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article imageWaking up in the Universe - A Lecture by Richard Dawkins

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     Feb 15, 2009 in Science
In 1991, world-renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins gave a landmark series of 5 lectures on evolution at the prestigious Royal Institution, a tradition started by one of the greatest experimental scientists who ever lived, Michael Faraday.
The Christmas Lectures are intended to get young people interested in science, but they are just as fascinating for adults, possibly even more so, as too many of us have never had the privilege of experiencing high quality educational material on this high a level.
The title of the series was “Growing Up in the Universe.” This series has now been made available in high quality on YouTube. It is remarkable how well this series has aged. Essentially all of it is still just as true as it was 17 years ago. I am going to review the 5 lectures one by one and I wholeheartedly recommend anyone to watch and rewatch them.
Reviewing lectures like these is very hard indeed. Richard Dawkins is not in the habit of using “fluffy language” to fill time. Therefore, reluctantly, I will only mention some of the salient points.
Where does life come from? What is it? Why are we here? What are we for? What is the meaning of life?
There is a conventional wisdom, which says that science has nothing to say about such questions. If there is nothing science can say, then it is certain that there is no other discipline that can say anything at all. However, science has a great deal to say about such questions. This is what the five lectures are about.
The title of the first lecture is “Waking up in the universe.”
With plenty of hands-on demonstrations, including a working scanning electron microscope, he demonstrates how mysteriously beautiful our world is, and how compelling the drive to understand it.
He shows how poor a substitute our technological realizations are. He compares them with nature and shows how wondrous constructions like our hands and our brains would cost colossal fortunes to construct and take enormous amounts of time and research. And yet:
a woman can do it, with no research and only nine months of development and only a little help from a friend.
He talks about how grotesquely lucky we are to be born at all, how unlikely it is to become an ancestor and uses microbes and Charles Darwin’s example of elephants to demonstrate how unbridled reproduction is impossible.
One of the main obstacles to understanding evolution is getting an understanding of how enormous the time spans are we are talking about. Richard Dawkins gives a few demonstrations in order to try to illustrate this crucial point.
He also convincingly demonstrates how petty and parochial our religious beliefs are, and he does that by comparing the geographical distribution of religious beliefs and languages with a hypothetical geographical distribution of dinosaur extinction theories. This, in turn, he uses to show how disagreements between scientists are different from disagreements between belief systems.
Growing up in the universe partly means evolving from simple to complicated, from inefficient to efficient, brainless to brainy, but it also mean growing out of parochial and superstitious views of the universe, growing up to a proper, scientific understanding of the universe, based upon evidence, public argument rather than authority or tradition or private revelation.
Richard Dawkins then proceeds to demonstrating the difference between belief in the supernatural and belief in science with two compelling experiments, one of which involving a heavy cannonball that could easily have seriously harmed him if science was wrong. Since he is still among us, the odds are that the science behind his experiment was correct.
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