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.
- This is the science author Richard Dawkins reply to a lecture
that Prince Charles gave in May 2000 about Sustainable Development.
You can find the entire transcript of the Prince Charles talk on
the BBC Website here;
which forms the backdrop to this opinion by Richard Dawkins.
Your Royal Highness,
Your Reith Lecture
saddened me. I have deep sympathy for your aims, and admiration
for your sincerity. But your hostility to science will not serve
those aims; and your embracing of an ill-assorted jumble of mutually
contradictory alternatives will lose you the respect that I think
you deserve. I forget who it was who remarked: 'Of course we must
be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.'
Let's look at
some of the alternative philosophies which you seem to prefer over
scientific reason. First, intuition, the heart's wisdom 'rustling
like a breeze through the leaves'. Unfortunately, it depends whose
intuition you choose. Where aims (if not methods) are concerned,
your own intuitions coincide with mine. I wholeheartedly share your
aim of long-term stewardship of our planet, with its diverse and
But what about
the instinctive wisdom in Saddam Hussein's black heart? What price
the Wagnerian wind that rustled Hitler's twisted leaves? The Yorkshire
Ripper heard religious voices in his head urging him to kill. How
do we decide which intuitive inner voices to heed?
This, it is
important to say, is not a dilemma that science can solve. My own
passionate concern for world stewardship is as emotional as yours.
But where I allow feelings to influence my aims, when it comes to
deciding the best method of achieving them I'd rather think than
feel. And thinking, here, means scientific thinking. No more effective
method exists. If it did, science would incorporate it.
this really natural?
Next, Sir, I
think you may have an exaggerated idea of the naturalness of 'traditional'
or 'organic' agriculture. Agriculture has always been unnatural.
Our species began to depart from our natural hunter-gatherer lifestyle
as recently as 10,000 years ago - too short to measure on the evolutionary
Wheat, be it
ever so wholemeal and stoneground, is not a natural food for Homo
sapiens. Nor is milk, except for children. Almost every morsel of
our food is genetically modified - admittedly by artificial selection
not artificial mutation, but the end result is the same. A wheat
grain is a genetically modified grass seed, just as a pekinese is
a genetically modified wolf. Playing God? We've been playing God
The large, anonymous
crowds in which we now teem began with the agricultural revolution,
and without agriculture we could survive in only a tiny fraction
of our current numbers. Our high population is an agricultural (and
technological and medical) artifact. It is far more unnatural than
the population-limiting methods condemned as unnatural by the Pope.
Like it or not, we are stuck with agriculture, and agriculture -
all agriculture - is unnatural. We sold that pass 10,000 years ago.
human activity has caused environmental disaster
Does that mean
there's nothing to choose between different kinds of agriculture
when it comes to sustainable planetary welfare? Certainly not. Some
are much more damaging than others, but it's no use appealing to
'nature', or to 'instinct' in order to decide which ones. You have
to study the evidence, soberly and reasonably - scientifically.
Slashing and burning (incidentally, no agricultural system is closer
to being 'traditional') destroys our ancient forests. Overgrazing
(again, widely practised by 'traditional' cultures) causes soil
erosion and turns fertile pasture into desert. Moving to our own
modern tribe, monoculture, fed by powdered fertilisers and poisons,
is bad for the future; indiscriminate use of antibiotics to promote
livestock growth is worse.
one worrying aspect of the hysterical opposition to the possible
risks from GM crops is that it diverts attention from definite dangers
which are already well understood but largely ignored. The evolution
of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria is something that a
Darwinian might have foreseen from the day antibiotics were discovered.
Unfortunately the warning voices have been rather quiet, and now
they are drowned by the baying cacophony: 'GM GM GM GM GM GM!'
as I expect, the dire prophecies of GM doom fail to materialise,
the feeling of let-down may spill over into complacency about real
risks. Has it occurred to you that our present GM brouhaha may be
a terrible case of crying wolf?
in tooth and claw'
Even if agriculture
could be natural, and even if we could develop some sort of instinctive
rapport with the ways of nature, would nature be a good role model?
Here, we must think carefully. There really is a sense in which
ecosystems are balanced and harmonious, with some of their constituent
species becoming mutually dependent. This is one reason the corporate
thuggery that is destroying the rainforests is so criminal.
On the other
hand, we must beware of a very common misunderstanding of Darwinism.
Tennyson was writing before Darwin but he got it right. Nature really
is red in tooth and claw. Much as we might like to believe otherwise,
natural selection, working within each species, does not favour
long-term stewardship. It favours short-term gain. Loggers, whalers,
and other profiteers who squander the future for present greed,
are only doing what all wild creatures have done for three billion
No wonder T.H.
Huxley, Darwin's bulldog, founded his ethics on a repudiation of
Darwinism. Not a repudiation of Darwinism as science, of course,
for you cannot repudiate truth. But the very fact that Darwinism
is true makes it even more important for us to fight against the
naturally selfish and exploitative tendencies of nature. We can
do it. Probably no other species of animal or plant can. We can
do it because our brains (admittedly given to us by natural selection
for reasons of short-term Darwinian gain) are big enough to see
into the future and plot long-term consequences. Natural selection
is like a robot that can only climb uphill, even if this leaves
it stuck on top of a measly hillock. There is no mechanism for going
downhill, for crossing the valley to the lower slopes of the high
mountain on the other side. There is no natural foresight, no mechanism
for warning that present selfish gains are leading to species extinction
- and indeed, 99 per cent of all species that have ever lived are
a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful,
blundering, low, and horridly cruel works of nature.'
The human brain,
probably uniquely in the whole of evolutionary history, can see
across the valley and can plot a course away from extinction and
towards distant uplands.
Long-term planning - and hence the very possibility of stewardship
- is something utterly new on the planet, even alien. It exists
only in human brains. The future is a new invention in evolution.
It is precious. And fragile. We must use all our scientific artifice
to protect it.
It may sound
paradoxical, but if we want to sustain the planet into the future,
the first thing we must do is stop taking advice from nature. Nature
is a short-term Darwinian profiteer. Darwin himself said it: 'What
a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering,
low, and horridly cruel works of nature.' Of course that's bleak,
but there's no law saying the truth has to be cheerful; no point
shooting the messenger - science - and no sense in preferring an
alternative world view just because it feels more comfortable. In
any case, science isn't all bleak. Nor, by the way, is science an
arrogant know-all. Any scientist worthy of the name will warm to
your quotation from Socrates: 'Wisdom is knowing that you don't
know.' What else drives us to find out?
me most, Sir, is how much you will be missing if you turn your back
on science. I have tried to write about the poetic wonder of science
myself, but may I take the liberty of presenting you with a book
by another author? It is The Demon-Haunted World by the lamented
Carl Sagan. I'd call your attention especially to the subtitle:
Science as a Candle in the Dark .