Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Richard Dawkins

English Evolutionary Biologist, Ethologist and Author

"Cloning may be good and it may be bad. Probably it's a bit of both. The question must not be greeted with reflex hysteria but decided quietly, soberly and on it's own merits. We need less emotion and more thought."

"Consider the idea of God. We do not know how it arose in the meme pool. Probably it originated many times by independent 'mutation.' In any case, it is very old indeed. How does it replicate itself? By the spoken and written word, aided by great music and great art. Why does it have such high survival value? Remember that 'survival value' here does not mean value for a gene in a gene pool, but value for a meme in a meme pool. The question really means: What is it about the idea of a god that gives it its stability and penetration in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The 'everlasting arms' hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor's placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary. These are some of the reasons why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains. God exists, if only in the form of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the environment provided by human culture."

"Computers do what they are told. They slavishly obey any instructions given in their own programming language. This is how they do useful things like word processing and spreadsheet calculations. But, as in inevitable by-product, they are equally robotic in obeying bad instructions. They have no way of telling whether an instruction will have a good effect or a bad. They simply obey, as soldiers are supposed to do. It is there unquestioning obedience that makes computers useful, and exactly the same thing makes them inescapably vulnerable to infection by software viruses and worms. A maliciously designed program that says, Copy me and send me to every address that you find on this hard disk will simply be obeyed, and then obeyed again by other computers down the line to which it is sent, in exponential expansion. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to design a computer which is usefully obedient and at the same time immune to infection."

"Complex, statistically improbable things are by their nature more difficult to explain than simple, statistically probable things."

"Could it be that interaction with any kind of a healer helps to focus our own immune systems?"

"Darwin made it possible for us to give a sensible answer to the curious child whose question heads this chapter. ['Why are people?'] We no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems; Is there meaning to life? What are we for? What is Man?"

"Darwinism is a remarkably simple theory, childlishly so, in comparison with almost all of physics and mathematics. But we have good reason for believing that this simplicity is deceptive. Simple as the theory may seem, nobody thought of it until Darwin and Wallace in the mid-19th century. How could such a simple idea go so long undiscovered by thinkers of the calibre of Newton, Galileo, Descartes, Hume and Aristotle? What was wrong with philosophers and mathematicians that they overlooked it?"

"Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."

"Cumulative selection is the key but it had to get started, and we cannot escape the need to postulate a single-step chance event in the origin of cumulative selection itself."

"Consider this. If a paranormalist could really give an unequivocal demonstration of telepathy (precognition, psychokinesis, reincarnation, whatever it is), he would be the discoverer of a totally new principle unknown to physical science. The discoverer of the new energy field that links mind to mind in telepathy, or of the new fundamental force that moves objects around a table top, deserves a Nobel prize and would probably get one. If you are in possession of this revolutionary secret of science, why not prove it and be hailed as the new Newton? Of course, we know the answer. You can't do it. You are a fake."

"Dawkins Law of the Conservation of Difficulty states that obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic simplicity."

"Despite the Great Chain of Being's traditional ranking of humans between animals and angels, there is no evolutionary justification for the common assumption that evolution is somehow 'aimed' at humans, or that humans are 'evolution's last word'."

"Do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and punishment? That's not morality, that's just sucking up, apple-polishing, looking over your shoulder at the great surveillance camera in the sky, or the still small wiretap inside your head, monitoring your every move, even your every base though."

"Each generation is a filter, a sieve; good genes tend to fall through the sieve into the next generation; bad genes tend to end up in bodies that die young or without reproducing."

"Does religion fill a much needed gap? It is often said that there is a God-shaped gap in the brain which needs to be filled: we have a psychological need for God -- imaginary friend, father, big brother, confessor, confidant -- and the need has to be satisfied whether God really exists or not. But could it be that God clutters up a gap that we'd be better off filling with something else? Science, perhaps? Art? Human friendship? Humanism? Love of this life in the real world, giving no credence to other lives beyond the grave?"

"Either admit that God is a scientific hypothesis and let him submit to the same judgment as any other scientific hypothesis. Or admit that his status is no higher than that of fairies and river sprites."

"Either it is true that a medicine works or it isn't. It cannot be false in the ordinary sense but true in some alternative sense. If a therapy or treatment is anything more than a placebo, properly conducted double-blind trials, statistically analyzed, will eventually bring it through with flying colours. Many candidates for recognition as orthodox medicines fail the test and are summarily dropped. The alternative label should not (though, alas, it does) provide immunity from the same fate."

"Even if it were true that evolution, or the teaching of evolution, encouraged immorality that would not imply that the theory of evolution was false."

"Each individual wants as many surviving children as possible. The less he or she is obliged to invest in any one of those children, the more children he or she can have. The obvious way to achieve this desirable state of affairs is to induce your sexual partner to invest more than his or her fair share of resources in each child, leaving you free to have other children with other partners. This would be a desirable strategy for either sex, but it is more difficult for the female to achieve..."

"Each week The X-Files poses a mystery and offers two rival kinds of explanation, the rational theory and the paranormal theory. And, week after week, the rational explanation loses. But it is only fiction, a bit of fun, why get so hot under the collar?"

"Even sticking to the higher plane of love, is it so very obvious that you can't love more than one person? We seem to manage it with parental love (parents are reproached if they don't at least pretend to love all their children equally), love of books, of food, of wine (love of Chateau Margaux does not preclude love of a fine Hock, and we don't feel unfaithful to the red when we dally with the white), love of composers, poets, holiday beaches, friends . . . why is erotic love the one exception that everybody instantly acknowledges without even thinking about it?"

"Even those who do not, or cannot, avail themselves of a scientific education, choose to benefit from the technology that is made possible by the scientific education of others."

"Every organism alive can look back at its ancestors and say the following: Not a single one of my ancestors was killed by a predator, or by a virus, or by a misjudged footstep on a precipice, or a mis-timed handhold on a high tree branch, before begetting or bearing at least one child."

"Evolution could so easily be disproved if just a single fossil turned up in the wrong date order. Evolution has passed this test with flying colors."

"Even if not a single fossil has ever been found, the evidence from surviving animals would still overwhelmingly force the conclusion that Darwin was right."

"Evolution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact. The evidence for evolution is at least as strong as the evidence for the Holocaust, even allowing for eye witnesses to the Holocaust.It is the plain truth that we are cousins of chimpanzees, somewhat more distant cousins of monkeys, more distant cousins still of aardvarks and manatees, yet more distant cousins of bananas and turnips... continue the list as long as desired."

"Evolution is something that happens, willy-nilly, in spite of all the efforts of the replicators (and nowadays of the genes) to prevent it happening."

"Evolution is not a genetically controlled distortion of one adult form into another; it is a genetically controlled alteration in a developmental program."

"Evolution has been observed. It's just that it hasn't been observed while it's happening."

"Evolution has no long-term goal. There is no long-distance target, no final perfection to serve as a criterion for selection, although human vanity cherishes the absurd notion that our species is the final goal of evolution."

"Explaining is a difficult art. You can explain something so that your reader understands the words; and you can explain something so that the reader feels it in the marrow of his bones. To do the latter, it sometimes isn't enough to lay the evidence before the reader in a dispassionate way. You have to become an advocate and use the tricks of the advocate's trade. This book is not a dispassionate scientific treatise. Other books on Darwinism are, and many of them are excellent and informative and should be read in conjunction with this one. Far from being dispassionate, it has to be confessed that in parts this book is written with a passion which, in a professional scientific journal, might excite comment. Certainly it seeks to inform, but it also seeks to persuade and even - one can specify aims without presumption - to inspire. I want to inspire the reader with a vision of our own existence as, on the face of it, a spine-chilling mystery; and simultaneously to convey the full excitement of the fact that it is a mystery with an elegant solution which is within our grasp. More, I want to persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence. This makes it a doubly satisfying theory. A good case can be made that Darwinism is true, not just on this planet but all over the universe, wherever life may be found."

"Faith is powerful enough to immunize people against all appeals to pity, to forgiveness, to decent human feelings. It even immunizes them against fear, if they honestly believe that a martyr's death will send them straight to heaven."

"Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes, fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as gene types propogate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propogate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via process, which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears or reads about a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propogate itself, spreading from brain to brain."

"Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence."

"Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong."

"Far from the rainbow being rooted at a particular 'place' where fairies might deposit a crock of gold, there are as many rainbows as there are eyes looking at the storm. Different observers, looking at the same shower from different places, will piece together their own separate rainbows using light from different collections of raindrops."

"Flowers and elephants are 'for' the same thing as everything else in the living kingdoms, for spreading Duplicate Me programs written in DNA language. Flowers are for spreading copies of instructions for making more flowers. Elephants are for spreading copies of instructions for making more elephants."

"For more than three thousand million years, DNA has been the only replicator worth talking about in the world. But it does not necessarily hold these monopoly rights for all time. Whenever conditions arise in which a new kind of replicator can make copies of itself, the new replicators tend to take over, and start a new kind of evolution of their own. Once this new evolution begins, it will in no necessary sense be subversient to the old. The old gene-selected evolution, by making brains, provided the soup in which the first memes arose. Once self-copying memes had arisen, their own, much faster, kind of evolution took off. We biologists have assimilated the idea of genetic evolution so deeply that we tend to forget that it is only one of the many possible kinds of evoluton."

"False beliefs can be every bit as consoling as true ones, right up until the moment of disillusionment."

"For the kinds of small animals we are talking about, we can assume one generation per year, so it seems that it would take less than half a million years to evolve a good camera eye."

"For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, Darwinism seems more in need of advocacy than similarly established truths in other branches of science. Many of us have no grasp of Einstein's theories of special and general relativity, but this does not lead us to oppose these theories."

"For the first half of geological time our ancestors were bacteria. Most creatures still are bacteria, and each one of our trillions of cells is a colony of bacteria."

"Genes are competing directly with their alleles for survival, since their alleles in the gene pool are rivals for their slot on the chromosomes of future generations. Any gene that behaves in such a way as to increase its own survival chances in the gene pool at the expense of its alleles will, by definition, tautologously, tend to survive. The gene is the basic unit of selfishness."

"From Darwin onwards evolutionists have realized that, if we arrange all our available fossils in chronological order, they do not form a smooth sequence of scarcely perceptible change. ... the trends as seen in the fossil record are usually jerky, not smooth. Darwin, and most others following him, have assumed that this is mainly because the fossil record is imperfect"

"Genes do indirectly control the manufacture of bodies, and the influence is strictly one way: acquired characteristics are not inherited. No matter how much knowledge and wisdom you acquire during your life, not one jot will be passed on to your children by genetic means. Each new generation starts from scratch."

"For those that like '-ism' sorts of names, the aptest name for my approach to understanding how things work is probably 'hierarchical reductionism'. If you read trendy intellectual magazines, you may have noticed that 'reductionism' is one of those things, like sin, that is only mentioned by people who are against it. To call oneself a reductionist will sound, in some circles, a bit like admitting to eating babies. But, just as nobody actually eats babies, so nobody is really a reductionist in any sense worth being against."

"God exists, if only in the form of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the environment provided by human culture."

"For whose benefit are mice and elephants and flowers put into the world?"

"Gravity is not a version of the truth. It is the truth. Anyone who doubts it is invited to jump out a tenth-story window."

"Group selection of any kind is not Darwinism as Darwin understood it nor as I understand it."