Dinner with Dawkins

While sorting out material for my upcoming book Sour Grapes, I found all kinds of stories that never saw the light of day. Like this cheeky report on dinner with Richard Dawkins.

After many years listening for a message from outer space at the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, it finally looks like ET is phoning home. SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, is getting ready for the money shot following the announcement in the New Scientist of three short radio transmissions that have captured everyone’s attention. Signals from intelligent life perhaps or at the very least “a natural phenomenon of a previously undreamed-of kind.”

rd Dinner with Dawkins

If the first case holds then Steven Spielberg probably has some ideas as to what these intergalactic radio jocks look like with the colour green, bendy fingers and a pair of soulful eyes featuring big. And he may be right, according to Richard Dawkins, the über-evolutionary biologist and Oxford don who presented a lecture on the predictability or otherwise of evolution at the Westcliff Hotel.

The Westcliff, squashed like a pink bath sponge onto the hill above the Johannesburg Zoo with a good view of a Mormon temple complete with angels with flaming swords on Parktown Ridge, was the venue for the tenth birthday party for PAST, the Paleo-Anthropology Scientific Trust (“we must change the name” quipped chairman Tony Trahar, catchy acronym notwithstanding) with the Dawkins dinner the highpoint. Past was founded by the late Gavin Relly, former Anglo chairman, in 1994, to rescue the Wits University paleontology department and the Cradle of Mankind at Sterkfontein from financial oblivion.

While armed angels would have had little appeal for Dawkins, Britain’s most famous atheist (when he debated the existence of God with the Archbishop of York, the score was memorably noted as Christians: 0, Lions:10) proximity to the Zoo was a bonus as this Professor of the Public Understanding of Science (or Professor of PUS as it must be surely abbreviated) is also the world’s most famous zoologist. In fact in his opening remarks he admitted to being happy to be back on the continent of his birth which is personally true for this native of Nairobi circa 1941 (with East Africa a good choice for birthplace for an evolutionist) and true in the broader sense for everyone else with the news just in of the discovery of tiny holes in volcanic glass found in SA, believed to be “burrows” of micro-organisims circa 3.5 billion years ago, the world’s oldest fossils.

Judging by the number of SUVs of the successful “selfish gene” business heavyweight audience packing the Westcliff parking lot (Jonathan Oppenheimer being perhaps the most successful in evolutionary terms), a function at the Cradle of Mankind would have been feasible, but not essential, as fieldwork for Dawkins now seems more of the thought experiment than trowel and duster kind. But perhaps the chef at Cornuti the Cradle knows that a Caesar’s [sic] salad is not strips of chicken breast on wilted lettuce, the Westcliff interpretation.

The theme of Dawkins’ address was the possibility of predicting evolutionary outcomes, a settled question for applied mathematicians as the evolutionary principles of genetic crossover and mutation are widely used in stochastic optimization where deterministic methods fail. Nevertheless the handful of Wits University paleo-anthropologists I first mistook for paleontologists, hunkered down for a serious lecture and a bit of hero worship.

The speaker was introduced by Trahar as “a great man with a great appendage” which turned out to be a tie featuring bushman art, hand painted by Mrs. Dawkins. Which confirms that social evolution, at least, is continent specific as arriving for dinner in a do-it-yourself Aboriginal analogue would get you lynched Down Under.

Dawkins’ first point was that you can’t forecast the future of any species, except to note that many have gone extinct. Nature has re-run the game of evolution several times on geographically distinct continents and while Australia specialized in pouches, peculiar hairy appendages and cricketing prowess, styles of animal evolution Down Under agree broadly with the experience on Madagascar, in South America and Africa.

Eyes are a good example. Octopi and man developed remarkably similar peepers completely independently and Dawkins reports that evolution has independently invented eyes between 40 and 60 times. So if you accept that natural selection applies as well on Alpha Centauri as it does in Australia (an assumption Dawkins explores in his best seller The Blind Watchmaker), chances are our interstellar DJs wear sun glasses.

Similarly flight is a popular form of locomotion, so popular in New Zealand that the ecological niche for herbivores was filled by birds, which gives the flying bicycle scene from ET some credibility.

Some things develop only once, like beetles that shoot boiling liquids out of their rear ends, for obvious reasons. Language seems to have evolved only once and Dawkins claims that the reception of radio waves has never evolved in nature, although the SETI transmissions may yet prove him wrong.

When the asteroid hits, Dawkins predicts it will be rats who inherit the earth (some may argue that they do already). Within five million years Dawkins imagines herds of giant rats stalked by packs of sabretooth rats, a future he seemed to relish.

On the subject of multiple human evolution, the prevailing Stephen J. Gould orthodoxy is a big thumbs down, but Dawkins admits to an admiration for Simon Conway Morris (even if he is a Cambridge chap) whose book Life’s Solution is subtitled “inevitable humans in a lonely universe” and argues that in the same way that most Modigliani paintings feature languid nude ladies, evolution repeats the same solution and posits a universe with Earth-like planets evolving humans.

The conclusion of the argument was that evolution is predictable not in detail but in certain repeated patterns, an equivocation worthy of 14th century logician. With the faint aroma of a cop-out, it also sounds a bit like the advice of financial advisors who can never predict which share will go up, just that some will go up (the ones you don’t have) while others (the ones you do) will go down. But then as Dawkins admitted “there’s quite a lot of economics in evolution” referring to the ideas of Adam “Wealth of Nations” Smith appropriated by Charles Darwin to make his point. But then the Dawkins dinner was sponsored by Standard Bank whose chairman Jacko Maree, seated next to Dawkins, is probably used to economist answers.