Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Rock Star Biologist -- University Tour 2008, or How I Got to Meet Richard Dawkins

So Richard Dawkins came to UT Austin to talk this evening. The student group sponsoring the event was the Atheist Longhorns, led by the indomitable Sandra Sythe who booked the venue, negotiated with our Student Organizations Office, spent many hours tabling on our West Mall, and communicated with the Center For Inquiry and the Richard Dawkins Foundation (the organizations which funded the University Tour.)

The Center for Inquiry hosted a small reception (40ish) for Dawkins before the talk. We chatted briefly -- I told him that our physical anthropology professor assigned The Selfish Gene within a year or so of publication, and he asked where I'd gone to college. A couple of other people came over, and the conversation turned to politics, and one guy said, "You know, almost no one in this room could hold public office in Texas."

Dawkins asked what he meant by that, and we tried to explain the Texas Constitution. Dawkins and I both reached for our brain extensions (PDAs, etc.) to look it up on the web -- "aha" we laughed -- "a race!" -- Dawkins won because I have to use a guest ID and have to log on frequently (and every time I walk two blocks on this campus apparently -- can't wait for June and the advent of 802.1x) and he had it pulled up about the time I got logged on.

He then wanted to write it down, and I was the first one with paper (my little black moleskine book) -- Dawkins read it off his PDA, and some other guy wrote it down.

We'll come back to this in a bit, but a few minutes latter, a woman came over and said that Richard had told her that I'd gone to UCCS -- and she was on the faculty there! We talked a bit about how the school has changed, and the only professor I remember (except for Dave Nichols, r.i.p.), Fred Coolidge, is still there. (I never had a class with him, but he went to a couple of parties @ my friends Van & Eileen's house.)

Back to the subject -- the first thing Dawkins put up on view at the lecture (once he got started -- some technical glitches held things up for at least half an hour) was the following:

Texas' Bill of Rights Section 4:
"RELIGIOUS TESTS: No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments

and then he put up the rest of it:

, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being."

which really got a hoot out of the audience -- and that was the quote he'd written down on my moleskine paper!

The auditorium held over 1,000, and it was SRO -- I have a feeling they probably had to turn some people away. Most of the questions were o.k. -- I was a bit disappointed that out of the 8 or so people who asked questions there weren't any overt theists. There was one woman who started out referencing Zeitgeist, The Movie (don't get me started on that piece of shabby scholarship), which confused Dawkins (and most of the rest of the audience) into thinking that she was into astrology.

Couple of thoughts on the content of the talk -- he's not shrill about religion, unless you think that someone disagreeing with any of your theological beliefs is, by nature of merely disagreeing, shrill. Scott doesn't share my passion for cat macros, but I don't think he's shrill for it. There's just something different about religion, isn't there.

Dawkins said that if we only got one thing out of the talk, it was that natural selection and evolution are not random. Do I care to expound on this point? Nah, not right now -- perhaps later.

One neat thing he did was to put up a mock up of a special edition of a Journal addressing the extinction of dinosaurs. The first abstract was what you'd expect from a scientific journal -- "The existence of the iridium layer in XYZ may indicate that the dinosaur extinction is due to an asteroid strike." (sloppily transcribed by me, but you know what a scientific abstract should look like.)

This was followed with the "intelligent design" or "faith based" abstracts: "It has been personally revealed to Professor Higgins that asteroids caused the dinosaur extinctions." "Professor Hughes has a deeply felt notion that asteroids caused the dinosaur extinctions." "Professor Helix has issued a fatwa against those who don't believe that asteroids caused the extinctions."

All in all, for the most part, he gave a nice display of how to gently use consciousness raising to get your point across to a world hostile to scientific thought. (I thought the Marcus Brigstocke clip on religion was a bit over the top, even thought I laugh every time I watch it.)

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Dawkins mentioned PZ Myers of Pharyngula Phame (found on when he discussed the deceptive practices of the Expelled! movie crew.


Martin Wagner said...

Great story, Susan. You actually contributed to his talk!

Don Rhoades said...

Nice post, Susan. Another Moleskine fan, I see.

As we discussed this event was huge for both myself and my daughter. She is in the middle of reading "Delusion" and enjoyed hearing different parts explained in Dawkins' wonderful style.

The only part of the presentation I thought was weak was the little agnosticism scale. But that's such a small thing!


gl. said...

that texas constitution thing is crazy!

monado said...

Thanks for giving us a sense of what it was like to be there. It must have been a rush to have Prof. Dawkins use the Texas Constitution example.

A little voice in the back of my head piped up, "So help me Flying Spaghetti Monster!"