Science is not just about
knowledge, and not just for scientists: it's a roller-coaster ride
through the ultimate in mind-boggling experiences - and best of all,
it's open to everyone.
by Richard Dawkins
You could give Aristotle
a tutorial. And you could thrill him to the core of his being. Aristotle
was an encyclopaedic polymath, an all time intellect. Yet not only
can you know more than him about the world. You also can have a
deeper understanding of how everything works. Such is the privilege
of living after Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Planck, Watson, Crick
and their colleagues.
I'm not saying you're
more intelligent than Aristotle, or wiser. For all I know, Aristotle's
the cleverest person who ever lived. That's not the point. The point
is only that science is cumulative, and we live later.
Aristotle had a lot
to say about astronomy, biology and physics. But his views sound
weirdly naive today. Not as soon as we move away from science, however.
Aristotle could walk straight into a modern seminar on ethics, theology,
political or moral philosophy. But let him walk into a modern science
class and he'd be a lost soul. Not because of the jargon, but because
science advances, cumulatively.
Here's a small sample
of the things you could tell Aristotle, or any other Greek philosopher.
And surprise and enthral them, not just with the facts themselves
but with how they hang together so elegantly.
A Primer for Aristotle
The Earth is not the
centre of the Universe. It orbits the Sun - which is just another
star. There is no music of the spheres, but the chemical elements,
from which all matter is made, arrange themselves cyclically, in
something like octaves. There are not four elements but about 100.
Earth, air, fire and water are not among them.
Species are not isolated
types with unchanging essences. Instead, over a time scale too long
for humans to imagine, they split and diverge into new species,
which then go on diverging further and further. For the first half
of geological time our ancestors were bacteria. Most creatures still
are bacteria, and each one of our trillions of cells is a colony
of bacteria. Aristotle was a distant cousin to a squid, a closer
cousin to a monkey, a closer cousin still to an ape (strictly speaking,
Aristotle was an ape, an African ape, a closer cousin to a chimpanzee
than a chimp is to an orang-utan).
The brain is not for
cooling the blood. It's what you use to do your logic and your metaphysics.
It's a three-dimensional maze of a million million nerve cells,
each one drawn out like a wire to carry pulsed messages. If you
laid all your brain cells end to end, they'd stretch round the world
25 times. There are about 4 million million connections in the tiny
brain of a chaffinch, proportionately more in ours.
What is Still to
Now, if you're anything
like me, you'll have mixed feelings about that recitation. On the
one hand, pride in what Aristotle's species now knows and didn't
then. On the other hand an uneasy feeling of "isn't it all
a bit complacent? What about our descendants, what will they be
able to tell us?"
Yes, for sure, the process
of accumulation doesn't stop with us. Two thousand years hence,
ordinary people who have read a couple of books will be in a position
to give a tutorial to today's Aristotles: to Francis Crick, say,
or Stephen Hawking. So does this mean that our view of the Universe
will turn out to be just as wrong?
Let's keep a sense of
proportion about this! Yes, there's much that we still don't know.
But surely our belief that the Earth is round and not flat, and
that it orbits the Sun, will never be superseded. That alone is
enough to confound those, endowed with a little philosophical learning,
who deny the very possibility of objective truth: those so-called
relativists who see no reason to prefer scientific views over aboriginal
myths about the world.
Our belief that we share
ancestors with chimpanzees, and more distant ancestors with monkeys,
will never be superseded, although details of timing may change.
Many of our ideas, on the other hand, are still best seen as theories
or models whose predictions, so far, have survived the test. Physicists
disagree over whether they are condemned forever to dig for deeper
mysteries, or whether physics itself will come to an end in a final
'theory of everything', a nirvana of knowledge.
Meanwhile, there is
so much that we don't yet understand, we should loudly proclaim
those things that we do, so as to focus attention on problems that
we should be working on.
The Wonder of Science
And there are misconceptions
about science that we need to tackle. One is a public perception
that science is 'difficult' or even dull. Recently I had a letter
from a television viewer who poignantly began: "I am a clarinet
teacher whose only memory of science at school was a long period
of studying the Bunsen burner." Now, you can enjoy the Mozart
concerto without being able to play the clarinet. You can be a discerning
and informed concert critic without being able to play a note. Of
course music would come to a halt if nobody learned to play it.
But if everybody left school thinking you had to play an instrument
before you could appreciate music, think how impoverished many lives
Couldn't we treat science
in the same way? Yes, we must have Bunsen burners and dissecting
needles for those drawn to advanced scientific practice. But perhaps
the rest if us could have separate classes in science appreciation,
the wonder of science, scientific ways of thinking, and the history
of scientific ideas, rather than laboratory experience.
Science is an uplifting
subject. It is full of wonder. Einstein himself was openly ruled
by an aesthetic scientific muse: "The most beautiful thing
we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true
art and science."
There is mystery in
the Universe, beguiling mystery, but it isn't capricious, whimsical,
frivolous in its changeability. The Universe is an orderly place
and, at a deep level, regions of it behave like other regions, times
behave like other times. If you put a brick on a table it stays
there unless something lawfully moves it, even if you meanwhile
forget it's there. Poltergeists and sprites don't intervene and
hurl it about for reasons of mischief or caprice. There is mystery
but not magic, strangeness beyond the wildest imagining, but no
spells or witchery, no arbitrary miracles.
This is not the impression
given by many popular television programmes. In one ubiquitous type
of programming, conjurers come on and do routine tricks. But instead
of admitting they are conjurers, these performers claim genuine
supernatural powers. In other programmes, disturbed people recount
their fantasies of ghosts, poltergeists or reincarnation.
Now how can I be so
sure that reincarnation doesn't happen and astrology doesn't work?
How can I be so confident that the television 'supernaturalists'
are ordinary conjurers, just because ordinary conjurers can replicate
It really comes down
to parsimony, economy of explanation. It is possible that your car
engine is driven by psychokinetic energy, but if it looks like a
petrol engine, smells like a petrol engine and performs exactly
as well as a petrol engine, the sensible working hypothesis is that
it is a petrol engine. Telepathy and possession by the spirits of
the dead are not ruled out as a matter of principle.
It's been suggested
that if the supernaturalists really had the powers they claim, they'd
win the lottery every week. I prefer to point out that they could
also win a Nobel Prize for discovering fundamental physical forces
hitherto unknown to science. Either way, why are they wasting their
talents doing party turns on television?
By all means let's be
open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out. Let's
not go back to a dark age of superstition and unreason, a world
in which every time you lose your keys you suspect poltergeists,
demons or alien abduction.
Magic in the Sky
Enough, let me turn
to happier matters. The popularity of the paranormal, oddly enough,
might even be grounds for encouragement . I think that the appetite
for mystery, the enthusiasm for that which we do not understand,
is healthy and to be fostered. It is the same appetite which drives
the best of true science, and it is an appetite which true science
is best qualified to satisfy. Perhaps it is this appetite that underlies
the ratings success of the paranormalists.
I believe that astrologers,
for instance, are playing on - misusing, abusing - our sense of
wonder. I mean when they hijack the constellations, and employ sub-poetic
language like "the Moon moving into the fifth house of Aquarius".
Real astronomy is the rightful proprietor of the stars and their
wonder. Astrology gets in the way, even subverts and debauches the
To show how real astronomical
wonder can be presented to children, I'll borrow from a book called
Earthsearch by John Cassidy, which I brought back from America to
show my daughter Juliet. Find a large open space and take a soccer
ball to represent the Sun. Put the ball down and walk ten paces
in a straight line. Stick a pin in the ground. The head of the pin
stands for the planet Mercury. Take another nine paces beyond Mercury
and put down a peppercorn to represent Venus. Seven paces on, drop
another peppercorn for Earth. One inch away from Earth, another
pinhead represents the Moon, the furthest place, remember, that
we've so far reached. Fourteen more paces to little Mars, then 95
paces to giant Jupiter, a ping-pong ball. Another 112 paces on,
Saturn is a marble. No time to deal with the outer planets except
to say that the distances are much larger. But, how far would you
have to walk to reach the nearest star, Proxima Centauri? Pick up
another soccer ball to represent it, and set off for a walk of 4200
miles. As for the nearest other galaxy, Andromeda, don't even think
Who'd go back to astrology
when they've sampled the real thing - astronomy, Yeats's "starry
ways", his "lonely, majestical multitude"? The same
lovely poem encourages us to "remember the wisdom out of the
old days" and I want to end with a little piece of wonder from
my own territory - evolution.
Ancient Wisdom in
You contain a trillion
copies of a large, textual document written in a highly accurate,
digital code, each copy as voluminous as a substantial book. I'm
talking, of course, of the DNA in your cells. Textbooks describe
DNA as a blueprint for a body. It's better seen as a recipe for
making a body, because it is irreversible. But today I want to present
it as something different again, and even more intriguing. The DNA
in you is a coded description of ancient worlds in which your ancestors
lived. DNA is the wisdom out of the old days, and I mean very old
The messages that have
come down to us are the ones that have survived millions, in some
cases hundreds of millions, of generations. For every successful
message that has reached the present, countless failures have fallen
away like the chippings on a sculptor's floor. That's what Darwinian
natural selection means. We are the descendants of a tiny »lite
of successful ancestors. Our DNA has proved itself successful, because
it is here. Geological time has carved and sculpted our DNA to survive
down to the present.
There are perhaps 30
million distinct species in the world today. So, there are 30 million
distinct ways of making a living, ways of working to pass DNA on
to the future. Some do it in the sea, some on land. Some up trees,
some underground. Some are plants, using solar panels - we call
them leaves - to trap energy. Some eat the plants. Some eat the
herbivores. Some are big carnivores that eat the small ones. Some
live as parasites inside other bodies. Some live in hot springs.
One species of small worms is said to live entirely inside German
beer mats. All these different ways of making a living are just
different tactics for passing on DNA. The differences are in the
The DNA of a camel was
once in the sea, but it hasn't been there for a good 300 million
years. It has spent most of recent geological history in deserts,
programming bodies to withstand dust and conserve water. Like sandbluffs
carved into fantastic shapes by the desert winds, camel DNA has
been sculpted by survival in ancient deserts to yield modern camels.
At every stage of its geological apprenticeship, the DNA of a species
has been honed and whittled, carved and rejigged by selection in
a succession of environments. If only we could read the language,
the DNA of tuna and starfish would have 'sea' written into the text.
The DNA of moles and earthworms would spell 'underground'. Of course
all the DNA would spell many other things as well. Shark and cheetah
DNA would spell 'hunt', as well as separate messages about sea and
We can't read these
messages yet. Maybe we never shall, for their language is indirect,
as befits a recipe rather than a reversible blueprint. But it's
still true that our DNA is a coded description of the worlds in
which our ancestors survived. We are walking archives of the African
Pliocene, even of Devonian seas, walking repositories of wisdom
out of the old days. You could spend a lifetime reading in this
ancient library and die unsated by the wonder of it.
Feeding the Appetite
There is an appetite
for wonder, and isn't true science well qualified to feed it?
It's often said that
people 'need' something more in their lives than just the material
world. There is a gap that must be filled. People need to feel a
sense of purpose. Well, not a bad purpose would be to find out what
is already here, in the material world, before concluding that you
need something more. How much more do you want? Just study what
is, and you'll find that it already is far more uplifting than anything
you could imagine needing.
You don't have to be
a scientist - you don't have to play the Bunsen burner - in order
to understand enough science to overtake your imagined need and
fill that fancied gap. Science needs to be released from the lab
into the culture.
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is an abridged version of the Richard Dimbleby Lecture originally
entitled Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder and
delivered on 12 November 1996. Parts of the lecture have been expanded
in the book Unweaving the Rainbow, now available in paperback
Professor Richard Dawkins
is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science
at Oxford University. Born in East Africa, he was educated at Oxford
University and taught zoology at the universities of California and
Oxford. Dawkins has extended Darwin's ideas on evolution, by arguing
that genes themselves evolve by competition. He later concluded that
ideas also evolve, in modules called memes. His books about evolution
and science include The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, River
Out of Eden and, most recently, Unweaving the Rainbow.