Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Richard Dawkins

English Evolutionary Biologist, Ethologist and Author

"Over the centuries, we've moved on from Scripture to accumulate precepts of ethical, legal and moral philosophy. We've evolved a liberal consensus of what we regard as underpinnings of decent society, such as the idea that we don't approve of slavery or discrimination on the grounds of race or sex, that we respect free speech and the rights of the individual. All of these things that have become second nature to our morals today owe very little to religion, and mostly have been won in opposition to the teeth of religion."

"Our mountaineers are too ambitious. So intent are they on the perpendicular drama of the cliffs, they do not think to look round the other side of the mountain. There they would find not vertical cliffs and echoing canyons but gently inclined grassy meadows, graded steadily and easily towards the distant uplands. Occasionally the gradual ascent is punctuated by a small, rocky crag, but you can usually find a detour that is not too steep for a fit hill-walker in stout shoes and with time to spare. The sheer height of the peak doesn't matter, so long as you don't try to scale it in a single bound. Locate the mildly sloping path and, if you have unlimited time, the ascent is only as formidable as the next step. The story of Mount Improbable is, of course, a parable. We shall explore its meaning in this and the next chapters."

"Our leaders have described the recent atrocity with the customary clich"

"Paranormal phenomena have a habit of going away whenever they are tested under rigorous conditions. This is why the "

"Our DNA lives inside our bodies, It is not concentrated in a particular part of the body, but is distributed among the cells. There are about a thousand million million cells making up an average human body, and, with some exceptions which we can ignore, every one of those cells contains a complete copy of that body's DNA."

"Pantheism is sexed-up atheism. Deism is watered-down theism."

"Passion for passion, an evangelical Christian and I may be evenly matched. But we are not equally fundamentalist. The true scientist, however passionately he may 'believe', in evolution for example, knows exactly what would change his mind: evidence! The fundamentalist knows that nothing will."

"Personally, I rather look forward to a computer program winning the world chess championship. Humanity needs a lesson in humility."

"People sometimes try to score debating points by saying, Evolution is only a theory. That is correct, but it's important to understand what that means. It is also only a theory that the world goes round the Sun -- it's just a theory for which there is an immense amount of evidence."

"Perhaps the best of the available euphemisms for atheist is nontheist. It lacks the connotation of positive conviction that there is definitely no god, and it could therefore easily be embraced by Teapot or Tooth Fairy Agnostics. It is less familiar than atheist and lacks its phobic connotations. Yet, unlike a completely new coining, its meaning is clear. If we want a euphemism at all, nontheist is probably the best."

"Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, distinctly heard the voice of Jesus telling him to kill women, and he was locked up for life. George W. Bush says that god told him to invade Iraq (a pity God didn"

"Religion ... has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, 'Here is an idea or a notion that you're not allowed to say anything bad about; you're just not. Why not? - because you're not!' If somebody votes for a party that you don't agree with, you're free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If someone thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it. But on the other hand is somebody says 'I mustn't move a light switch on a Saturday', you say, 'I respect that'."

"Presumably there is indeed no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, but do any of us really tie our life's hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway?"

"Religion is the most inflammatory enemy-labeling device in history."

"Religion is about turning untested belief into unshakable truth through the power of institutions and the passage of time."

"Reason has built the modern world. It is a precious but also a fragile thing, which can be corroded by apparently harmless irrationality. We must favor verifiable evidence over private feeling. Otherwise we leave ourselves vulnerable to those who would obscure the truth."

"Religious people split into three main groups when faced with science. I shall label them the know-nothings, the know-alls, and the no-contests"

"Science boosts its claim to truth by its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and to predict what will happen and when."

"Religion teaches the dangerous nonsense that death is not the end."

"Science offers us an explanation of how complexity (the difficult) arose out of simplicity (the easy). The hypothesis of God offers no worthwhile explanation for anything, for it simply postulates what we are trying to explain. It postulates the difficult to explain, and leaves it at that. We cannot prove that there is no God, but we can safely conclude the He is very, very improbable indeed."

"Religions do make claims about the universe--the same kinds of claims that scientists make, except they're usually false."

"Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings."

"Scientific and technological progress themselves are value-neutral. They are just very good at doing what they do. If you want to do selfish, greedy, intolerant and violent things, scientific technology will provide you with by far the most efficient way of doing so. But if you want to do good, to solve the world's problems, to progress in the best value-laden sense, once again, there is no better means to those ends than the scientific way."

"Scientific truth is too beautiful to be sacrificed for the sake of light entertainment or money. Astrology is an aesthetic affront. It cheapens astronomy, like using Beethoven for commercial jingles."

"Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not."

"Sex brought into existence the gene pool, made meaningful the species, and changed the whole ball game of evolution itself."

"Scientists are sometimes suspected of arrogance. Carl Sagan commends to us by contrast the humility of the Roman Catholic Church which, as early as 1992, was ready to grant a pardon to Galileo and admit publicly that the Earth does indeed revolve around the Sun. We must hope that this outspoken magnanimity will not cause any offence or hurt to the supreme religious authority of Saudi Arabia, Sheik Abdel-Aziz Ibn Baaz who, according to Sagan, in 1993 issued an edict, or fatwa, declaring that the world is flat. Anyone of the round persuasion does not believe in God and should be punished. Arrogance? Scientists are amateurs in arrogance."

"Self-styled pro-lifers, and others that indulge in footling debates about exactly when in its development a fetus becomes human, exhibit the same discontinuous mentality. Human, to the discontinuous mind, is an absolutist concept. There can be no half measures. And from this flows much evil."

"So it is not really the gradualism of Darwin that the punctuationists oppose: gradualism means that each generation is only slightly different from the previous generation; you would have to be a saltationist to oppose that, and Eldredge and Gould are not saltationists. Rather, it turns out to be Darwin's alleged belief in the constancy of rates of evolution that they and other punctuationists object to... it is all too easy to confuse gradualism (the belief, held by modern punctuationists as well as Darwin, that there are no sudden leaps between one generation and the next) with 'constant evolutionary speedism' (opposed by punctuationists and allegedly, though not actually, held by Darwin). They are not the same thing at all."

"So to the book's provocation, the statement that nearly half the people in the United States don't believe in evolution. Not just any people but powerful people, people who should know better, people with too much influence over educational policy. We are not talking about Darwin's particular theory of natural selection. It is still (just) possible for a biologist to doubt its importance, and a few claim to. No, we are here talking about the fact of evolution itself, a fact that is proved utterly beyond reasonable doubt. To claim equal time for creation science in biology classes is about as sensible as to claim equal time for the flat-earth theory in astronomy classes. Or, as someone has pointed out, you might as well claim equal time in sex education classes for the stork theory. 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)."

"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?"

"So whereabouts in my body might there be a black hole?"

"Society bends over backward to be accommodating to religious sensibilities but not to other kinds of sensibilities. If I say something offensive to religious people, I'll be universally censured, including by many atheists. But if I say something insulting about Democrats or Republicans or the Green Party, one is allowed to get away with that. Hiding behind the smoke screen of untouchability is something religions have been allowed to get away with for too long."

"Some memes, like genes, achieve brilliant short term success in spreading rapidly, but do not last in the meme pool. Popular songs and stilletto heels are examples. Others such as the Jewish religious laws, may continue to propogate themselves for thousands of years, usually because of the great potential permanence of written records."

"Sometimes in life it is a good idea to stop, sometimes it is a good idea to go on. The trick is to decide when to stop."

"So we have arrived at the following paradox. If a theory of the origin of life is sufficiently 'plausible' to satisfy our subjective judgment of plausibility, it is then too 'plausible' to account for the paucity of life in the universe as we observe it. According to this argument, the theory we are looking for has got to be the kind of theory that seems implausible to our limited, Earth-bound, decade-bound imaginations. Seen in this light, both Cairns-Smith's theory and the primeval-soup theory seem if anything in danger of erring on the side of being too plausible! Having said all this I must confess that, because there is so much uncertainty in the calculations, if a chemist did succeed in creating spontaneous life I would not actually be disconcerted!"

"Sometimes people have a strong inside feeling that somebody loves them when it is not based upon any evidence, and then they are likely to be completely wrong."

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. The adage is true as long as you don't really believe the words. But if your whole upbringing, and everything you have ever been told by parents, teachers and priests, has led you to believe, really believe, utterly and completely, that sinners burn in hell (or some other obnoxious article of doctrine such as that a woman is the property of her husband), it is entirely plausible that words could have a more long-lasting and damaging effect than deeds."

"Sometimes the history of gradual, intermediate stages is clearly written into the shape of modern animals, even taking the form of outright imperfections in the final design. Stephen Jay Gould, in his excellent essay on The Panda's Thumb, has made the point that evolution can be more strongly supported by evidence of telling imperfections than by evidence of perfection."

"Ten years ago, you could have traveled thousands of miles through the United States and never seen a baseball cap turned back to front. Today, the reverse baseball cap is ubiquitous. I do not know what the pattern of geographical spread of the reverse baseball cap precisely was, but epidemiology is certainly among the professions primarily qualified to study it."

"That there is a continuous link from humans to gorillas, with the intermediate species merely long dead, is beyond the understanding of speciesists. Tie the label Homo sapiens even to a tiny piece of insensible embryonic tissue, and its life suddenly leaps to infinite, incomputable value...."

"Survival machines began as passive receptacles for the genes, providing little more than walls to Protect them from the chemical warfare of their rivals and the ravages of accidental molecular bombardment. In the early days they 'fed' on organic molecules freely available in the soup. This easy life came to an end when the organic food in the soup, which had been slowly built up under the energetic influence of centuries of sunlight, was all used up, A major branch of survival machines, now called plants, started to use sunlight directly themselves to build up complex molecules from simple ones, re-enacting at much higher speed the synthetic processes of the original soup."

"The alternative which I favor is to renounce all euphemisms and grasp the nettle of the word atheism itself, precisely because it is a taboo word carrying frissons of hysterical phobia. Critical mass may be harder to achieve than with some non-confrontational euphemism, but if we did achieve it with the dread word atheist, the political impact would be all the greater."

"The analogy between telescope and eye, between watch and living organism, is false. All appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics, albeit deployed in a very special way. A true watchmaker has foresight: he designs his cogs and springs, and plans their interconnections, with a future purpose in his mind's eye. Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind's eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker."

"The belief that if adaptations are to be treated as 'for the good of something', that something is the gene was the fundamental assumption of my previous book, 'The Selfish Gene'. The present book goes further. To dramatize it a bit, it attempts to free the selfish gene from the individual organism which has been its conceptual prison. The phenotypic effects of a gene are the tools by which it levers itself into the next generation, and these tools may 'extend' far outside the body in which the gene site, even reaching deep into the nervous system of other organisms."

"The chicken is only an egg"

"The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes"

"The Darwinian explanation for why living things are so good at doing what they do is very simple. They are good because of the accumulated wisdom of their ancestors. But it is not wisdom that they have learned or acquired. It is the wisdom that they chanced upon by lucky random mutations, wisdom that was then selectively, non-randomly, recorded in the genetic database of the species."

"The consequences of. It is rather like a detective coming on a murder after the scene. And you"

"The definition that I want comes from G. C. Williams. A gene is defined as any portion of chromosomal material that potentially last for enough generations to serve as a unit of natural selection."