Food for thought: controversial scientist opens St Andrews Literary Festival

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Professor Richard Dawkins. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Professor Richard Dawkins. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Professor Richard Dawkins.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Professor Richard Dawkins, controversial author and evolutionary biologist known for his books The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, visited St Andrews on 16 September. The event opened the St Andrews Literary Festival, during which he discussed his latest book, A Brief Candle in the Dark, the second volume of his autobiography. The first volume, An Appetite for Wonder, was published in 2011.

Hosted by Topping & Co. and chaired by Professor Andrew Whiten, there was standing room only in Younger Hall as it was it was packed with people eager to hear him speak. I got into a very vibrant discussion with the two girls sitting either side of me, both of whom were also students. One of them was a fan of Dawkins’ work, and explained to me how reading his books had led to her to be more inquisitive about science and religion, whereas the other girl was definitely not a fan, saying that she found his views to be offensive and rude.

Those expecting an intense science versus religion debate were left, for the most part, disappointed since the talk focused mainly on the period of Dawkins’ life chronicled in the book. Dawkins began by thanking the University (where his daughter studied a degree in Medicine) for welcoming him before he and Professor Whiten read excerpts from his book, which included anecdotes from his career.

Some were funny, such as the time a Japanese translator misinterpreted the word “vehicle” as “taxi”, leading him to give an interview in the back of a taxi, as it was what they believed to be the subject of his work. Some involved both humour and seriousness, such as the tale of his friend who, upon having both legs amputated, wished to have them buried in Kenya. The only way of doing this, however, was to stow them in his hand luggage, which naturally caused quite a stir going through the X-ray machine at airport security.

The narrations were a warm and funny opportunity to engage the audience, but they provided a contrast to the discussion of religion and atheism they took place at the very end. Remaining patient and impartial, he discussed pre-selected questions from the audience, which tackled matters such as the morality of assigning a child with his or her parents’ religion.

The evening was rounded off by an opportunity to (albeit briefly) meet Richard Dawkins. Seemingly genuinely pleased to meet every attendee individually, he smiled sincerely as he signed my copy of his book. Among the audience, there were those who supported his views, and those who wholeheartedly did not. The only thing they must agree on, however, is that Dawkins’ ideas invoke much food for intelligent thought, providing not only an opportunity for audience members to further explore their own views but also to have a better understanding of those that contrast them too.

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