Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Richard Dawkins

English Evolutionary Biologist, Ethologist and Author

"The essence of life is statistical improbability on a colossal scale."

"Science offers the best answers to the meaning of life. Science offers you the privilege before you die of understanding why you were ever born in the first place."

"A gene might be able to assist replicas of itself that are sitting in other bodies. If so, this would appear as individual altruism but it would be brought about by gene selfishness."

"A God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe cannot be simple. His existence is going to need a mammoth explanation in its own right."

"A tiny minority are the only ones that future generations will be able to call ancestors. This minority had what it takes to be successful."

"A lion wants to eat an antelope's body, but the antelope has very different plans for its body. This is not normally regarded as competition for a resource, but logically it is hard to see why not."

"A friend, an intelligent lapsed Jew who observes the Sabbath for reasons of cultural solidarity, describes himself as a Tooth Fairy Agnostic. He will not call himself an atheist because it is in principle impossible to prove a negative. But agnostic on its own might suggest that he though God's existence or non-existence equally likely. In fact, though strictly agnostic about God, he considers God's existence no more probable than the Tooth Fairy's."

"After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn't it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked "

"A universe with a God would look quite different from a universe without one. A physics, a biology where there is a God is bound to look different. So the most basic claims of religion are scientific. Religion is a scientific theory."

"A tiger's DNA is also a 'duplicate me' program but it contains an almost fantastically large digression as an essential part of the efficient execution of its fundamental message. That digression is a tiger, complete with fangs, claws, running muscles, stalking and pouncing instincts. The tiger's DNA says, 'Duplicate me by the round-about route of building a tiger first.' At the same time, antelope DNA says, 'Duplicate me by the round-about route of building an antelope first, complete with long legs and fast muscles, complete with timorous instincts and finely honed sense organs tuned to the danger from tigers."

"All religious beliefs seem weird to those not brought up in them."

"Along with Bach's music, Shakespeare's sonnets and the Apollo Space Programme, the Human Genome Project is one of those achievements of the human spirit that makes me proud to be human."

"An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one. I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."

"Amusingly, it [astrology] falls foul of our modern taboo against lazy stereotyping. How would we react if a newspaper published a daily column that read something like this: Germans: It is in your nature to be hard-working and methodical, which should serve you well at work today. In your personal relationships, especially this evening, you will need to curb your natural tendency to obey orders. Chinese: Inscrutability has many advantages, but it may be your undoing today. British: Your stiff upper lip may serve you well in business dealings, but try to relax and let yourself go in your social life."

"Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as Dutchman's Pipe (or a universe) would have to be even more improbable than a Dutchman's Pipe. Far from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance."

"American political opportunities are loaded against those who are simultaneously intelligent and honest."

"Although the parent/child relationship is no closer genetically than the brother/sister relationship, its certainty is greater. It is normally possible to be much more certain who your children are than who your brothers are. And you can be more certain still who you yourself are!"

"Another force driving progressive evolution is the so-called "arms-race." Prey animals evolve faster running speeds because predators do. Consequently predators have to evolve even faster running speeds, and so on, in an escalating spiral. Such arms races probably account for the spectacularly advanced engineering of eyes, ears, brains, bat "radar" and all the other high-tech weaponry that animals display."

"And what corresponds to inching up the kindly, grassy slopes on the other side of the mountain? It is the slow, cumulative, one-step-at-a-time, non-random survival of random variants that Darwin called natural selection. The metaphor of Mount Improbable dramatizes the mistake of the sceptics quoted at the beginning of this chapter. Where they went wrong was to keep their eyes fixed on the vertical precipice and its dramatic height. They assumed that the sheer cliff was the only way up to the summit on which they are perched eyes and protein molecules and other supremely improbable arrangements of parts. It was Darwin's great achievement to discover the gentle gradients winding up the other side of the mountain."

"Another example might be suppose you take the argument in favor of abortion up until the baby was one year old, if a baby was one year old and turned out to have some horrible incurable disease that meant it was going to die in agony in later life, what about infanticide? Strictly morally I can see no objection to that at all, I would be in favor of infanticide but I think i would worry about/I think I would wish at least to give consideration to the person who says 'where does it end?'"

"An atheist is just somebody who feels about Yahweh the way any decent Christian feels about Thor or Baal or the golden calf. As has been said before, we are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further."

"An intelligent couple can read their Darwin and know that the ultimate reason for their sexual urges is procreation. They know that the woman cannot conceive because she is on the pill. Yet they find that their sexual desire is in no way diminished by the knowledge. Sexual desire is sexual desire and its force, in an individual's psychology, is independent of the ultimate Darwinian pressure that drove it. It is a strong urge which exists independently of its ultimate rationale."

"And when we look closely, we find a system of morals which any civilized person today should surely find poisonous."

"Anti-evolution propaganda is full of alleged examples of complex systems that 'could not possibly' have passed through a gradual series of intermediates. This is often just another case of the rather pathetic 'Argument from Personal Incredulity' that we met in Chapter 2. Immediately after the section on the eye, for example, The Neck of the Giraffe goes on to discuss the bombardier beetle, which"

"Be thankful that you have a life, and forsake your vain and presumptuous desire for a second one."

"At the very least, people ought to think twice before throwing up their hands in horror at manipulating genes to, say, make a child good at music while approving sending a child to a school that is especially good at music. These are the same kinds of things. The genetic equivalent of sending your child to Eton is going to be expensive, too. There is no obvious distinction between spending your money on one kind of child manipulation and the other... You will immediately see the oddness in what you have just said. You are saying that one works and the other doesn't. It's odd to take refuge in lack of efficiency as a defense."

"Bats and dolphins perfected sophisticated echo-ranging systems millions of years before human engineers gave us sonar and radar. Snakes have infrared heat-detectors for sensing prey, pre-dating the Sidewinder missile."

"Aquarius is a miscellaneous set of stars all at different distances from us, which have no connection with each other except that they constitute a (meaningless) pattern when seen from a certain (not particularly special) place in the galaxy (here)."

"Are science and religion converging? No. There are modern scientists whose words sound religious but whose beliefs, on close examination, turn out to be identical to those of other scientists who straightforwardly call themselves atheists."

"As I put it in River Out of Eden : Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I"

"Anybody who objects to cloning on principle has to answer to all the identical twins in the world who might be insulted by the thought that there is something offensive about their very existence. Clones are simply identical twins."

"Arms races probably account for the spectacularly advanced engineering of eyes, ears, brains, bat radar and all the other high-tech weaponry that animals display."

"Being dead will be no different from being unborn -- I shall be just as I was in the time of William the Conqueror or the dinosaurs or the trilobites. There is nothing to fear in that."

"Are there any plausible ways in which genes might 'recognize' their copies in other individuals.'? The answer is yes. It is easy to show that close relatives--kin--have a greater than average chance of sharing genes. It has long been clear that this is why altruism by parents towards their young is so common."

"Bertrand Russell used a hypothetical teapot in orbit about Mars for the same didactic purpose. You have to be agnostic about the teapot, but that doesn't mean you treat the likelihood of its existence as being on all fours with its non-existence."

"Bush and bin Laden are really on the same side: the side of faith and violence against the side of reason and discussion. Both have implacable faith that they are right and the other is evil. Each believes that when he dies he is going to heaven. Each believes that if he could kill the other, his path to paradise in the next world would be even swifter. The delusional next world is welcome to both of them. This world would be a much better place without either of them."

"But it is we that choose to divide animals up into discontinuous species. On the evolutionary view of life there must have been intermediates, even though, conveniently for our naming rituals, they are usually extinct."

"But the dominance hierarchy itself is not something that natural selection favors or disfavors. What natural selection favors or disfavors is the individual behavior of which the dominance hierarchy is a manifestation. I would put war and overpopulation in that category."

"But the likelihood is that, in 100,000 years time, we shall either have reverted to wild barbarism, or else civilization will have advanced beyond all recognition--into colonies in outer space, for instance. In either case, evolutionary extrapolations from present conditions are likely to be highly misleading."

"Blindness to suffering is an inherent consequence of natural selection. Nature is neither kind nor cruel but indifferent."

"Beliefs. Once entrenched in a culture, they persist, evolve and diverge, in a manner reminiscent of biological evolution."

"But perhaps the rest of us could have separate classes in science appreciation, the wonder of science, scientific ways of thinking, and the history of scientific ideas, rather than laboratory experience."

"But there are other ways in which the interests of individuals from different species conflict very sharply. For instance a lion wants to eat an antelope's body, but the antelope has very different plans for its body. This is not normally regarded as competition for a resource, but logically it is hard to see why not. The resource in question is meat. The lion genes 'want' the meat as food for their survival machine. The antelope genes want the meat as working muscle and organs for their survival machine. These two uses for the meat are mutually incompatible; therefore there is conflict of interest."

"But you cannot have an unnatural welfare state, unless you also have unnatural birth control, otherwise the end result will be misery even greater than that which obtains in nature."

"But, however many ways there may be of being alive, it is certain that there are vastly more ways of being dead, or rather not alive."

"By insisting on a long engagement period, a female weeds out casual suitors, and only finally copulates with a male who has proved his qualities of fidelity and perseverance in advance. Feminine coyness is in fact very common among animals, and so are prolonged courtship or engagement periods."

"Christianity, just as much as Islam, teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don't have to make the case for what you believe. If somebody announces that it is part of his faith, the rest of society, whether of the same faith, or another, or of none, is obliged, by ingrained custom, to respect it without question; respect it until the day it manifests itself in a horrible massacre like the destruction of the World Trade Center, or the London or Madrid bombings."

"Chance, luck, coincidence, miracle. One of the main topics of this chapter is miracles and what we mean by them. My thesis will be that events that we commonly call miracles are not supernatural, but are part of a spectrum of more-or-less improbable natural events. A miracle, in other words, if it occurs at all, is a tremendous stroke of luck. Events don't fall neatly into natural events versus miracles."

"Certainly I see the scientific view of the world as incompatible with religion, but that is not what is interesting about it. It is also incompatible with magic, but that also is not worth stressing. What is interesting about the scientific world view is that it is true, inspiring, remarkable and that it unites a whole lot of phenomena under a single heading."

"By all means let"