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It’s Good to Be Alive; Or, How Richard Dawkins Makes it Even Better to Be Alive

August 11, 2009

PerseidEvery August, the Earth’s swing through space knocks through the debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle, creating the Perseid meteor shower. Unfortunately, it’s a little too cloudy here in DC for a good view tonight, but hopefully tomorrow at midnight, we’ll have a decent shot at catching the peak of the annual show.

Tonight, I’ll let prospect of fiery streaks in the sky be symbolic of something greater. Much can be made of our existence being confined to a tiny spot of a tiny world in a tiny corner of an average-sized galaxy in an enormous, mysterious universe. And that’s true, as far as it goes.

DawkinsBut, there is a lot for us to concern ourselves with in this little place. At the moment, my concern is fixated on Richard Dawkins’ work. Though I came to know of Dawkins through his relentless attacks against the gods our cultures have imposed on themselves, that’s not the important thing to me right now.

Nor am I too concerned with his work as a biologist at Oxford. I have almost no knowledge of his contributions to the scientific understanding of the theory of evolution or his professional dispute with Stephen Jay Gould. I certainly don’t understand nearly enough about punctuated equilibrium or gradualism to have an informed position of my own.

What floors me about Dawkins is his ceaseless drive to help us all understand the science to which he has devoted his life: the theory of evolution. I have learned much more about the hierarchy of life on this planet from his books, lectures, and documentaries than from any of my high school or college biology courses.

In an eight-minute video, he can explain why the five volcanoes on the Galapagos Island of Isabela comprise a virtual archipelago as important to the evolution of tortoises as the actual archipelago of separate islands.

His two-minute discussion of the vestigial wings of the flightless cormorant places one important type of evolutionary development in its broad context.

The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker masterfully construct easily-understood portraits of broad themes in evolutionary biology from carefully-selected representative phenomena.

Dawkins does not reserve his infectious enthusiasm for the subfield of evolutionary biology. It’s clear that his sense of wonder is continually satisfied by scientific inquiry itself. His collection of essays Unweaving the Rainbow combines several personal anecdotes with a handful of subjects outside of biology illuminated by careful inquiry.

As the clouds seem to be breaking, making me hope to catch sight of a few meteors before bed, I will leave you with Queerer Than We Can Suppose, Dawkins’ twenty-minute love song to our world and the endless and diligent quest to understand it. Any speech that quotes both Feynman and Wittgenstein in its first four minutes has to be doing something right.

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