Monday, March 10, 2008

Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss

Bill and I drove all the way to Stanford University yesterday to hear Richard Dawkins and physicist Lawrence Krauss give a talk entitled Against Ignorance: Science Education in the 21st Century. The picture looks fuzzy because I was too far away, but my glasses came apart just as I sat down, so this is how it looked to me, anyway. I squinted through one lens for most of the talk.

It is hard to explain how much of an impact Richard Dawkins' book, The Selfish Gene, had on me when I first read it back in about 1985. I wasn't raised in a particularly religious family. We never went to church. My father is an atheist, although I don't remember ever actually talking to him about it when I was younger. I have never really believed in a god. When I was a child, I think I sort of believed in god the same way I believed in Santa Claus. Santa Claus was probably much more real to me, and I don't really remember believing in him. I remember when I was about seven, our cat Tufty died. I said something to someone - I don't even remember who - about Tufty being up in heaven and playing with our two gerbils, Ghengis and Kublai, who had died (one or both possibly at the claws of Tufty). I was told that animals don't go to heaven, only humans do. I remember thinking, "Well that's just silly. Why should animals be any different?"

By the time we moved to south Texas when I was nine, I was definitely an atheist, although I may not even have known the word. We moved there as I started 4th grade. One of the other girls asked me what church we went to. I said that we didn't go to church. She looked astounded. She then asked me if I believed in God. I said no. She was completely incredulous. Word spread like wildfire. By that afternoon, I was being asked by what seemed to me to be every other kid that walked by if I believed in god. I finally just started saying, "I don't know."

I was just confused. Why was it such a big deal? I was also painfully shy, had just moved away from all the friends I had ever known, and didn't want the attention. After a day or so, but what seemed to me to be weeks, they got tired of asking. Luckily, I just wasn't that interesting.

But later on I remember being asked that if God didn't create everything, how do you explain life? I hadn't ever really thought about it. I answered, "Evolution." But even though I had an absolutely fantastic high school science teacher (in California, not Texas), I realized I still didn't really understand how it worked or how life might have begun.

At the University of California, Davis, I just got caught up in trying to keep up, so that question was actually WAY at the back of my mind when I took a course on evolutionary biology. One of the required texts was The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. I read it and was just blown away. He explained how life might possibly have started, but mainly how and why things evolved after life started. He linked together everything I had learned and was learning in bits and pieces and showed what a simple and elegant process evolution actually is.

Fairly soon after I took that class, Professor Dawkins came and gave a talk at UC Davis. For me, it was like seeing a rock star up close. I sat in the front row about ten feet away from him and was acutely embarrassed that the lecture hall was only about a third full. That didn't happen this time. It was standing room only in the Stanford Memorial Auditorium - tickets were sold out several weeks ago (I'm sure Professor Krauss had something to do with that, too).

The talk was very interesting, although they were "preaching to choir." The room was full of biologists and physicists. The main difference of opinion they had was in how to go about educating people. Professor Dawkins is far more antagonistic, while Professor Krauss advocates a less belligerent attitude when dealing with irrational or ignorant people. The general public (at least here in the U.S.) seems to be under the misapprehension that there is a major division among scientists about whether or not evolution actually happens. They don't understand that what scientists argue about is not whether it happens, but the details of how it happens. The moderator mentioned that The God Delusion has provoked over 20 rebuttal books.

I somehow managed to be first in line for the book signing afterward. He signed four of my books. Unfortunately, we didn't have any books by Lawrence Krauss - that's him sitting right next to Professor Dawkins.
In the last two weeks I've seen Billy Joel and Richard Dawkins. It's all downhill from here.


Anonymous said...

Hey Laurie. I really enjoyed reading your post. My life has unfolded very much like yours. I had a great biology teacher in high school who opened my eyes to the power of evolution, but it wasn't until I read The Selfish Gene about 10 years ago, that everything seemed to fall into place. I have to say that not a day has gone by since where I have not thought about the ideas presented in this book. What a revelation. I still feel that I have been let in on a secret that most of the population hasn't really got a clue about. Unfortunately Richard Dawkins rarely gets Down Under so I haven't had the opportunity to listen to him live - I'm just so envious of you!

Best wishes from Tony, Kangaroo Island - South Australia.

Laurie said...

Thank you Tony! I'm glad you enjoyed it!