Why should you listen to Richard Dawkins?
"I am passionate about science," the renowned rationalist says in a recent phone interview. That sounds reasonable.
The eminent British evolutionary scientist, secular humanist, best-selling author and free-thinker will discuss his work, answer questions from the audience and sign books Nov. 4 at The Bushnell.
Dawkins is at least as well known for his outspoken humanist and atheist views as for his decades of scientific explorations. He was recently on Bill Maher's HBO show "Real Time" explaining why he put the word "Soul" in the title of his new collection of essays "Science in the Soul — Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist":
"I'm fed up with religion hijacking the soul." He defined the word as "the catch in the throat you get when you look up at the Milky Way, the swelling in the chest you get when you hear a Shubert quartet or read a Shakespeare sonnet."
Dawkins is used to controversy and to being targeted with vicious comments because of his views. But at his talks, he says, there is "virtually no dissent — rather to my disappointment."
He's comfortable with a number of different presentational formats. While he enjoys robust debate, he also likes a deep, focused discussion.
"I like the ideas of an onstage conversation that doesn't have to be a debate. The importance of a mutual tutorial can be undervalued, so I like to support that."
Dawkins says that there is room for a lot of topics to be discussed onstage.
"...Since Carl Zimmer is the one interviewing me in Hartford, I certainly hope we'll be doing some talking about science."
Zimmer writes the "Matter" column for The New York Times, teaches at Yale and is the author of "Soul Made Flesh" and several books on evolution.
Dawkins' "Science in the Soul" was just released in August, but this is not a book tour he's on.
"It's not being sponsored by the publisher," he says. Several speaking engagements were scheduled for October because Dawkins was traveling anyway: to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry's CSICon in Las Vegas at the end of the month, then to Pittsburgh to receive the Carl Sagan Award from the Carnegie Mellon University Humanism Initiative on Nov. 7. Dawkins says he met Sagan in person "just once, but I'm very keen on him," and admired his TV series "Cosmos."
Dawkins says that evolution remains an "exciting field," because of breakthroughs in molecular genetics. His first book on evolution was "The Selfish Gene" in 1976, now celebrated for coining the term "meme" to describe how ideas or behaviors spread throughout a cultural group.
Among his many other books: "The God Delusion," "The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True" and his autobiographies "An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist" and "Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science."
How does the host of the documentary series "The Genius of Charles Darwin" think the author of "The Origin of the Species" would feel if he were around today?
"Darwin, I think, would be thrilled. He was aware that the genetics that people believed in during his lifetime was not conducive to natural selection. That's all changed."
Dawkins no longer teaches at Oxford University, where he studied in the 1960s and taught for decades. Now, he says, he educates mainly through his lectures and other appearances. He's involved with a number of organizations that share his views. His own Richard Dawkins Foundation, which he founded a decade ago, merged last year with the Center for Inquiry (CFI).
CFI spokesman Paul Fidalgo explained in an email exchange that "the merger came about as a confluence of circumstances. It became clear to both organizations that it made an incredible amount of sense to join up: the two groups shared essentially the same mission, and each had strengths that complemented the other."
CFI is sponsoring the tour that is bringing Dawkins to Hartford. When asked why he thinks Dawkins is such an important presence, Fidalgo responds:
"Here's what I think Dawkins represents, and brings into the culture: Clarity. Certainly, for nonbelievers, the way he communicated the harms of religion's stranglehold over so much of public life, uncompromisingly and unapologetically, was a revelation. I think it broke the ice in public discourse and gave many of us an injection of courage and resolve to embrace our atheist identities without any more fear and alienation.
"But that's just one aspect of it. I didn't read 'The Selfish Gene' until my late 20s, when I was under the illusion I understood the basics of evolution. But, again, 'The Selfish Gene' presented a level of clarity of thinking that was like a shock to the system. 'Oh, this is how evolution works! I get it now!' So that clarity of thought, along with his intellect and wit, is among the things that have made his work so important to me and others."
AN EVENING WITH RICHARD DAWKINS, hosted by Carl Zimmer, begins at 7 p.m. Nov. 4 at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Tickets are $29 to $250. 860-987-5900 and bushnell.org.