You can survive without understanding


Richard Dawkins.




Of the many best-selling books of Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1976) probably did most in bringing the evolutionary message home to both a professional and a general reader­ship. The following interview took place at his house near the University of Oxford, December 1996.



You mention in "The Extended Phenotype"  the slave-making habit in some species of ants. The slave-making ants go to the nest of another ant-species to rob pupae, which are carried back. The work done in the slave-makers nest by the 'slaves' that hatch from these pupae is obvi­ously not in the interests of the slaves. Why don't they go on strike?


Because the slaves are not genetically related to anything that comes out of the nest where they are now working. Any gene that tended to make them go on strike, would have no possibility of being benefited by the striking action. The copies of their genes, the copies of these striking workers genes, would be back in the home nest, and they would be being turned out by the queen, which the striking workers left behind. So there would be no opportunity for a phenotypic effect, namely striking, to benefit germ-line copies of themselves.


You also write about an ant-species called Monomorium sant­schii where there are no workers. The queen invades a nest of another species, and then induces the workers with chemicals to adopt her, and to kill their own queen. How is it possible that natu­ral selec­ti­on did not ­act against such incred­ible deception and manipulation, which must have been going on for millions of years?


In any kind of arms-race, it is possible for one side in the arms-race to lose consistently. Monomorium sant­schii is a very rare species. If you look back in the ancestry of the victim-species over many millions of years, many of their ancestors may never have encountered Monomo­rium. But the Monomorium-ancestors all had to succeed in killing their victim-queens. So there is an a-symmetry in selec­tion-pressure. I think the easiest way to put it is to say that many victim-nests survived in spite of not having counter-measu­res, because they never met a Monomo­rium. But not a single Monomorium-gene survi­ved, if it failed. So the cost of failure is much higher on one side of the arms-race than the other.


Is it possible that a similar kind of a-symmetry exists between human individuals?


I think that when you have arms-races within a species, and I don't know why you shouldn't, say between male and female or between parent and offspring, it is possible that the cost of failure is a-symmetrical. Which means that one side is dispropor­tionally effective. I have not really thought it through, but I do not see why in principle that shouldn't happen.


You wrote with Krebs in 1978 that cooperative signals tend to be muted and economical, while manipulative signals tend to be conspi­cuous and repe­titive.


When there is a conflict of interest, there is an arms-race between the manipulator or signal-sender, and the victim or signal receiver. The signal-sender is, over evolutionary time, evolving ever more powerful manipula­tive stimuli, and the signal-receiver is con­stantly raising the barriers to whatever the stimulus is. And as the victim raises these barriers to the stimu­li, whether these are sounds or chemicals or colours or whate­ver, this puts pressure on the signal-sender to send a stronger and stron­ger signal. So you would expect to get very powerful signals in those cases where victim-resistance is high, but in those cases where the signal sender and receiver are cooperating, where the communication is in both their interest, then it is not necessary to shout. A human example of that would be a couple at a dinner-party, who want to signal to each other that it is time to go. They do it in very subtle ways, like a little look at the door, or a little motion as if to stand up. So a very subtle signal as a result of de-escalation.


Did you have religion in mind when you wrote about conspicuous and repeti­tive signals?


No, because I almost never have humans in mind.


Is it possible to be an evolutionist, a sociobiolo­gist, a Darwi­nist or whatever one calls it, and to be religious at the same time?


Some people are, so it obviously has to be possible. I find it hard to put myself in that position, nevertheless there are such people, so they are the people you need to talk to.


You said on BBC-television that religion teaches people to be satisfied with not-understanding. What is wrong with not under­standing? People have not understood evolution for millions of years.


No, that is right, you can survive without understanding. I think it is a value-judgement on my part, I think it is virtue, a good thing to understand, and therefore if there is an ideology which actively discourages the desire to understand, I am against it.


If two individuals or groups disagree, lets say evolu­tio­nists and religious people, then is it not an old wisdom that the truth should be somewhere in the middle?


I have always resisted the idea that when two opposing points of view are being equally strongly expressed, the truth lies in the middle. The truth can very easily lie on one side or the other. One side can simply be wrong.


But is it not a sign of bad manners to claim that you have it totally right, while the other side has it totally wrong?


No, it is bad manners to swear at people and be insulting to them in a personal way, but it is not bad manners to say: "I think you are wrong for this or this reason". There may be people who think that having strong opini­ons is necessarily negative, and I think it might be negative if it meant: He has strong opinions which he cannot back up.


You wrote in The Blind Watchmaker with capitals: COPERNICUS WRONG. FLAT EARTH THEORY VINDICATED. What did you mean to say with this sentence?


If you have a detailed argument within evolutionary theory, where two scientists disagree about something quite abstruse and theore­tically sophisticated, then creationists come along and say: "Oh, evolutionists disagree, therefore the whole of evol­ution must be wrong". What I wrote was that it would be equival­ent to say that when people discovered that the earth is not a perfect sphere, but a slightly flattened spheroid, instead of saying "Oh, there was this minor thing wrong", you have headlines saying: COPER­NICUS WRONG. FLAT EARTH THEORY VINDICATED.


George Bernard Shaw wrote that "there is a hideous fatalism about Darwinism". Why do people often think evolutionary theory is pessimistic, depressi­ve?


I am not an authority on Bernard Shaw's psychology. Shaw is reacting emotional­ly to a scientific theory. He is saying: I couldn't bear it if this were true, it would be horri­ble if it were true, as though that meant that it was not true. But of course, something horrible can be true, something unbeara­ble can be true. And, well, there are horrible aspects of it. There is an awful lot of suffering. Natural selection does mean death of a lot of individuals. Parasites eating you in bits from inside, predators devouring you from outside. So the force that has shaped the evolution of living creatures with all their beauty and elegance is a whole lot of rather unpleasant deaths. I could imagine finding that emotionally upsetting. But what I cannot imagine is saying: It is emotionally upsetting and there­fore it cannot be true.


On the other hand, some people favoured Darwinism because it appeared to support a political idea.


Yes, Darwinism has been misused politically in this century, by Hitler and by others. Social Darwinism flourished at the end of the last century and the beginning of this century with people like Herbert Spencer and John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller, an immensely rich and powerful man, had imported a form of Social Darwinism into his political beliefs. He really felt that the weakest should go to the war, and the strongest should survive, it was right in business, it was right in capitalism that the economically strongest and most ruth­less should prevail.


Is evolutionary theory telling us this?


No! It is telling us this only if you say: That what is going on there in nature, ought to be true in human politi­cal and social life. What I am saying, along with many other people, among them T. H. Huxley, is that in our political and social life we are entitled to throw out Darwinism, to say we don't want to live in a Darwinian world, we might want to live in, say, a socialist world which is very un-Darwinian. We might say: Yes, Darwinism is true, natural selection is the true force that has given rise to life, but we, when we set up our political institu­tions, we might say we are going to base our society on explicit­ly anti-Darwinian principles.


This is what you favour?




Is there any message at all coming from evolutionary theory, telling us what we should do politically or morally?


No. The only message coming from evolutionary theory is what actually happens in nature. Now in nature it is true that, to some extent, the strong and the most selfish survive. But that is no message for what we should do. We have to get our 'shoulds' and our 'oughts' from some other source, not from Darwinism.


Some well-known evolutionists are, or used to be radical leftist, and you are yourself reported to vote leftist. Yet sociobiology is often associated with right-wing sentiments. Why?


Because the opponents of sociobiology are too stupid to under­stand the distinction between what one says about the way the world is, scientifically, and the way it ought to be politi­cally. They look at what we say about Darwinian natural selec­tion, as a scientific theory for what is, and they assume that anybody who says that so and so is the case, must therefore be advocating that it ought to be the case in human politics. They cannot see that it is possible to separate one's scientific beliefs about what is the case in nature, from one's politi­cal beliefs about what ought to be in human society.