“Darwin chose agnostic for tactical reasons”
PLAYBOY: What is the A pin you’re wearing?
RICHARD DAWKINS: It stands for “atheist.”
PLAYBOY: Like a scarlet letter?
DAWKINS: It’s not meant to reflect that. It’s part of my foundation’s Out Campaign. It means stand out and reach out, as well as come out for the beliefs you hold, and give the reasons. It’s a bit analogous to gay people coming out.
PLAYBOY: Although atheists can marry one another.
PLAYBOY: Is there a better word for a nonbeliever than atheist? Darwin preferred agnostic. Some have suggested humanist, naturalist, nontheist.
DAWKINS: Darwin chose agnostic for tactical reasons. He said the common man was not ready for atheism. There’s a lovely story the comedian Julia Sweeney tells about her own journey from devout Catholicism to atheism. After she’d finally decided she was an atheist, something appeared about it in the newspaper. Her mother phoned her in hysterics and said something like “I don’t mind you not believing in God, but an atheist?” [laughs] The word bright was suggested by a California couple. I think it’s rather a good word, though most of my atheist friends think it suggests religious people are dims. I say, “What’s wrong with that?” [laughs]
PLAYBOY: You’ve described yourself as a “tooth fairy” agnostic. What is that?
DAWKINS: Rather than say he’s an atheist, a friend of mine says, “I’m a tooth fairy agnostic,” meaning he can’t disprove God but thinks God is about as likely as the tooth fairy.
PLAYBOY: So you don’t completely rule out the idea of a supreme being. Critics see that as leaving an opening.
DAWKINS: You can think so, if you think there’s an opening for the tooth fairy.
PLAYBOY: Creationists love to cite gaps in the fossil record, such as the large one that precedes the Cambrian explosion, the period about 530 million years ago during which there was exponential growth in complex life-forms. How can you explain it?
DAWKINS: Of course there are gaps; fossilization is a rare event. But if we didn’t have a single fossil, the evidence for evolution would be absolutely secure because of comparative anatomy, comparative biochemistry, geographical distribution. The gap before the Cambrian explosion is interesting because it’s a big one. But if you think about it, there are major groups of animals that have no fossils. For example, today we saw in the natural history museum an almost microscopic creature called a tardigrade. They don’t fossilize because they’re soft. Presumably before the Cambrian, most of the ancestors of the Cambrian creatures were soft and small.
PLAYBOY: How do we know they existed if there are no fossils?
DAWKINS: That’s not quite the right question, is it? Their descendants existed in the Cambrian, so unless you seriously think they were created in the Cambrian, they must have existed. You may say that’s not evidence, and I’m saying you could say the same of any soft creature for which we have no fossils. How do we know it wasn’t created in 1800? It doesn’t make sense.
PLAYBOY: What about this one, another favorite of creationists: If modern animals such as monkeys evolved from frogs, why haven’t we found any fossils from a transitional creature such as a fronkey?
DAWKINS: The fallacy is thinking of modern animals as descended from other modern animals. If you take that seriously, there should be not just fronkey fossils but crocoduck or octocow fossils. Why on earth would you expect you could take any pair of animals and look for a combination of them? We’re looking at the tips of the twigs of the tree. The ancestors are buried deep in the middle, in the crown of the tree. There are no fronkeys because the common ancestor of a frog and a monkey would be some kind of fishy, salamandery thing that looks like neither a frog nor a monkey.
PLAYBOY: Creationists are fond of arguing that if you remove one part and it doesn’t work, then there’s no way it could have evolved.
DAWKINS: Quite a good analogy here is an arch, where you have stone, stone, stone, and then it meets in the middle and stands up. But take away any one part and it collapses. You might think it’s difficult to build an arch until you have the whole thing in place, but you’re not considering that they used scaffolding, which has since been taken down. That’s one answer. Another is to point out that you don’t need all the bits of an eye in order to see. You can have a very imperfect eye that can see only the difference between light and dark. That’s still useful if you can see the shadow of a predator. So it’s not true that half an eye is not useful. Half an eye is half as good as a whole eye, and it’s better than nothing.