virus: Richard Dawkins in Seattle

KMO prime (
Mon, 07 Oct 1996 19:06:36 EDT

On Mon, 07 Oct 1996 10:22:21 -0600 David McFadzean <>

>I'm anxious to hear how the Dawkins thing went. Could you post
>to Virus?

Richard Dawkins is currently touring to promote his new book, “Climbing
Mount Improbable.” Last Wednesday he was at the University of Washington
bookstore in Seattle. I almost didn’t attend as it was my understanding
that he would not be giving any sort of talk. I’m glad I went ahead and
hauled my books down to the U district to be signed.
Professor Dawkins sounded horse, and he explained that he’d been
diagnosed as having laryngitis and that the doctor had recommended that
he rest his voice. My fears seemed to have been validated, but then
Professor Dawkins then went on to say that in spite of that advice he’d
already participated in four speaking engagements that day. He had his
wife, actress Lalla Ward, in tow, and he selected several passages from
his book for her to read aloud. He introduced each new section while
glancing down at an envelope.
I’m not sure if he selected some of the book’s most accessible passages
for his wife to read or if “Climbing Mount Improbable” is aimed at a
wider audience than any of his previous books, but the tone of the
passages were considerably richer in metaphor and poetic language than is
typical of his writing. The selected passages were also very light on
concrete examples and almost devoid of biological jargon.
After the readings, Professor Dawkins took questions from the audience.
Of course, the only question I remember is the one I asked.
My question went something like this, “Professor, I understand that
you’ve taken on the mission of popularizing science. There are a number
of explanatory systems which seem to be in direct competition with
science; things like astrology, palmistry, and numerology. All of these
systems seem to have science at a disadvantage in that they are complete
and not subject to refutation. They appeal to the human need for
explanatory models which are free of gaps and uncertainty. What can be
done to help science overcome this disadvantage and find wider acceptance
in the minds of the general public?”
Of course, I wasn’t that concise, but that was the gist of my question.
>From his answer, I judged that he didn’t understand my question. His
first remark was to point out that science’s competitors didn’t have all
the advantages because they didn’t work. No, they don’t work as tools
which uncover the causal processes which underlie observable phenomena,
and they don’t yield many surprising or novel (but accurate) predictions,
but as meme-complexes they work exceedingly well.
Not surprisingly, Professor Dawkins only mentioned memes in response to
direct questions from the audience. He is a biologist, and his primary
interest seems to be in disseminating a working understanding of how
blind and oblivious differential selection can, given the right
conditions and lots of time, produce very complex systems; systems which
seem to exhibit conscious design. That’s a very focused and quantifiable
goal, and on my view, a very worthy one as well. It’s a big job, and I’m
not concerned over Professor Dawkins’ apparent lack of interest in memes.