Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Richard Dawkins

English Evolutionary Biologist, Ethologist and Author

"Just as our eyes can see only that narrow band of electromagnetic frequencies that natural selection equipped our ancestors to see, so our brains are built to cope with narrow bands of sizes and times."

"Leaders who forbid their followers to use effective contraceptive methods... 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."

"Justifying space exploration because we get non-stick frying pans is like justifying music because it is good exercise for the violinists right arm."

"Just because science so far has failed to explain something, such as consciousness, to say it follows that the facile, pathetic explanations which religion has produced somehow by default must win the argument is really quite ridiculous."

"Let children learn about different faiths, let them notice their incompatibility, and let them draw their own conclusions about the consequences of that incompatibility. As for whether they are 'valid,' let them make up their own minds when they are old enough to do so."

"Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do."

"Life results from the non-random survival of randomly varying replicators. [An attempt to explain the universe in one line]"

"Life, anywhere it is found in the universe, will be a product of Darwinian natural selection."

"Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do."

"Like computer viruses, successful mind viruses will tend to be hard for their victims to detect. If you are the victim of one, the chances are that you won't know it, and may even vigorously deny it. Accepting that a virus might be difficult to detect in your own mind, what tell-tale signs might you look out for? I shall answer by imaging how a medical textbook might describe the typical symptoms of a sufferer (arbitrarily assumed to be male)."

"Living organisms are beautifully built to survive and reproduce in their environments. Or that is what Darwinians say. But actually it isn"

"Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let's now stop being so damned respectful!"

"Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin."

"Living organisms are supremely improbable. They look as if they have been designed. They are very, very complicated. They are very good at doing whatever it is they do, whether it's flying or digging or swimming. This is not the kind of thing that matter just spontaneously does. It doesn't fall into position where it's good at doing anything. So the fact that living things are demands an explanation, the fact that it's improbable demands an explanation."

"Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that."

"Maybe somewhere in some other galaxy there is a super-intelligence so colossal that from our point of view it would be a god. But it cannot have been the sort of God that we need to explain the origin of the universe, because it cannot have been there that early."

"Molecular evidence suggests that our common ancestor with chimpanzees lived, in Africa, between five and seven million years ago, say half a million generations ago. This is not long by evolutionary standards ... in your left hand you hold the right hand of your mother. In turn she holds the hand of her mother, your grandmother. Your grandmother holds her mother's hand, and so on ... How far do we have to go until we reach our common ancestor with the chimpanzees? It is a surprisingly short way. Allowing one yard per person, we arrive at the ancestor we share with chimpanzees in under 300 miles."

"Moralists and theologians place great weight upon the moment of conception, seeing it as the instant at which the soul comes into existence. If, like me, you are unmoved by such talk, you must still regard a particular instant, nine months before your birth, as the most decisive event in your personal fortunes. It is the moment at which your consciousness suddenly becomes trillions of times more forseeable than it was a split second before."

"More generally it is completely unrealistic to claim, as Gould and many others do, that religion keeps itself away from science's turf, restricting itself to morals and values. A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. The difference is, inescapably, a scientific difference. Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims."

"Most of what we strive for in our modern life uses the apparatus of goal seeking that was originally set up to seek goals in the state of nature."

"Most people, I believe, think that you need a God to explain the existence of the world, and especially the existence of life. They are wrong, but our education system is such that many people don't know it."

"Mount Improbable is a metaphorical mountain. The height of that mountain stands for that very improbability. So on the top of the mountain, you can imagine perched the most complicated organ you can think of. It might be the human eye. And one side of the mountain has a steep cliff, a steep vertical precipice. And you stand at the foot of the mountain and you gaze up at this complicated thing at the heights, and you say, that couldn't have come about by chance, that's too improbable. And that's what is the meaning of the vertical slope. You could no more get that by sheer chance than you could leap from the bottom of the cliff to the top of the cliff in one fell swoop. But if you go around the other side of the mountain, you find that there's not a steep cliff at all. There's a slow, gentle gradient, a slow, gentle slope, and getting from the bottom of the mountain to the top is an easy walk. You just saunter up it putting one step in front of the other, one foot in front of the other."

"Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts which simply do not make evolutionary sense."

"My last vestige of hands off religion respect disappeared in the smoke and choking dust of September 11th 2001, followed by the National Day of Prayer, when prelates and pastors did their tremulous Martin Luther King impersonations and urged people of mutually incompatible faiths to hold hands, united in homage to the very force that caused the problem in the first place."

"My main reason for scepticism about the Huxley/Sagan theory is that the human brain is demonstrably eager to see faces in random patterns, as we know from scientific evidence, on top of the numerous legends about faces of Jesus, or the Virgin Mary, or Mother Teresa, being seen on slices of toast, or pizzas, or patches of damp on a wall. This eagerness is enhanced if the pattern departs from randomness in the specific direction of being symmetrical."

"Most thoughtful people would agree that morality in the absence of policing is somehow more truly moral than the kind of false morality that vanishes as soon as the police go on strike or the spy camera is switched off, whether the spy camera is a real one monitored in the police station or an imaginary one in heaven."

"My point is not that religion itself is the motivation for wars, murders and terrorist attacks, but that religion is the principal label, and the most dangerous one, by which a 'they' as opposed to a 'we' can be identified at all."

"Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival: the analogue of steering by the moon for a moth. But the flip side of trusting obedience is slavish gullibility. The inevitable by-product is vulnerability to infection by mind viruses."

"Nature is not cruel, pitiless, indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous -- indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose."

"Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view. Yet the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with the appearance of design as if by a master watchmaker, impress us with the illusion of design and planning. The purpose of this book is to resolve this paradox to the satisfaction of the reader, and the purpose of this chapter is further to impress the reader with the power of the illusion of design. We shall look at a particular example and shall conclude that, when it comes to complexity and beauty of design, Paley hardly even began to state the case."

"Not a single one of my ancestors was too unattractive to find at least one copulation partner, or too selfish a parent to nurture at least one child through to adulthood."

"Not a single one of your ancestors died young. They all copulated at least once."

"Never say, and never take seriously anyone who says, "I cannot believe that so-and-so could have evolved by gradual selection". I have dubbed this kind of fallacy "the Argument from Personal Incredulity". Time and again, it has proven the prelude to an intellectual banana-skin experience."

"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."

"Nowadays theologians aren't quite so straightforward as Paley. They don't point to complex living mechanisms and say that they are self-evidently designed by a creator, just like a watch. But there is a tendency to point to them and say 'It is impossible to believe' that such complexity, or such perfection, could have evolved by natural selection. Whenever I read such a remark, I always feel like writing 'Speak for yourself' in the margin."

"Now look at it from the point of view of a particular child. He is just as closely related to each of his brothers and sisters as his mother is to them. The relatedness is 1/2 in all cases. Therefore he 'wants' his mother to invest some of her resources in his brothers and sisters. Genetically speaking, he is just as altruistically disposed to them as his mother is. But again, he is twice as closely related to himself as he is to any brother or sister, and this will dispose him to want his mother to invest in him more than in any particular brother or sister, other things being equal... Selfish greed seems to characterize much of child behavior"

"Oh, but of course the story of Adam and Eve was only ever symbolic, wasn't it? Symbolic?! So Jesus had himself tortured and executed for a symbolic sin by a non-existent individual? Nobody not brought up in the faith could reach any verdict other than barking mad."

"Now, God is not an explanation of that kind. God himself cannot be simple if he has power to do all the things he is supposed to do."

"Of course in many species the father does work hard and faithfully at looking after the young. But even so, we must expect that there will normally be some evolutionary pressure on males to invest a little bit less in each child, and to try to have more children by different wives."

"Of course politics are important "

"On the Argument from Degree: That's an argument? You might as well say, people vary in smelliness but we can make the comparison only by reference to a perfect maximum of conceivable smelliness. Therefore there must exist a pre-eminently peerless stinker, and we call him God. Or substitute any dimension of comparison you like, and derive an equivalently fatuous conclusion."

"On the properties of God: Such a bandwidth! God, who may not have a brain made of neurons, or a CPU made of silicon, but if he has the powers attributed to him he must have something far more elaborately and non-randomly constructed than the largest brain or the largest computer we know."

"Once again, modern theologians will protest that the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac should not be taken as literal fact. And, once again, the appropriate response is twofold. First, many many people, even to this day, do take the whole of their scripture to be literal fact, and they have a great deal of political power over the rest of us, especially in the United States and in the Islamic world. Second, if not as literal fact, how should we take the story? As an allegory? Then an allegory for what? Surely morals could one derive from this appalling story? Remember, all I am trying to establish for the moment is that we do not, as a matter of fact, derive our morals from scripture. Or, if we do, we pick and choose among the scriptures for the nice bits and reject the nasty. But then we must have some independent criterion for deciding which are the moral bits: a criterion which, wherever it comes from, cannot come from scripture itself and is presumably available to all of us whether we are religious or not."

"One of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding."

"One of the things that is wrong with religion is that it teaches us to be satisfied with answers which are not really answers at all."

"One sometimes hears it said that kin selection is all very well as a theory, but there are few examples of its working in practice. This criticism can only be made by someone who does not understand what kin selection means. The truth is that all examples of child protection and parental care, and all associated bodily organs, milk secreting glands, kangaroo pouches, and so on, are examples of the working in nature of the kin-selection principle. The critics are of course familiar with the widespread existence of parental care, but they fail to understand that parental care is no less an example of kin selection than brother/sister altruism."

"Only God would essay the mad task of leaping up the precipice in a single bound. And if we postulate him as our cosmic designer we are left in exactly the same position as when we started. Any Designer capable of constructing the dazzling array of living things would have to be intelligent and complicated beyond all imagining. And complicated is just another word for improbable - and therefore demanding of explanation..."

"Orgel's second rule is : 'Evolution is cleverer than you are.' Never say, and never take seriously anyone who says, 'I cannot believe that so-and-so could have evolved by gradual selection.' I have dubbed this kind of fallacy 'the Argument from Personal Incredulity.' Time and again, it has proven the prelude to an intellectual banana-skin experience."

"Our brains are separate and independent enough from our genes to rebel against them.. we do so in a small way every time we use contraception. There is no reason why we should not rebel in a large way too."

"One way in which we seem predisposed to disbelieve Darwinism is that our brains are built - ironically, by evolution itself - to deal with events on radically different timescales from those that characterize evolutionary change. We are equipped to appreciate processes that take seconds, minutes, years, or, at most, decades to complete. Darwinism is a theory of cumulative processes so slow that they take between thousands and millions of decades to complete. It requires effort of the imagination to escape from the prison of familiar timescale."