'The Prince And The Great Debate - Don't Turn Your Back on Science:
An open letter from biologist Richard Dawkins to Prince Charles
Sunday May 21, 2000
By Richard Dawkins, Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding
of Science at Oxford University
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 complex biosphere.
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.
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
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 for centuries!
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.
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.
Incidentally, 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!'
Moreover if, 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?
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 years.
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 extinct.
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
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?
What saddens 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.