As I detailed in my last post, last night I headed down to NYU's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts to see Friend of the Bastard Dorian Devins conduct an interview with scientist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is currently touring to promote his new memoir, An Appetite for Wonder, and the interview pretty much stuck with the topics addressed in the book.
Professor Dawkins detailed his youth in Kenya, recounting a funny anecdote about a game of hide-and-seek with an adult friend. After searching a building, the young Richard returned to it after searching elsewhere and found the man. The man told the six-year old Dawkins that he had been in the building all along, but had been invisible. Professor Dawkins joked that the hadn't been a skeptic back then and, not considering that the man "lied", he took him at his word. It was a charming story, not as dramatic an "origin tale" as Bruce Wayne's, but illustrative of the good Doctor's "trajectory".
Professor Dawkins spent quite a bit of time talking about linguistics, and indicated that he had written a computer language as a younger man. He spoke about the development of dialects, and the point at which they split into separate languages. After observing that a Glaswegan dialect is barely intelligible, he opined that a dialect splits off to become a language when a native speaker is flattered by attempts to address them in their vernacular. An attempt on his part to speak German would be considered politeness, while an attempt to imitate a Glaswegan accent would probably get him in trouble.
He continued on with a long discussion of his neologism meme from The Selfish Gene. He described how a meme is a reliably transmitted unit of social information that is "selected" for (fashions and slang phrases are two examples of memes, and the spread of them can be measured much like a measles outbreak)- he used the analogy of a game of Chinese whispers to illustrate the transmission of memes- subjects playing the game can reliably transmit messages in their own language, but a group of English-speaking players transmitting a phrase in Hungarian would hopelessly garble the phonemes of the message. He indicated that, had computer viruses existed at the time, he would have used them as an analogy. He then wryly observed that the meaning of "meme" had mutated so that it describes internet phenomena usually involving cats.
The tone of the interview was very cordial, almost cozy. The audience was a friendly one, and Dorian kept a light, conversational tone. Professor Dawkins came across as a charming, erudite fellow- a far cry from the firebrand his detractors paint him to be. There was a brief Q&A after the conversation, and all but one of the questions were from whole-hearted supporters. The one guy who "challenged" Professor Dawkins was so inarticulate that his question had to be "translated" by a young lady standing at the other microphone set up for the Q&A. Basically, the guy asked Professor Dawkins about mathematical formulae that do not rely on empirical evidence, but on pure deductive reasoning, and questioned why a search for a deity couldn't proceed along the same lines. Dawkins steamrolled him, answering that when one proceeds from a false axiom, then one's logic, no matter how flawless, cannot lead to a sound conclusion. Poor stumbletongued dude, he didn't stand a chance against the articulate Oxford professor with the cultivated accent.
On the atheism front, Dr Dawkins cited census data indicating that religious identity declined precipitously in the UK from 2001-2011 and boggled at surveys which indicated that 40% of Americans didn't believe in evolution.
There were other cute moments, the good doctor mentioned his tie, hand-painted by his wife to depict chinstrap penguins. The doctor also gave advice to a man who was asking about "coming out" as an atheist to his wife (he told him to argue and debate, a surefire way to determine if the marriage were worth saving). He then related an anecdote about a friend whose husband transformed from a non-observant Jew to one who had two refrigerators and wouldn't flip a switch on Saturday- that marriage didn't survive. He was very sympathetic to kids who were struggling with coming out as non-believers and expressed a great degree of compassion for people living in fundamentalist societies such as Afghanistan, and the very real dangers that they faced. I was a bit surprised that nobody brought up the aftermath of Elevatorgate.
All told, it was a nice night, and my Dawkins fanboy friend got a book signed.