be not just fronkey fossils but crocoduck or octocow fossils. Why on earth would you expect you could take any pair of animals and look for a combination of them? We’re looking at the tips of the twigs of the tree. The ancestors are buried deep in the middle, in the crown of the tree. There are no fronkeys because the common ancestor of a frog and a monkey would be some kind of fishy, salamandery thing that looks like neither a frog nor a monkey.
PLAYBOY: Creationists are fond of arguing that if you remove one part and it doesn’t work, then there’s no way it could have evolved.
DAWKINS: Quite a good analogy here is an arch, where you have stone, stone, stone, and then it meets in the middle and stands up. But take away any one part and it collapses. You might think it’s difficult to build an arch until you have the whole thing in place, but you’re not considering that they used scaffolding, which has since been taken down. That’s one answer. Another is to point out that you don’t need all the bits of an eye in order to see. You can have a very imperfect eye that can see only the difference between light and dark. That’s still useful if you can see the shadow of a predator. So it’s not true that half an eye is not useful. Half an eye is half as good as a whole eye, and it’s better than nothing.