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To celebrate 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin and 150 years since the publication of his most famous work, On the Origin of Species, which transformed the way we view the world, the National Geographic Channel spoke EXCLUSIVELY to Professor Richard Dawkins, leading scientist, author and world expert on Darwin’s evolutionary theory.

Why is Darwin so important?

Richard Dawkins: Darwin told us why we exist and that’s not an easy question to answer. It’s not just us, it’s all living things. The living world is incredibly complex and staggeringly improbable – unless you understand where it came from; it looks as though it’s been designed; everyone thought that it was designed; but Darwin showed that it wasn’t. That’s the importance of Darwin.

How would you describe Darwin’s influence on your own life and work?

Richard Dawkins: I enormously admire Darwin. He’s the founder of really everything that I do. Of course he was wrong on many things, such as genetics, though he was closer on genetics than many people give him credit for. He was a marvellous intellectual; whereas some people make a discovery and they stumble upon it, Darwin devoted himself to making his theory clear, to listing all the evidence and spending decades of his life gathering the evidence so no one could doubt it. It’s an enormous privilege to have such an important theory, to have it launched in such a powerful form nearly complete, instead of dribbling out step by little step, the way theories often do.

How convincing is the evidence that Darwin was right?

Richard Dawkins: The evidence is compelling that Darwin was right. We are descended from simpler animals; we are descended from bacteria ultimately and are cousins of chimpanzees. Darwin wasn’t right about everything – he got some of his genetics wrong because not enough was known about genetics at the time, but the essential point that we are direct cousins of monkeys and kangaroos, octopuses and bacteria is beyond doubt.

How significant is Darwin’s influence in realising our place in the world?

Richard Dawkins: The human race has had a number of set-backs. We learnt from Galileo that the Earth was not the centre of the universe; Darwin did the same thing for living creatures. We once thought we were the pinnacle of creation, made in God’s own image, but we now know we are cousins of 10 million other species - a tiny twig in a vast bush of branching twigs buried somewhere in the depths of this bush; there is nothing special in the order of humans in creation. There are special things about us, such as the fact that we are cleverer than other animals and we have language, but nevertheless we are just cousins of all other living things.

Read on for Richard Dawkins on Fossils, God and Creationism

How important is the evidence presented by fossils in backing up Darwin’s theory?

Richard Dawkins: Fossils are not necessary to prove evolution nowadays, as we can do that with comparative evidence, especially via chemical molecular evidence. But fossils are very nice for showing the direct course evolution took – fossils are the only evidence we have which show what animals were like in the distant past.

We are very lucky to have fossils, if we didn’t have fossils at all, we’d still know evolution was true. There are some gaps in the fossil record too, of course, which those sceptical about evolution think is important, but of course it’s not. The whole fossil record could be one big gap and we would still know evolution was true. But although there are gaps there are still substantial parts of evolution where we have a pretty good record of what exactly happened.

How strong a piece of evidence are whales as proof of evolution?

Richard Dawkins: If we needed any more evidence for evolution then fossils of whales would provide extremely good evidence. We now know that the closest cousins to whales are in fact hippos. A common ancestor of the hippo and the whale took to the water until it gradually became more wedded to the water and never left. The hind limbs eventually disappear and there is a tiny vestige of hind limb skeleton in whales today. What else could that be but evidence of evolution? There is not the slightest doubt that marine whales are descended from land animals and the fossil record proves this utterly.

What do you think of people who adhere to the biblical idea that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old and that we are all God’s creation?

Richard Dawkins: Anyone who still believes that the world is less than 10,000 years old, as many creationists do, the best excuse for them is lamentable ignorance. Anyone who is not ignorant and has been shown the evidence and still believes this, then they must have something wrong with them. To give you an example of the magnitude of the error, to believe that the world is less than 10,000 years old, when in fact we know the world is 4.6 billion years old, is equivalent to believing that the width of North America from New York to San Francisco is less than 10 yards. So to believe this you have to be either incredibly ignorant or insane.

Why do you think this view is still held by so many people 150 years after Darwin’s theory was published?

Richard Dawkins: I think that religious upbringing is immensely powerful and if its hammered into you as a young child it can be very difficult to get rid of in later life, especially if as a child you are taught that the devil will come to try and persuade you of error; sometimes they are told to ignore the evidence because faith is more important than evidence. Some people know that if they come out as non-believers their family will disown them. It really is an appalling stranglehold that these archaic beliefs have over people, whose minds have been warped since childhood.

Read on for Richard Dawkins on Human Evolution, God and Darwin

Is the creationist movement damaging to society as well as science?

Richard Dawkins: I think that it is such a privilege to understand where we come from, a privilege for all of us born after 1859, that to deny children that privilege is wicked, it’s a deprivation that should not be visited on any child, when the truth is so staggeringly exciting. When we have shared ancestors with every living thing, we have a history of four billion years of slow, gradual evolution, that’s not something that we can easily take on board, but the effort of doing so is well worth it. It’s such a beautiful thought that we are the heirs of four billion years of evolution. When you put that against the measly, piddling little ideas in Genesis it’s just no comparison, and it’s a sad and diminishing deprivation of a child’s opportunity to be denied that knowledge.

What evidence is there to prove that evolution and Darwin were right?

Richard Dawkins: Many pieces of evidence show that evolution is right. I’ll single out just two. The first is the distribution of animals across the globe. They are exactly as you’d expect them to be if evolution occurred. If you go to Australia all the mammals, save for one or two introduced by man, are marsupials. Why are they all there and not in Asia too? It’s exactly as you’d expect if animals evolved. It’s not the way it would be if God had gone around creating animals. Why on Earth would he have gone around creating animals in exactly the places where he would have created animals to give the false impression that evolution took place? If you believe in a god that plays those sorts of tricks then it’s not much of a god to believe in.

Secondly, if you look comparatively at all animals, especially biochemically: if you look at molecules in how they differ from animal to animal, or plant to plant, you find a hierarchical pattern of resemblance, which only makes sense if you assume that it’s a family tree, a pedigree. Everything – all the evidence – points to evolution. Once again the only way that you can maintain a creationist viewpoint is if you assume that God deliberately deceived us by planting molecules, that God played an elaborate trick on us.

Can you still have faith in God and evolution?

Richard Dawkins: There are plenty of theologians who believe in God and evolution, so, yes it is possible. I find it a little bit hard to do so because the main reason for believing in God is as the explanation for the living world. Once that’s gone, the most important argument for God has been kicked out and all you are left with is things like the Bible, which is pathetic: any fool can see is not written by God and it doesn’t have any special authority. Or you are left with personal experiences such as ‘God speaks to me’: if you’re convinced by that you’re convinced by that, but it’s pretty weak.

Why are you so convinced that God doesn’t exist?

Richard Dawkins: Well, I’m not really convinced that God does not exist. I’m simply turning the question around to say there is no positive reason to say that God does exist and he is therefore as likely to exist as the tooth-fairy or pink unicorns. So why bother to believe in something where there is no evidence, when there is so much for which there is evidence and you could spend a lifetime learning about it?

Is there any evidence for some sort of divine order, such as our consciousness or the beginning of the universe perhaps?

Richard Dawkins: The human consciousness is a great puzzle; it’s not helped by postulating anything supernatural. Human consciousness must stem from some brain stuff, either as a by-product or as an integral part of its function. The origin of the universe is another mystery, but physicists are working on it. Maybe one day we’ll understand it but, either way, postulating some sort of supernatural explanation doesn’t help us understand, because that simply raises bigger questions than it does answers.

So life is all a result of chance and molecular accidents?

Richard Dawkins: I would not like to say that we are here today as a matter of chance, because natural selection is not a chance process. Mutation is a matter of chance, but natural selection is a non-random force, because generations of genes have been non randomly chosen for reproduction and survival. If people think that Darwin said that life was down to chance, then no wonder they object to it.

Has human evolution come to an end?

Richard Dawkins: Nobody knows. If you look at the way natural selection happens, the fittest creatures have the most offspring and are usually the ones that survive. Over the last 2 or 3 million years humans have developed bigger and bigger brains, presumably because those with bigger brains survived better. But there’s no way to suggest that this is happening today, so there’s no reason to suppose that the same natural selection forces are taking place on humans today, though there are natural selection forces at work in terms of resistance to disease and things like that. If you came back in 10 million years then we’ll probably be extinct, because most species do go extinct. There’ll probably be something living but it won’t be our direct descendant.

Evolutionists are always very cautious to predict the future course of evolution for one species, but what they don’t mind doing is predicting the general direction of life – small herbivores, large herbivores, big carnivores – we can predict that we will get a similar range of animals, but we can’t predict what the descendants of mice, elephants or humans will look like. I think in a couple of million years humans will be extinct, but we may well have evolved into something else, especially if we colonise other worlds, then we may see natural selection taking place as species start diverging, as there’d be very little gene flow between the separate gene pools.

Why should National Geographic Channel and other media celebrate 200 years since Charles Darwin’s birth?

Richard Dawkins: The National Geographic Channel should celebrate his birth because Darwin is arguably the greatest thinker that humanity has ever produced. One should put him up there with Galileo, Einstein and Newton. In terms of the problems that he solved, perhaps it wasn’t as difficult to solve as it was for Einstein or Newton, but it was perhaps as revolutionary to preconceived ideas. Darwin has perhaps caused possibly the biggest revolution in humanity’s idea of man’s own nature.

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