My Life In Science: An Evening With Richard Dawkins – Lowry, Salford
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Whether you find him inspirational or adversarial, motivating or irritating, you can’t deny that Richard Dawkins is a giant of popular science, one of the great thinkers that have stretched the science sections of high street bookshops and dominate talk radio and TV. His popularity is proven by a sell-out event at the Lowry as part of the Manchester Science Festival, and an added night in October due to exceptional demand for tickets. Dawkins is here to promote his latest book, the second volume of his memoir, Brief Candle in the Dark.
There’s a somewhat chaotic start to the evening as interviewer Leila Johnston launches into the interview with a startling lack of context. For a start we’re expecting Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group to be pitching the questions. Johnston fails to explain his absence, introduce herself or her credentials. Either she’s has been pulled in at the last minute with little opportunity for research other than viewing a few YouTube clips, or she’s totally starstruck. Either way she struggles to give any structure to the conversation, jumping from subject to subject and offering no opportunity for debate.
Of course, Dawkins is a seasoned interviewee and he trots out a number of well-honed stories with an easy charm. He also responds well to a certain amount of flattery from Johnston about his poetic writing style, musing on how he enjoys polishing the text and getting the cadence right. Like many other popular science writers, it’s this easy style that has made his most popular book, The God Delusion, such an extraordinary best-seller. You don’t get to be Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford (which he was from 1995-12008) without being able to communicate science in a scholarly, yet accessible way. He’s fiercely protective of The God Delusion, surprisingly sensitive when it’s described as ‘strident’, which seems out of place given the book’s well argued hypothesis.
Dawkins is best when talking about those people that inspire him – from Shakespeare to David Attenborough, from his wife Lalla Ward to Philosopher Daniel Dennett. He’s keen to pass on some of their greatness too, referring the audience to articles and interviews, sharing his own passion for learning with a real sense of generosity. There’s a high point in the interview when Johnston introduces Dennett’s Afterword for Dawkin’s 1982 book The Extended Phenotype, in which Dennett describes Dawkins’s work as philosophy. Dawkins is clearly delighted by the idea, saying that he’s always striving to change the way we see things, and he’s equally impressed when Johnston describes his books as the beginning of a conversation.
Although the evening lacks any real intellectual debate or provocation, it’s nice to see the man in person. Dawkins comes over as a calmer, much more amiable individual than he does in the media. He says he finds the confrontational aspect of broadcast media irritating, and yet he can often be found in the rôle of antagonist, pitched against adversaries by drama-hungry producers. Even when cutting short rambling, irrational arguments thrown at him during the Q&A, he does it with a smile.
Reviewed on 14 September 2015