10/04/2010 04:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dawkins at Duke: Just the Facts, Ma'am

Crossposted with

Richard Dawkins speaks of evidence and theories.

Yesterday I had an unexpected treat. Richard Dawkins, the world-renowned evolutionary biologist, was making a stop at Duke on his national tour promoting his new book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. At the last minute I was asked to join a small group having brunch with him and was given a front-row seat at his talk in the afternoon.

Richard Dawkins at Duke, the same day as the blessing of the Animals service Biologist Richard Dawkins (top) spoke at Duke on October 3. Later that afternoon, Father Michael Martin blessed animals for the annual Blessing of the Animals service. (Photo of Dawkins by Ashley Yeager / Photo of ceremony by Megan Morr/Duke Photography)

Dawkins is quintessentially upper-class British. Well-spoken, gracious, dressed impeccably even on a Sunday morning, he has a sharp wit that can be quite cutting in a subtle kind of way when he wants it to be. Great fun when you're on his side, not so much when you're not. Yesterday there were lots of laughs for the folks who fall on the side of Dawkins's cause célèbre.

That cause is evolution: that Darwin's theory of evolution is largely fact, not conjecture or speculation or hypothesis. And that is certainly the case. In his talk yesterday, as in his many popular books, he does a magnificent job of explicating the science, the evidence, and the history of how that science and evidence were developed.

Talking Science With a Political Edge

Going a good deal further than the science, Dawkins went on to ardently defend the positions of atheism and agnosticism and the notion of separation of church and state. To end what he perceives as the social stigma of atheism, he urges all atheists to "out" themselves by wearing a red "A" on their lapel. More about all this, including how to get your own "A," can be found at his foundation's Web site. (No endorsement intended.)

So in addition to the natural sciences, the events yesterday had a good deal of the social sciences and politics in them as well. At times, with its mention of Web sites and the suggestion that people organize and send money, Sunday's lecture had the feel of a political rally. Most of the time, however, it was pretty glorious science.

So what does all this have to do with TheGreenGrok and the environment?

For one, the fundamental truth underpinning all of biology and much of Earth science (and therefore the study of the environment) is the theory of evolution. And so, for those of you wanting to understand the environment but lacking knowledge about evolution, one of Dawkins's books would be a good place to start.

Understanding the Science and the Terms Used by Scientists

I am also struck by the parallels between the politics of evolution and the politics of climate change.

  • These two issues should not be political, but they clearly are. The demographics of the people who deny evolution are remarkably similar to those of the people who deny climate change.
  • Confusion over the word theory hurts the science. When scientists apply the word theory, they mean "a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of (observed) phenomena." Many lay people confuse this scientific definition with the other definition of theory that means a hypothesis or conjecture. Hence, people think there is some sort of wiggle room or uncertainty with climate change or evolution because scientists call them theories, which in the lay person's mind connotes merely a hypothesis or "just a theory." But when scientists want to call something a hypothesis they use the word hypothesis; and when they want to call something an established explanation for observed facts they use theory.

    In that sense evolution is a theory and most definitely not "just a theory." To avoid the confusion between the different meanings of theory, Dawkins suggests dropping the "theory" (as used in the scientific sense) for the less ambiguous "fact of evolution."

    There are parallels with climate change here as well. That the globe is empirically warming is fact; it is "unequivocal" (see here and here). Other aspects of climate change, such as the attribution of warming to human activities, are not as well established as the basic tenets of evolution, but they are pretty close to being a theory in the scientific sense.
  • And finally there are the disturbing societal implications of the widespread rejection of the science of evolution and climate change for our society. Some 40 percent of Americans believe the world is only about 10,000 years old; a similar percentage rejects the notion that humans are causing the globe to warm.

What does it say about a society whose citizens blithely turn on the lights in their homes, drive their cars to and from work, talk and text on their smartphones, and tap away on their computers each day -- in short depend upon and reap the benefits of the scientific method and the work of scientists who used that method, but find no inconsistency in rejecting the results of that method when those results run contrary to their beliefs?

And what does it say about a society where parents refuse to allow their children to learn about science because that science runs contrary to their non-scientific beliefs?

And what does it say about a society that rationalizes not acting to avert potentially dangerous climate change, and therefore endangering those same children's future, by rejecting scientific fact?

It's all pretty ironic.

And so it was perhaps fitting that yesterday's event concluded on a wonderfully ironic note. Following Dawkins's talk, those of us gathered there in Page Auditorium were asked to clear the area for the next event: Duke's annual Blessing of the Animals, an opportunity for the Durham community to have their "well-mannered" animals (from dogs to turtles and horses) blessed by Duke ministers on the green in front of the Duke Chapel. A number of people who roundly applauded Dawkins's lecture rushed out to have their pets receive a blessing.