Berkeley audience embraces author's evolutionary view to life's questions
By Lou Fancher Correspondent San Jose Mercury News
BERKELEY -- Richard Dawkins, the celebrated and often incendiary evolutionary biologist, whose bestselling book "The God Delusion" set out to turn religious leaders into atheists, turned his attention to the younger generation in an Oct. 11 Berkeley Arts & Letters Author Series appearance.
Arriving in Berkeley on the wings of a double-version paperback release of "The Magic of Reality," (Free Press, 2012) Dawkins was given a rousing warm-up intro from Sean Faircloth, director of strategy and policy at the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.
"I flew here in a giant metal tube," he said. "What a fascinating time to be alive!"
Describing the RDFRS as an organization working to overcome the religious bias of fundamentalism with critical, evidence-based thought, Faircloth was emphatic on three points:
Reason and compassion must be applied equally, everywhere in the world.
Enlightenment only succeeds if it is organized through grass roots efforts with adherence to reason.
Everyone in attendance should head afterward to the Hotel Shattuck for a beer and a discussion of "How to take over the state of California, together!"
It was a rousing, if overly-aerated introduction, and the Berkeley audience lapped it up like Cal fans on a Saturday afternoon in Memorial Stadium.
"It's a huge pleasure to be back in this much loved town, this playground of my youth," Dawkins said, after extended applause from the audience at First Congregational Church of Berkeley.
An assistant professor of zoology at UC Berkeley in the late 1960s, Dawkins returned to England's Oxford University in 1970, but retained a healthy American following, as evidenced by blockbuster book sales and the sold out lecture.
Briefly laying the foundation for his illustrated book ("aimed at 12-year-olds, but suitable for people as young as 7 and as old as 95," he said), Dawkins outlined and amplified each chapter in the book's soft-sided, but hard-as-nails examination of life's great questions.
"What is reality? What is magic? Who was the first person? What are things made of?" he asked.
The questions, while typical of a child, remain in the minds of most adults. Associated myths, legends and fairy tales, presented by Dawkins in each chapter as misguided efforts that "turn off reasoned thought," supported his premise: facts of the real world, understood through science, are magic enough.
"(I have) a principled objection to the "frog becomes a prince" idea," he announced. "If you take the bits of anything and shape the atoms at random and hope something will drop out of it -- you can do that for a trillion years and never get anything useful."
Dismissing tribal tales as "colorful" and the Biblical Adam as "enshrined" mythology, Dawkins suggested a thought experiment.
"Take a picture of yourself ... then add enough generations to reach a photo of your 185th grandfather. You would have a tower equal to 180 New York skyscrapers, or, tipped on its side, a 40-mile trek of photos ending in this," he said, as a large fish appeared on the screen behind him.
—Every picture along the path looks pretty much like its neighbor, and yet if you go far enough, you come to a fish. Is it a paradox?" he asked. "It's no more a paradox than that you were once a child and became a teenager. If you sample yourself at intervals along your life's span, you see you have changed."
Existential questions, like "Are we alone?" and "Why do bad things happen?" brought out the blunt, precise scientist in Dawkins.
A person insisting that life only exists on earth is "looking for a ridiculous, implausible theory," according to Dawkins. And there is no reason good things should happen to good people or bad things to bad, he said, adding, "The universe doesn't care."
Audience members, many nodding in agreement throughout the lecture, were unerringly deferential in the closing Q&A. It was notable that in a city known for robust debate and vigorous, even schismatic colloquy, Dawkins' hero worship status may have silenced a generation of critical, religious thinkers.
Even so, the questions provided another opportunity for Dawkins to advocate his positions.
For children: "I always think we should tell the truth, but perhaps comforting myths are not particularly pernicious."
For the rest of us: "The diversity of opinions suggests that all opinions are equally of value and should be listened to .... No they shouldn't!"
Dave McKean's eclectic artwork brings comic book, film, collage, and graphic design expertise to the package, making the choice between an illustrated and a text-only version a simple equation: if you have $16, get the latter. If you have $20, go for the full package.