Richard Dawkins delivered this year's Open University lecture at the Natural History Museum on Tuesday 17th March 2009.
Dawkins’ presented to an invited audience at the Natural History Museum, and investigated if Darwin was the most revolutionary scientist ever, and examined the evolutionary theories of his contemporaries.
Below is an mp3 of the question and answer session that followed Dawkins lecture.
There’s something about Darwin which sets him apart which is his persistence on evidence and exploration, and you don’t mention that as a bridge, but he does seem to be quite different in his persistence, and for diversity of exploration, and reliance on evidence, and I wonder at least that that’s a road further travelled if not a bridge differently crossed.
Yes, I fully agree with that, and I tried to cover that in Bridge 4, which I call Public Understanding, but it was much more than that because in the origin itself
Maybe Jim would like to say something about that?
But it's interesting, so much of the evidence that
Well, you’re right of course that it was known to no one else.
No one else.
But I mean, why did
Yes, I mean I quite agree. I mean it was known to people and
So his genius in evolution, the evidence didn’t sort of hit him over the head, evolution.
Well, it didn’t really, did it? I mean it was rather a gradual process. I mean you’d know more about that than I do but.
He converted very quickly to evolution before he had natural selection.
Before he had natural selection. Yes, right, yes.
Very, very quickly; weeks.
Thank you. There was somebody over there who had a question, perhaps you could give your name, please?
Yeah, Paul Taylor,
I did, slightly tongue in cheek, make that point myself. I don’t know whether Jim again has anything to say about that.
Well natural selection isn't a unitary idea. It's a complex idea; it's a series of deductions from various premises. So I think it's wrong to talk about
Mmm, very interesting. Thank you. Another question at the back there?
My name’s Derek Matravers from the Philosophy Department at the Open University. I'm glad to have mention of Hume, and it's certainly true that in Hume’s dialogues he only does half a page on natural selection rather than - or at least two thirds of a page - rather than the full treatment that
Well in what terms did he propose it?
I'm glad you asked me that! Well, no, as I say, I mean it's a completely different order of thing, but I mean the only point I mean to make is that he did at least get as far as saying well here’s a third option, you don’t have to choose between – sorry, design doesn’t necessarily imply a designer because there’s an alternative explanation of something along these lines, and then he writes two thirds of a page.
Well I must confess I wasn’t aware of that. I thought that he got as far as saying obviously design’s a lousy explanation. But I wasn’t aware that he actually thought of natural selection.
Yes, I'm not quite sure what would be the most appropriate way to describe the sketches.
I think Hume had in mind some form of natural explanation rather than natural selection.
And that was my impression, yes.
I never get tired of saying
Steve, you look like you want to say something at this point?
Well, I have to say what strikes me as a mere scientist from this discussion is evolution’s kind of unique as a science in that it needs heroes. It needs a past. I'm not sure that chemistry needs a past. You know, evolution to me is a living science, and certainly
They might even not have been British. So I think we should avoid the temptation to pick too much lint out of
Okay. Over there?
Hi, Karen James from the
Well I think that it's still digital in the oral, I mean Mendel’s laws are still true, and they are digital, and I think that I would defend the use of the phrase ‘digital’ even though things have become obviously terribly complicated. I mean digital calculations in computers are also terribly complicated but they still remain digital.
It's…as an academic. I spend my life sitting on boring committees, and I sat on boring committees last week about hiring a professor in systems biology, which Darwin would have hated, which I imagine Richard would probably hate as well, which is actually the retreat from digital biology. Which is seeing the beauty of Mendel’s laws is right for peas, it's right for cystic fibrosis, but it may not be right for much more than that; people are now seeing it much more as an analogue kind of biology.
And there’s a real problem here, and I mean now that we know so much about genetics, and now that we know so little, and now that we know that we know so little about genetics. Let’s take human height. Human height is probably the most a heritable attribute that we have, as Galton pointed out. But I mean if you have two tall parents, you can have a very, very accurate statement as to how tall their offspring will be.
So it's very much coded in the genes. There have now been more than a hundred and fifty different genes identified which certainly effect human height, within the normal range and not things like Dwarfism. Not one of them explains more than half of a percent of the total variance in human height. So maybe this digital thing is actually a mirage. Maybe we aren't digital at all, it's just a mess. Maybe the black and white paint was right.
That’s utter nonsense! All you, it’s just a pair of genes and you’ve just added lots and lots of little additive effects, and of course I mean it's going to look analogue when you get our your ruler and measure people’s height - but it's still digital in what’s going on.
It's a particulate mess.
Well I'm less convinced on that. I mean as Richard will know better than I, I mean one of the reasons that Mendel’s laws were so much ignored in the 19th Century. And Mendel was, of course, as we all know, was actually quite a serious scientist in a major scientific institution, and he sent his papers to people like Negley who were scientists themselves, and they all found it boring, because the question why does an elephant give rise to another elephant was obvious. Why does a human being give rise to another human being? I mean that’s just a tedious subject. What’s much more interesting, why does an elephant egg and a human egg look much the same but they give rise to different kinds of creatures? And that really is where digital biology breaks down. So actually I think you’re being too digital for your own good. Take your digit out Richard! Write an analogical book.
Mmm, very interesting. Follow that somebody?
Okay, I'm going to choose a question now that we've had online. Now the people who submitted questions earlier didn’t have the benefit of having heard Richard’s talk already, of course, but they’ve asked some very interesting questions which I know frequently come up. There are a couple about altruism. Here’s an interesting one. I would like to know why we show concern for other species, even to the extent of making laws to prevent their ill treatment, and this is somebody from Beccles in
Well, it's not actually more remarkable than why we care for other human beings. I mean we really are a naïve Darwinian interpretation ought to care only for a very small subset of other human beings, and in fact we feel an empathy, a sympathy with the whole human race, and we generalise that to other species, and I'm sure most people here do. I think from a strictly naïvely Darwinian point of view it's a mistake.
It's a very admirable mistake. It's one that I'm very glad we do have. But it's a mistake in the same kind of sense as enjoying sex, even though you know perfectly well you’re using a contraceptive so you won't have a child. I mean the lust to enjoy sex is still there even though we understand perfectly well that the original Darwinian purpose is being frustrated and thwarted by a contraceptive.
Now natural selection, just as in natural selection builds into us a lust for sex, under the right conditions, so natural selection builds into us a lust to be nice, a lust to be sympathetic, a lust to care about other individuals, because we occupied a lot of our evolutionary past in conditions where most of the individuals that we ever met were either close relatives or individuals who we were going to meet again and again and therefore there was some reciprocal benefit in being nice.
So we have a lust to be nice, and just as the contraception removes the actual biological advantage of sex, so living in large cities surrounded by lots of people removes the original biological benefit for the lust to be nice, and in exactly the same way it just generalises to other species.
Lust to be nice, we must hang on to that idea I think.
I’d like to comment there.
There were several questions which related to this business of the extent to which you can relate human culture to its biological foundations. And the fascinating thing about humans in their interactions of course is that they have this memory and forethought, and game theory becomes so important in their interactions with one another, and in which case, as many have argued, reputation, cultivating one’s reputation becomes very important. But I wonder if some of the things we’re talking about here are almost an extrapolation of our sort of hard wired tendency to cultivate our reputations.
I think that’s an excellent point, and I should have mentioned that, that it's not just the lust to be nice, for the obvious reason; it's also the lust to be seen to be nice.
And this can become quite complicated, and I'm sure that in highly cognitive creatures, like ourselves, that is important, yes.
I'm not sure that
So I think it's a mistake to over-universalise Darwinism. I mean, I'm a greater believer, as a geneticist, in the healing power of lust in general, which is what my subject was all about, but I think we need to be careful in limiting ourselves in our explanations here. Lust to be nice is great. I thought that’s a good title for a book Richard which you’ve given me if I ever got to write one. An even better one I scribbled down, my next book is going to be called Distracted by Barnacles!
I'm tempted to ask Jim to respond to the arts faculty challenge.
Not very Darwinian though, is it?
Except he wrote it.
And Wallace was interesting in that end. Wallace was a profound anti-vivisectionist, and he’s fascinating because he’s not like anti-vivisectionists today, or the people who followed him, the people, you know, the Brown Dog riots in 1903 and so on which happened after vivisection demonstrations at the University College London. What anti-vivisectionists today tend to say is that experiments on animals do not tell us anything about ourselves, and they pick up examples, which are certainly true, thalidomide was not tested on pregnant animals and the like.
Of course experiments on animals gave us insulin and all the rest of it. But Wallace’s fascinating because Wallace didn’t like experiments on animals because he thought it was morally wrong, and I warmed to Wallace on those grounds because that’s a scientific decision. I mean we've all done horrible things, more or less horrible things to animals, scientifically, but I can see a moral argument against it, but that stands outside the world of science.
So I think once again there’s a problem, even with due respect to your view on race, which is a very interesting one and one warms to
Because, let’s be frank, Africans and Europeans look different, and there was phenomena in the 1930 scientific racism which was quite a respectable science. It was wrong but it was quite respectable. And it turned out that they weren't at the protein level particularly different, and I have vivid memories of various sort of major players and not me … and the like saying this is great. This proves racism is wrong. And in my naïve almost unchained views I said hang on a minute, what happens when the science moves on, maybe we'll find there is a difference between Africans and Europeans, does that prove racism is right? And since then we have of course found a difference between the African group and the rest of the world group, which says nothing about racism.
So I have to be, I think we have to be terribly, terribly careful about taking the science of Darwinism, the science of evolution - which is just as boring as the science of chemistry - nothing could be as boring as the science of chemistry! But it's a science, it's not a moral framework, and I think we’re being a bit too incautious here.
Can I just interject at this point, another comment from the same person who raised this question online, and he or she, I don’t know their name, said that whatever you answer, they’re still going to carry on giving to animal charities. So this is sort of the same point really that there are moral decisions and there are scientific ones.
There’s somebody at the back who has a question.
Yes, good evening. My name’s Edward Hall from Pegley in
I'm sure they will. So the question is what do you find at the root of the Tree of Life? And I think I have to give this to our palaeobiologist, Peter, to kick off at any rate because I can see Jim wants to say something too.
Well the interesting thing about the Tree of Life, I mean I'm glad you like the Tree of Life poster that we produced, but of course it's a sort of kindly fudge because it's made to look like a tree. And the tree is indeed a sort of an icon of evolution because we see this sort of single root down at the base and the trunk and all these things branching off all over the place, and that icon has worked pretty well for a lot of the history of biology.
But the story has become a lot more messy in recent years, not because of any fossil evidence but actually because of genetic evidence, of course, and what has particularly happened is the appreciation by looking at the DNA sequences, particularly of microbes, is the absolutely vast amount of lateral transfer of genetic information that goes on.
So our Tree of Life, as I say, it's a bit of a fudged thing. For the eukaryotes, that’s a sort of more complex organisms with nuclei in their cells, it works pretty well, there’s a certain amount of fudging to and fro there, but that tree roots into a complete nexus of microbes that have throughout their three and a half or four billion years been rather freely exchanging genetic material.
So when you say, you know, what is that origin of life, I always get very worried about talking about the single common ancestor of life, because I think that might put in people’s mind the idea of there being one cell which has popped into existence, and that’s the great sort of archetypal ancestor of all life. But surely it could not have been like that. What that must have been, there must have been, as you say, many bowls of soup or hydrothermal vents or what have you, but basically lots of forms of microbial life springing up all over the place, competing with one another no doubt in their various hereditary mechanisms, freely exchanging material because they weren't particularly adapted to stop that happening, and what you end up with is a kind of common ancestral consensus as to what kind of genetic language life is going to talk, and that’s what we see now because what led into it has been fused into one language. I don’t know if that makes sense.
I'm going to let other members of the panel say this because, answer that question because I can see they’re eager to contribute. Let’s do it in order along the table, so, Jim?
I guess I have to speak, try and speak for Charles Darwin. The evolutionary tree was, as far as I can tell, unique to
This single Tree of Life for
I'm just going to throw in another question we had online before going to Steve, because I think he probably answered this to some extent as well, and this is Benjamin Holland from Cork in Ireland, who’s an OU student of life science, and he says how radically will horizontal gene transfer impact on Darwin’s Tree of Life. So there’s an extra little thing to worry about there, Steve.
Well, I don’t have my slides with me unfortunately.
Hand gestures will do!
I think at the roots of the tree that is a tree quite radically. Horizontal gene transfer is a real phenomenon. Some of the cases higher up have turned out to be problems with analysing data where you see apparent transfers which is just random, but at the roots certainly so. Oddly enough if you look at the origin of life that probably is a totally non-Darwinian event. It was chemistry, it just happened, it was random, there were no natural selection, but once the little warm pond had done its job and the self-replicating molecule had started working, be it a RNA or what have you, then the rest of it was inevitable.
So the least Darwinian event in life was the way it started. After it started, I think it got very complicated. It's clear for example the nucleus of the cell and the cytoplasm of the cell have two different origins. The mitochondria have different origins. The cilia, which are, of course, the jelly and the like on the surface of the cell, probably have a different origin. In fact, you know, it was once said that a camel was a horse designed by a committee. There’s more truth to that than we realise I think when you look at the cell.
The genetic code, the machine code of life, is all but universally the same, and so in some sense that seems to be an arbitrary frozen accident, so it does look as though at least that was a unique event. If there ever were independent origins of life, they’d been eaten, as Darwin himself I think suggested. I do want, before we get off the subject of horizontal gene transfer, I do want to mention the outrageous front cover of New Scientist, a couple of weeks ago, which said “Darwin was Wrong.”
And the actual article was about horizontal gene transfer. It was an unacceptable article about the fact that at the base of the tree in the prokaryotes there is a lot of horizontal gene transfer. But to put a headline on New Scientist that says “
Sadly true. In fact the Editorial in New Scientist even acknowledges that.
Even acknowledges that, yes.
That the cover will be misused in that way. Well not misused because it was an invitation to misuse. But as a mere botanist, and Steve might say, I would like to point out that actual trees have anastomizing roots; they look like that too. So in that sense
Yes, another mere botanist, Jonathan, and I’d just like to ask the committee to sort of comment on the fact that the Tree of Life as we see it often is something that has dichotomous branching and has very thin little branches, but actually the Tree of Life the way that Darwin conceptualised it, and people in his time conceptualised it, was descent with modification, which is actually the really important point about the Tree of Life and not what it looks like.
I think we’re reaching a conclusion here. If there’s one last question - all of a sudden there’s a forest of hands! A small thicket. You were first so I think we'd better go to you.
My name’s Perry Ellervet, and seeing we’ve got such a distinguished panel of people, I’d like just to ask where you think the next bridges are like to be in the next sort of fifty years? Hazard a guess obviously there'll be things you can’t foresee but what sort of bridges, interesting bridges do you think there will be in evolutionary science in the next fifty years?
Quickly, please, let’s start with Richard. Well you’ve sort of had your say on this, haven't you in a way, but have another go, go on!
Well, I mean I think the explanation of human subjective consciousness is the great mystery that still remains to be solved, and I look forward to its being solved. I don’t even understand what the question means but I have a sense that it's a very, very important question. And so first of all formulating exactly what the question means will be the first step and then answering it in a proper scientific way will be the next step.
Oh I don’t really know the answer and maybe work out what controls the population genetics is snails, possibly. I'm a great Wagnerian. At the end of Gutterdamero the Gods cross over the Rhine on the bridge to
It would be wonderful but it's not going to happen!
Yes, we don’t want to produce any New Scientist covers here tonight. Peter.
Jim wants the last word so.
Oh I see right. This is collusion, carry on.
I think I would like to see the field of evolutionary psychology become scientific. It's a fascinating area. It's possible to come up with some fascinating ideas based as I say on game theory and stuff like that. I think the problem with it is it's complicated but it's also terribly difficult to think of adequate tests to turn it into science, and I have seen quite a few criticisms lately of the whole field of evolutionary psychology, and I’d like to see evolutionary psychology become a good solid science at the high table alongside the other evolutionary sciences.
Darwin himself realised that the history of biology had not come to an end. He realised the contingency of his own existence and of the existence of his science. He wrote, in 1869, “If I lived until the 20th Century and was able to work, how I should have to modify the origin of species, and how much the views on all points will have to be modified. Well, it's a beginning and that is something.”
Well, what a wonderful conclusion, thank you very much. I’d now like to thank on behalf of the Open University Professor Dawkins for his stimulating lecture and also our panel, Professor Steve Jones, Professor Jim Moore and Dr Peter Skelton, thank you very much indeed.