Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Richard Dawkins

English Evolutionary Biologist, Ethologist and Author

"If you have a faith, it is statistically overwhelmingly likely that it is the same faith as your parents and grandparents had. No doubt soaring cathedrals, stirring music, moving stories and parables, help a bit. But by far the most important variable determining your religion is the accident of birth. The convictions that you so passionately believe would have been a completely different, and largely contradictory, set of convictions, if only you had happened to be born in a different place. Epidemiology, not evidence."

"If you don't know anything about computers, just remember that they are machines that do exactly what you tell them but often surprise you in the result."

"If you want to do evil, science provides the most powerful weapons to do evil; but equally, if you want to do good, science puts into your hands the most powerful tools to do so. The trick is to want the right things, then science will provide you with the most effective methods of achieving them."

"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."

"If you want to understand life, don't think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology."

"If, on the other hand, there are no traces of God's involvement in the universe; if God did indeed set things up so that life would evolve, but covered His tracks so brilliantly that no clues remain; if He made the universe look exactly as it would be expected to look if He did not exist, then what we have is not an argument from design at all. There can be no argument from design if the universe is expertly designed to look undesigned. All we are left with, in this case, is the feeble, though strictly valid, argument that just because we can't find any evidence for a God, this doesn't prove that there isn't one. Of course we can't prove that there isn't a God but, as has been said sufficiently often before, exactly the same can be said of fairies and Father Christmas."

"If you're an atheist, you know, you believe, this is the only life you're going to get. It's a precious life. It's a beautiful life. It"

"I'm not a very good politician, and it doesn't really occur to me to think about what's the best way to achieve something politically. If you look at the historical struggle for women's suffrage, for example...women who militantly campaigned for the right to vote were written off as strident extremists, and people accused them of alienating the very people whose support they should have been courting. But today, the idea of women not being allowed to vote is preposterous. Would you be moderate? Would you be respectful? You wouldn't."

"Imagine a crime series in which, every week, there is a white suspect and a black suspect. And every week, lo and behold, the black one turns out to have done it. Unpardonable, of course. And my point is that you could not defend it by saying: But it's only fiction, only entertainment."

"In childhood our credulity serves us well. It helps us to pack, with extraordinary rapidity, our skulls full of the wisdom of our parents and our ancestors. But if we don't grow out of it in the fullness of time, our ... nature makes us a sitting target for astrologers, mediums, gurus, evangelists, and quacks. We need to replace the automatic credulity of childhood with the constructive skepticism of adult science."

"In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference."

"In many religious cults around the world, ancestors are worshipped. And well they may be, for ancestors, not gods, hold the key to understanding why living things are the way that they are. Of all organisms born, the majority die before they come of age. Of the minority that become parents, an even smaller minority will have descendants alive 1,000 years hence."

"In true natural selection, if a body has what it takes to survive, its genes automatically survive because they are inside it. So the genes that survive tend to be, automatically, those genes that confer on bodies the qualities that assist them to survive."

"Individuals are not stable things, they are fleeting. Chromosomes too are shuffled to oblivion, like hands of cards soon after they are dealt. But the cards themselves survive the shuffling. The cards are the genes. The genes are not destroyed by crossing-over; they merely change partners and march on. Of course they march on. That is their business. They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose we are cast aside. But genes are denizens of geological time: genes are forever."

"In the excessive quantities that many of us enjoy it, sugar is a slow poison. So why do we overeat the stuff? Because through most of our ancestral history it was impossible to procure more than the small doses in which sugar is good for you. People who liked sugar became ancestors, and it is from ancestors that we get our genes. So we like sugar whenever we can get it - and suffer dental caries and diabetes."

"Instead, what we find is that natural selection exerts a braking effect on evolution... This isn't really paradoxical. When we think about it carefully, we see that it couldn't be otherwise. Evolution by natural selection could not be faster than the mutation rate, for mutation is, ultimately, the only way in which new variation enters the species. All that natural selection can do is accept certain new variations, and reject others. The mutation rate is bound to place an upper limit on the rate at which evolution can proceed. As a matter of fact, most of natural selection is concerned with preventing evolutionary change rather than with driving it. This doesn't mean, I hasten to insist, that natural selection is a purely destructive process."

"Individuals can be thought of as life-insurance underwriters. An individual can be expected to invest or risk a certain proportion of his own assets in the life of another individual. He takes into account his relatedness to the other individual, and also whether the individual is a 'good risk' in terms of his life expectancy compared with the insurer's own. Strictly we should say 'reproduction expectancy' rather than 'life expectancy', or to be even more strict, 'general capacity to benefit own genes in the future expectancy'."

"Individuals who have too many children are penalized, not because the whole population goes extinct, but simply because fewer of their children survive.... There is no need for altruistic restraint in the birth-rate, because there is no welfare state in nature. Any gene for overindulgence is promptly punished: the children containing that gene starve....Contraception is sometimes attacked as 'unnatural'. So it is, very unnatural. The trouble is, so is the welfare state. I think that most of us believe the welfare state is highly desirable. 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."

"Isn't Deepak Chopra just exploiting Quantum jargon as plausible-sounding hocus pocus?"

"It has become almost a clich"

"Isn't it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be part of it?"

"It is a very helpful insight to say we are vehicles for our DNA, we are hosts for DNA parasites which are our genes. Those are insights which help us to understand an aspect of life. But it's emotive to say, that's all there is to it, we might as well give up going to Shakespeare plays and give up listening to music and things, because that's got nothing to do with it. That's an entirely different subject."

"It is a telling fact that, the world over, the vast majority of children follow the religion of their parents rather than any of the other available religions. Not the religion that has the best evidence in its favor, the best miracles, the best moral code, the best cathedral, the best stained glass, the best music: when it comes to choosing from the smorgasbord of available religions, their potential virtues seem to count for nothing, compared to the matter of heredity."

"It is a simple logical truth that, short of mass emigration into space, with rockets taking off at the rate of several million per second, uncontrolled birth-rates are bound to lead to horribly increased death-rates. It is hard to believe that this simple truth is not understood by those leaders who forbid their followers to use effective contraceptive methods. They express a preference for 'natural' methods of population limitation, and a natural method is exactly what they are going to get. It is called starvation."

"It is almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism, and to find it hard to believe."

"It is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)."

"It is certainly wrong to condemn poor old Homo sapiens as the only species to kill his own kind, the only inheritor of the mark of Cain, and similar melodramatic charges."

"It is fashionable to wax apocalyptic about the threat to humanity posed by the AIDS virus, mad cow disease, and many others, but I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate."

"It is raining DNA outside. On the bank of the Oxford canal at the bottom of my garden is a large willow tree, and it is pumping downy seeds into the air. ... The whole performance, cotton wool, catkins, tree and all, is in aid of one thing and one thing only, the spreading of DNA around the countryside. Not just any DNA, but DNA whose coded characters spell out specific instructions for building willow trees that will shed a new generation of downy seeds. Those fluffy specks are, literally, spreading instructions for making themselves. They are there because their ancestors succeeded in doing the same. It is raining instructions out there; it's raining programs; it's raining tree-growing, fluff-spreading, algorithms. That is not a metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn't be any plainer if it were raining floppy discs."

"It is simply true that the Sun is hotter than Earth, true that the desk on which I am writing is made of wood. These are not hypotheses awaiting falsification; not temporary approximations to an ever-elusive truth; not local truths that might be denied in another culture. They are just plain true."

"It is an article of passionate faith among "politically correct" biologists and anthropologists that brain size has no connection with intelligence; that intelligence has nothing to do with genes; and that genes are probably nasty fascist things anyway."

"It is interesting to wonder whether taxonomists of the future may regret the way our generation messed around with genomes."

"It is an essential part of the scientific enterprise to admit ignorance, even to exult in ignorance as a challenge to future conquests."

"It is grindingly, creakingly, crashingly obvious that, if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it couldn't work. You don't need to be a mathematician or physicist to calculate that an eye or a haemoglobin molecule would take from here to infinity to self-assemble by sheer higgledy-piggledy luck. Far from being a difficulty peculiar to Darwinism, the astronomic probability of eyes and knees, enzymes and elbow joints and the other living wonders is precisely the problem that any theory of life must solve, and that Darwinism uniquely does solve. It solves it by breaking the improbability up into small, manageable parts, smearing out the luck needed, going round the back of Mount Improbable and crawling up the gentle slopes, inch by million-year inch."

"It is often said, mainly by the no-contests that although there is no positive evidence for the existence of God, nor is there evidence against his existence. So it is best to keep an open mind and be agnostic. At first sight that seems an unassailable position, at least in the weak sense of Pascal's wager. But on second thoughts it seems a cop-out, because the same could be said of Father Christmas and tooth fairies. There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can't prove that there aren't any, so shouldn't we be agnostic with respect to fairies?"

"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!"

"It is often pointed out that chemists have failed in their attempts to duplicate the spontaneous origin of life in the laboratory. This fact is used as if it constituted evidence against the theories that those chemists are trying to test. But actually one can argue that we should be worried if it turned out to be very easy for chemists to obtain life spontaneously in the test-tube. This is because chemists' experiments last for years not thousands of millions of years, and because only a handful of chemists, not thousands of millions of chemists, are engaged in doing these experiments. If the spontaneous origin of life turned out to be a probable enough event to have occurred during the few man-decades in which chemists have done their experiments, then life should have arisen many times on Earth, and many times on planets within radio range of Earth."

"It is overwhelmingly probable that you are dead. In spite of these odds, you will notice that you are, as a matter of fact, alive."

"It would be deeply depressing if the only way children could get moral values was from religion. Either from scripture, and God knows we don't want them to get it from scripture, I mean, just look at scripture. Or, from being afraid of God, being intimidated by God. Anybody who is good for only those two reasons is not really being good at all. Why not teach children things like the Golden Rule, do as you would be done by, how would you like it if other children did that to you, so why do you do it to them... I think it's depressing that anybody should suggest that you actually need God in order to be moral. I would hope that our morals come from a better source than that, and therefore they are genuinely moral rather than based on outmoded scripture, or based on fear."

"It really comes down to parsimony, economy of explanation. It is possible that your car engine is driven by psychokinetic energy, but if it looks like a petrol engine, smells like a petrol engine and performs exactly as well as a petrol engine, the sensible working hypothesis is that it is a petrol engine. Telepathy and possession by the spirits of the dead are not ruled out as a matter of principle. There is certainly nothing impossible about abduction by aliens in UFOs. One day it may be happen. But on grounds of probability it should be kept as an explanation of last resort. It is unparsimonious, demanding more than routinely weak evidence before we should believe it. If you hear hooves clip-clopping down a London street, it could be a zebra or even a unicorn, but, before we assume that it's anything other than a horse, we should demand a certain minimal standard of evidence."

"It seems that it would take less than half a million years to evolve a good camera eye... It's no wonder the eye has evolved at least 40 times independently around the animal kingdom... It is a geological blink."

"It may be that brain hardware has co-evolved with the internal virtual worlds that it creates. This can be called hardware-software co-evolution."

"It's obvious that in an intelligent educated audience such as this university, I stress this university. Who saw fit to give them accreditation?"

"It's often said that people 'need' something more in their lives than just the material world. There is a gap that must be filled. People need to feel a sense of purpose. Well, not a bad purpose would be to find out what is already here, in the material world, before concluding that you need something more. How much more do you want? Just study what is, and you'll find that it already is far more uplifting than anything you could imagine needing."

"It isn't true that Darwin believed that evolution proceeded at a constant rate. He certainly didn't believe it in the ludicrously extreme that I satirized [in a parable that since it took the Israelistes 40 years to get to Palestine, they were only doing 24 yards a day]... and I don't think he really believed it in any important sense."

"It seems to follow that there is no general reason to expect evolution to be progressive--even in the weak, value-neutral sense. There will be times when increased size of some organ is favored and other times when decreased size is favored. Most of the time, average-sized individuals will be favored in the population and both extremes will be penalized."

"It would be intolerant if I advocated the banning of religion, but of course I never have. I merely give robust expression to views about the cosmos and morality with which you happen to disagree. You interpret that as "

"It's been suggested that if the super-naturalists really had the powers they claim, they'd win the lottery every week. I prefer to point out that they could also win a Nobel Prize for discovering fundamental physical forces hitherto unknown to science. Either way, why are they wasting their talents doing party turns on television?"

"I've a very big fan of intelligent design for man-made things... I'm not a fan of intelligent design for natural things."