❚ TOP-CLASS NEWSNIGHT INTERVIEW LAST NIGHT! Did you know “Darwin’s Rottweiler”, aka the evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins, could laugh? Or that British television’s one-man Spanish Inquisition, Jeremy Paxman, could even contemplate a honeyed whisper? Well not only did the pair dance through a good-humoured sparring-match about the poetic merits of fairytales and/or science — “the false” versus “the true” in the Prof’s universe — but each managed to make the other laugh.
Paxo kept the debate brisk with his cogent interventions, though when he suggested that religions tend to make societies hang together, the Prof riposted with a smile: “You don’t believe that, do you?” As rewarding a TV interview as you’ve seen in ages; nine priceless minutes well worth catching on the iPlayer.
Dawkins has written a new book called The Magic of Reality which is aimed at the young as a warning against “believing in anti-scientific fairytales”, whether those are myths from ancient civilisations or, if we need reminding, religious doctrines such as creationism. Last night’s TV parley was careful not to revisit the Prof’s pet topic published as his 2006 book The God Delusion, which he calls “probably the culmination” of his campaign against religion.
When Paxo maintained that mythology makes for better stories than straight fact, Dawkins said he wasn’t knocking storytelling, but genuinely thinks man’s evolution is more exciting and poetic than, say, Judeo-Christian myth. “We started off on this planet, this speck of dust, and in four billion years we gradually changed from bacteria into us. That is a spell-binding story.”
Some might say Dawkins the militant atheist was being unreasonably reasonable! He genially confessed he finds the Bible’s Book of Genesis affecting — “as a story, as long as you don’t think it’s true. The trouble is that 40% of the American people think it’s literally true”.
➢ The Magic of Reality: How we know what’s really true, by Richard Dawkins (Bantam Press £10) — Novelist Philip Pullman says: “It’s the clearest and most beautifully written introduction to science I’ve ever read.”
Lalla, a footnote to history
❏ Prof Dawkins mentioned last night that the extracts from his book were being read on Newsnight by “Lalla”. This refers to Lalla Ward, once the wife of actor Tom Baker, the fourth and most memorable Doctor Who from the 1970s, opposite whom she played Romana the Time Lady. It was her long-standing friend Douglas Adams, a Monty Python and Doctor Who scriptwriter best known as the cult author of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who in 1992 introduced Lalla to his good friend Dawkins, and they married within the year. The joker and the boffin had formed a brilliant Doug & Dick double-act, appearing at sci-fi and no-fi science gatherings where they would robustly debate the merits of technology (Doug) and evolutionary theory (Dick). Not many people know that apart from being a nifty illustrator, embroiderer and knitter, Lalla makes all of hubby’s batik ties which are decorated with zoological imagery. Last night he was wearing one showing a fierce bird of prey diving to the attack.