Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Richard Dawkins

English Evolutionary Biologist, Ethologist and Author

"There are barriers that we have set up in our minds and certainly the barrier between Homo sapiens and any other species is an artificial barrier in the sense that it"

"There are many scientific theories that are in doubt. Even within evolution, there is some room for controversy. But that we are cousins of apes and jackals and starfish, let's say, that is a fact in the ordinary sense of the word."

"There are two things wrong with the argument put by Raven. First, there is the familiar, and I have to say rather irritating, confusion of natural selection with 'randomness'. Mutation is random; natural selection is the very opposite of random. Second, it just isn't true that 'each by itself is useless'. It isn't true that the whole perfect work must have been achieved simultaneously. It isn't true that each part is essential for the success of the whole."

"There is a popular clich"

"There is no particular reason to think that the human brain will go on swelling. In order for this to happen, large-brained individuals have to have more children than small-brained individuals. It isn't obvious that this is now happening. It must have happened during our ancestral past, otherwise our brains would not have grown as they did. It also must have been true, incidentally, that braininess in our ancestors was under genetic control. If it has not been, natural selection would have had nothing to work on, and the evolutionary growth of the brain would not have occured. For some reason, many people take grave political offence at the suggestion that some individuals are genetically cleverer than others."

"There is no such thing as a Christian child: only a child of Christian parents."

"There is no spirit-driven life force, no throbbing, heaving, pullulating, protoplasmic, mystic jelly. Life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information."

"There is no general reason to expect evolution to be progressive "

"There is something dishonestly self-serving in the tactic of claiming that all religious beliefs are outside the domain of science. On the one hand, miracle stories and the promise of life after death are used to impress simple people, win converts, and swell congregations. It is precisely their scientific power that gives these stories their popular appeal. But at the same time it is considered below the belt to subject the same stories to the ordinary rigors of scientific criticism: these are religious matters and therefore outside the domain of science. But you cannot have it both ways. At least, religious theorists and apologists should not be allowed to get away with having it both ways. Unfortunately all too many of us, including nonreligious people, are unaccountably ready to let them."

"There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point"

"There is a sophisticated form of religion which, well one form of it is Einstein"

"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?"

"There's only any point in believing something if it's not true. And it's not just faith itself: it's the idea that faith is a virtue and the less evidence there is, the more virtuous it is. Things for which there is mere evidence are just too easy, and it's no test of faith. In order to have a test of your faith, you must be asked to believe really daft things like the transubstantiation, you know, the blood of Christ turning into wine, and stuff. That is so manifestly absurd that you've got to be a really great believer in order to believe it. You're actually showing off your believing credentials by the ability to believe something like that. If it were an easy thing to believe, substantiated by facts, then it wouldn't be any great achievement."

"There's real poetry in the real world. Science is the poetry of reality."

"They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines."

"Think about the two qualities that a virus, or any sort of parasitic replicator, demands of a friendly medium, the two qualities that make cellular machinery so friendly towards parasitic DNA, and that make computers so friendly towards computer viruses. These qualities are, firstly, a readiness to replicate information accurately, perhaps with some mistakes that are subsequently reproduced accurately; and, secondly, a readiness to obey instructions encoded in the information so replicated."

"There's this thing called being so open-minded your brains drop out."

"There's money in hope."

"There's nothing nonsensical about saying that what would evolve if Darwinian selection has its head is something that you don't want to happen. And I could easily imagine trying to go against Darwinism."

"This book is written in the conviction that our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but that it is a mystery no longer because it is solved. Darwin and Wallace solved it, though we Shall continue to add footnotes to their solution for a while yet, I wrote the book because I was surprised that so many people seemed not only unaware of the elegant and beautiful solution to this deepest of problems but, incredibly, in many cases actually unaware that there was a problem in the first place!"

"Think of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all you really were there at the time, weren"

"This is an unmistakable fact; nobody could seriously deny it. Yet people with full knowledge of the arbitrary nature of this heredity, somehow manage to go on believing in their religion, often with such fanaticism that they are prepared to murder people who follow a different one."

"This interpretation of animal aggression as being restrained and formal can be disputed. In particular, 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."

"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 "

"This is where they come into their own, for there's money in hope: the more desperate the hope, the richer the pickings."

"Thus the creationist's favorite question "What is the use of half an eye?" Actually, this is a lightweight question, a doddle to answer. Half an eye is just 1 per cent better than 49 per cent of an eye, which is already better than 48 per cent, and the difference is significant."

"Thousands of my ancestors' contemporaries failed in all these respects, but not a single, solitary one of my ancestors failed."

"To be fair, much of the Bible is not systematically evil but just plain weird, as you would expect of a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and "

"To an honest judge, the alleged convergence between religion and science is a shallow, empty, hollow, spin-doctored sham."

"To a survival machine, another survival machine (which is not its own child or another close relative) is part of its environment, like a rock or a river or a lump of food. It is something that gets in the way, or something that can be exploited. It differs from a rock or a river in one important respect: it is inclined to hit back. This is because it too is a machine that holds its immortal genes in trust for the future, and it too will stop at nothing to preserve them. Natural selection favors genes that control their survival machines in such a way that they make the best use of their environment. This includes making the best use of other survival machines, both of the same and of different species."

"To describe religions as mind viruses is sometimes interpreted as contemptuous or even hostile. It is both. I am often asked why I am so hostile to organized religion."

"To fill a world with ... religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used."

"To save the life of a relative who is soon going to die of old age has less of an impact on the gene pool of the future than to save the life of an equally close relative who has the bulk of his life ahead of him."

"Truths about the cosmos are true all around the universe. They don't differ in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Poland, or Norway. Yet, we are apparently prepared to accept that the religion we adopt is a matter of an accident of geography."

"To label people as death-deserving enemies because of disagreements about real world politics is bad enough. To do the same for disagreements about a delusional world inhabited by archangels, demons, and imaginary friends is ludicrously tragic."

"We animals are the most complicated things in the known universe. Complicated things, everywhere, deserve a very special kind of explanation. We want to know how they came into existence and why they are so complicated."

"Today the theory of evolution is about as much open to doubt as the theory that the earth goes round the sun."

"To show how real astronomical wonder can be presented to children, I'll borrow from a book called "

"We are closing in on a definitive answer to all questions of this kind. 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."

"We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further."

"We admit that we are like apes, but we seldom realize that we are apes. Our common ancestor with the chimpanzees and gorillas is much more recent than their common ancestor with the Asian apes--the gibbons and orangutans. There is no natural category that includes chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans but excludes humans."

"Was there to be any end to the gradual improvement in the techniques and artifices used by the replicators to ensure their own continuation in the world? There would be plenty of time for their improvement. What weird engines of self-preservation would the millennia bring forth? Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators? They did not die out, for they are the past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up that cavalier freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rational for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines."

"We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?"

"We are lucky to have fossils at all. It is a remarkably fortunate fact of geology that bones, shells and other hard parts of animals, before they decay, can occasionally leave an imprint which later acts as a mold, which shapes hardening rock into a permanent memory of the animal. We don't know what proportion of animals are fossilized after their death but it is certainly very small indeed. Nevertheless, however small the proportion fossilized, there are certain things about the fossil record that any evolutionist should expect to be true. We should be very surprised, for example, to find fossil humans appearing in the record before mammals are supposed to have evolved! If a single, well-verified mammal skull were to turn up in 500 million year-old rocks, our whole modern theory of evolution would be utterly destroyed. Incidentally, this is a sufficient answer to the canard, put about by creationists and their journalistic fellow travellers, that the whole theory of evolution is an 'unfalsifiable' tautology."

"We are survival machines "

"We are trying to understand how we have got a complicated world, and we have an explanation in terms of a slightly simpler world, and we explain that in terms of a slightly simpler world and it all hangs together down to an ultimately simple world."

"We concluded that the behavior of a complicated thing should be explained in terms of interactions between its component parts, considered as successive layers of an orderly hierarchy"

"We humans are an extremely important manifestation of the replication bomb, because it is through us "

"We have seen that living things are too improbable and too beautifully 'designed' to have come into existence by chance. How, then, did they come into existence? The answer, Darwin's answer, is by gradual, step- by-step transformations from simple beginnings, from primordial entities sufficiently simple to have come into existence by chance. Each successive change in the gradual evolutionary process was simple enough, relative to its predecessor, to have arisen by chance. But the whole sequence of cumulative steps constitutes anything but a chance process, when you consider the complexity of the final end-product relative to the original starting point. The cumulative process is directed by nonrandom survival. The purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate the power of this cumulative selection as a fundamentally nonrandom process."

"We lust, because our ancestors' lust helped pass their lustful genes on to us. Here, as it happens, Darwinism agrees with commonsense: the convention works. But sometimes the convention breaks down. If we are on the Pill, or know that our sexual partner is, it doesn't diminish our desire. We still inherit the ancient rule of thumb, now out of date. As Steven Pinker says, in his splendid book How the Mind Works, Had the Pleistocene contained trees bearing birth-control pills, we might have evolved to find them as terrifying as a venomous spider."