Scientists don’t get ticker-tape parades.
OK, that’s not entirely true. At one point, it was entirely possible for a man in a lab coat to be cheered on by throngs of grateful citizens while riding in a Cadillac down Broadway. You had to discover the hell out of something, though. Put it this way: they didn’t give one to Jonas Salk, and all he did was cure polio. You basically have to either a) go to the moon, in which case you’re probably not really a scientist and more of a pulp comic science hero, or b) literally be Albert Einstein, in which case you both discovered something that fundamentally changed the way we looked at the world and had the most meme-worthy hair in the pre-Internet era.Richard Dawkins isn’t about to break this trend. Let’s get this out of the way real quick: Dawkins comes off as kind of a jerk sometimes. I’m not saying he is a jerk, it’s just that he’s central casting’s dream for a morally bankrupt scientist: flat affect, comes off as somewhat emotionally empty, not only British but posh British, favors weird floral-print shirts (although this seems to have been a youthful affectation in “Evolution of the Eye” -- he’s in suits all the time these days), and at one point, he actually strokes an owl while he’s lecturing.
On top of all that? Totally an atheist. That doesn’t play terribly well in this country -- we distrust atheists more than we distrust lawyers.
The gorgeous thing about science -- about well-done, by-the-book science that has been subject to cruel and merciless peer review and stood on its own -- is that it doesn’t matter who is presenting it. You could have the biggest prick in the universe explain to you the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and it’d hold up if you cared to test it yourself. In its purest form, it’s totally separate from personality -- it simply is a Thing that is True.
Dawkins complicates this. It’s not really his fault that he does -- a scientifically literate populace would simply look at his work and judge it on merit -- but his position as Godless Ivory Tower Intellectual No. 1 makes it difficult for those he’s trying to convince to really take him seriously. They’re going to do one of two things*: not even bother to watch what Dawkins is presenting, or watch it in a mocking tone. Oh, sure, Rick, the eye totally evolved. Right. Communist.
All of this is too bad, because for all his (honestly minor) personality quirks, Dawkins is a top-flight evolutionary biologist. His book The Selfish Gene is a really stellar book -- a comprehensive argument for the gene-centered view of evolution. You can learn a lot from the man on things related to natural selection and the like. He’s put an awful lot of work into the whole bit, and it shows. He starts off this short presentation by postulating that the eye is a huge problem in evolutionary biology -- that it’s one of the first things people look to when seeking to disprove* evolution or offer an intelligent design explanation.
*One of the funnier videos on YouTube is called “Kirk Cameron and Bananas”, in which the former Growing Pains actor and evangelist Ray Comfort explain how the banana, since it is obviously designed to fit perfectly in the human hand, is a “nightmare” for atheists and supporters of the theory of evolution. This isn’t particularly persuasive, but it’s truly laughable when you consider that a wild banana looks something like this, and that the only reason they look like they’ve been designed is because, through cultivation and culling, we were the ones who designed them. In conclusion: for chrissakes, Kirk Cameron, open up Wiki-fucking-pedia the next time you have it in your head to make a video.
In the course of less than twenty minutes, Dawkins takes this admittedly problematic issue and thoroughly explains it in a way that children can (and seem to very quickly) understand. It’s all about long swathes of time, you see, and gradual, systematic improvements. It’s difficult for us to think in terms of millions or billions of years -- most of us can’t think past tomorrow -- but for an evolutionary biologist, it’s absolutely necessary. The biggest benefit to learning about evolution (aside from the fact that it makes you think correctly about some very fundamental things) is that you’re suddenly encouraged to take the long view -- that instead of existing in isolation, you’re part of a system that will last as long as life exists, on this planet or any other.
Maybe that doesn’t deserve a ticker-tape parade, but in Richard Dawkins’s case, I think it merits our attention.
Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at email@example.com and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.