Dawkins, who will read from his book Saturday at the Wordstock Festival recently spoke with The Oregonian.
Do you expect creationists to be convinced by your book, or are you just preaching to the choir?
Dawkins: It's not a bad thing to preach to the choir. The choir can enjoy reading about the wonders of nature and science and the evidence for evolution. They may be "the choir" in the sense that they don't dispute evolution, but I'd rather not use a word like "choir," which implies that we're jumping into a controversy. There is no controversy in science. It's true that there's a political controversy, especially in the United States, and it'd be nice to be able to influence that. But I wouldn't expect that young-Earth creationists would read my book. I'm not really after converting them. I think there's a great number of people who are genuinely interested but perhaps don't know very much about evolution, some who even vaguely think of themselves as creationists because they haven't thought about it very much.
What do people most often get wrong when they try to understand evolution?
Dawkins: It's the idea that it is a theory of random chance. That single misunderstanding alone accounts for just about everything you will read on so-called arguments against evolution, things like, "I can't believe that something as complicated as an eye could come about by chance." Well of course it couldn't come about by chance! How could it be possible to be so stupid as to think that anybody could ever suggest that it comes about by chance? Natural selection is the very opposite of chance -- that's the whole point! Oh, I probably have to adopt a less impatient, irritated and preemptory tone.
The so-called intelligent design critique argues that some biological machines are too complex to evolve without help from above. Your book counters with several examples of "unintelligent design." Any favorites?
Dawkins: The recurrent laryngeal nerve is a remarkable piece of unintelligent design. The nerve starts in the head, with the brain, and the end organ is the larynx, the voice box. But instead of going straight there it goes looping past the voice box. In the case of the giraffe, it goes down the full length of the giraffe's neck, loops down one of the main arteries in the chest and then comes straight back up again to the voice box, having gone within a couple of inches of the voice box on its way down. No intelligent designer would ever have done that.
To illustrate the plight of biology teachers, you invite readers to imagine being a Latin teacher beset "by a baying pack of ignoramuses" who tirelessly work to persuade students that the Romans never existed, a funny analogy. But then you compare creationists to Holocaust deniers. That's a risky strategy.
Dawkins: The analogy to me is simply that both are deniers of history. There is something really horrible about Holocaust denial. You know that it is motivated by anti-Semitism. Needless to say, I have absolutely no wish to make that sort of comparison with evolution deniers. The comparison is limited to the fact that both deny manifest facts of history.
What is the harm of creationists? Or as a creationist quoted in your book kept asking, "Why is it so important to you that everyone believes in evolution?"
Dawkins: It is important to me that when there is a beautiful truth about the world I feel a sense of mission to communicate that truth to people because it is so beautiful. Carl Sagan said: "When you are in love, you want to tell the world." He loved science. For me, the story of how we got here, how the trees got here, how the birds got here, how iguanas and dinosaurs and turtles got here, it is just so beautiful, and elegant, and thrilling, and enthralling. How could you resist trying to pass that on to anybody who will listen? If they don't want to listen that's fine, they can just shove off.
The Wordstock event with Dawkins requires a separate $22 ticket. He takes the stage at 3 p.m. Saturday.