Richard Dawkins was the dinner speaker at this year’s National Association of Biology Teachers Conference. I didn’t attend the dinner (it was $85 – gulp) but I did attend his follow-up Q/A session the next day.
He started his talk with a few of vignette movies from his website, www.richarddawkins.net. These are short (2-3 minute) videos of Dawkins speaking – some of them are from his infamous Christmas Lectures and some are more travelogue vignettes (shot in the Galapagos, for instance). The video vignette on Boobies and Gannets was one of my favorites – describing the “two egg” insurance policy of these birds. Another was a video of a younger Dawkins doing a demonstration with a cannonball pendulum that he holds right up to his face – and then lets go, allowing it to swing in it arc, right back to him, stopping just short of smashing him in the face. A beautiful, living illustration of his faith in science. “Yes you can have faith”, Dawkins says, “but have faith with reason.”
He went on to entertain questions from the audience. Most of the questions were about teaching evolution. Here are a few of them…
Q: What do you say to a student who says of evolution, “I just don’t believe it”?
A: Well, I think you need to explore why they don’t believe it. If their answer is something along the lines of “organisms are just too complex to come from random chance”, then you know that they just have the wrong end of the stick and help them with their misconception. But if the reason is a religious one (as in “my parents or my rabbi tells me it’s wrong”) then you could point out that it’s just random chance that they were born to this family, and have these particular religious beliefs. Another idea that Dawkins said came from last night’s dinner companions is to teach the concepts of evolution without calling it evolution and just “smuggle it in”.
Q: I teach in an inner city LA high school that is 95% Latino Catholic. When I teach evolution, I advise them to keep their faith outside of the classroom. Why do so few people in the United States refuse to accept the principles of evolution, as compared to other countries on the globe. “I see this as an attack on science.”
A: Is it possibly not only an attack on science but an attack on intellectualism itself? There seems to be a political movement in this country that resents intellectual ideas and anyone that might be more intellectual than you? (at which point the entire room broke out in laughter).
Q: How do we address the problem that there is really only one race?
A: Good question. We are a very genetically uniform species. The variation among humans is very, very low. The other misconception here is the Victorian idea of an evolutionary ladder – progression – from ancestral apes to chimpanzees, to black people, to white people. When, really, all humans are exactly equally related to chimpanzees and all mammals are equally related to frogs. The categorization that we all have to deal with on many government forms is total nonsense. “Hispanic?! What does that mean? I encourage everyone to refuse to fill out that portion of the form.”
Q: Sometimes I get students who accept microevolution, but have problems with macroevolution. What do you suggest to combat that?
A: Yes, that’s something that they’ve been taught to say. And, of course, what you say is that macroevolution is what you get when you add up lots of instances of microevolution together. The misconception here is that they think it’s happens over night and have no concept of the vast amounts of time involved. There are various metaphors that you can use to address this – his favorite is to stretch out your arm to the side and, moving from you neck to the tip of your fingers, explain that…. The origin of life is at your neck. The dinosaurs are in the palm of your hand. The first mammal is at your fingernail. The whole of recorded human history falls in the dust of a single stroke of a nail file.