Dawkins and Hewitt

5 minute read

I want to point to an interview between conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt and Richard Dawkins, on the subject of Dawkins’ new book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Hewitt is a practicing Catholic and lawyer, as well as a Stephen Jay Gould undergraduate student, and by no means hostile to the idea of evolution. He has clearly spent more thought preparing for the Dawkins interview than Dawkins had done.

Hewitt, like many interviewers, spends a lot of time trying to pin down Dawkins on issues related to his previous book, The God Delusion. But what I thought worth discussion was this section of the interview:

HH: So after Lucy, whats the next most forward one closest to us?
RD: After Lucy, that would be, I would think, Australopithecus Africanus, or Homo Habilus.
HH: And about how many years separate those two?
RD: About, well, actually, Homo Habilus would be only a few hundred thousand years from Lucy.
HH: And after Homo Habilus, whats next?
RD: I would think Homo Erectus, which would be maybe about another million years, and then Homo Sapiens.
HH: And so do you expect, Richard Dawkins, that as the continued search for fossils goes on, that those gaps in the record will be filled in?
RD: Well, I dont call them gaps. I mean
HH: I know that, but
RD: Theyre pretty close.
HH: But do you expect any intermediate fossils to be discovered for those periods?
RD: Yes, I do, but I dont think we even need them, because theyre already so close, that the terminology, I mean, for example, Homo Habilus is sometimes called Australopithecus Habilus, theyre so close, that the terminology becomes disputed.
HH: And do you expect they will all be in Africa?
RD: Yes.
HH: And none of them in Asia, none of them
RD: Well, humans first moved out into Asia about one and a half million years ago as Homo Erectus, so there are specimens in Asia which were independently there, and they came from Africa.
HH: And so a hundred years from now, when this conversation is underway, what do you expect most of the argument to be about, if indeed there is an argument left?
RD: Well, there already isnt an argument left, because if you actually look at the evidence, it is completely conclusive.

I think this is a really bad job of laying out the case for human evolution. He’s got the basic facts, at a superficial level, but there’s no flavor here, no joy of discovery.

As a result, Dawkins leaves the impression that there are a handful of fossils and large gaps between them. Thousands of listeners, many receptive to science, are hearing that the evidence for human evolution consists of three species put together by a lot of hand-waving. And one of them, that “Homo that could be Australopithecus”, we don’t even know well enough to give it a name!

Now Dawkins is not a paleoanthropologist. So, one might think we should cut him some slack. But human evolution is the stumbling block for a lot of people, and you have to get this right. There are hundreds and hundreds of specimens that underlie our knowledge of Plio-Pleistocene human evolution. Those specimens are contextualized both by date and by their paleoecology. We know a damned lot about them. Some aspects of the science are subject to debate, sure, but most is rock solid. That’s what you need to be ready to get out of your mouth in a hundred words or less.

How should you do it? Have a short story – I mean, literally, a 100-word story – that conveys the flavor and reality of fossil humans. I’d say nowadays, you start with Dmanisi. Here’s a site, found under the foundation of a medieval monastery, with five fossil humans who are the earliest known people out of Africa. In size and looks they’re clearly in between those of earlier ape-like australopithecines and today’s humans. There was an old woman who was the first-known person to outlive her teeth – but unlike your grandma, her brain was half the size, and “old” might have meant forty. Two teen-agers, a boy and a big, big man whose teeth were twice as big as mine. Since they lived, one point eight million years ago, the earth’s poles have reversed not once, but six times.

OK, that was 110 words – it’s not easy. But you have to be ready. Why is Homo erectus not just a human, in the biblical sense? What’s the next story up in time (I’d go with Atapuerca)? What about backward (Ardipithecus is a good one, but you’ll want to do better than Dawkins’ name-dropping mention)?

Lay listeners don’t care about species names – that’s fancy obfuscatory science-lingo. Yes, we use species names for special purposes. But evolutionary biology is not typology. Species are not or unit of study – individuals and populations are. We have more than a hundred specimens from Sterkfontein or Koobi Fora; more than thirty-five bodies in the caves of Atapuerca. Calling them Australopithecus africanus, or Homo erectus, or Homo heidelbergensis – those names trivialize the evidence.

People wonder why I’m passionate about open access – this is one of the reasons. What a great opportunity we’re missing, by not being able to direct folks to the rich record of basic evidence for our origins. TalkOrigins is awesome, but we need visuals, more links to research, a directory of paleoanthropologists, the reality of human genetic evolution.

I’ve cited a small part of a very long interview, with many interesting parts. I don’t fault Dawkins or Hewitt at all for the focus on atheism versus religion – the fact is, that is why many interviewers are willing to have Dawkins come on, they know the ratings potential of that issue. I just think it’s a poor piece of communication, to be unprepared with evocative examples that will give people a vivid picture of the reality of evolution. Because that’s the point of the new book, right?

It’s one thing to come off well during a brief appearance on The Colbert Report. But an hour-long radio show – there’s no format better to bring out the real evidence. But you’ve got to be snappy.