[audio:helenacronin.mp3] Transcript after the jump.
Richard Dawkins is the bestselling author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. He’s also a pre-eminent scientist, the first holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, and is a fellow of New College, Oxford. His most recent book is The Oxford Guide to Modern Science Writing, a collection of the best science writing in the last century.
This is the fifth in our seemingly inexhaustible series of podcasts from an interview with Richard Dawkins. He’s spoken of scientists both famous and obscure, and now he talks about one of his own personal favorite science writers, Helena Cronin.
DORIAN DEVINS: I see some of your favorites are in here, ah, Helena Cronin?
RICHARD DAWKINS: Yes, she is a lovely writer. She wrote this wonderful book called The Ant and the Peacock, which is about Darwin and Wallace, and two sort of famous dilemmas in evolutionary theory: the problem of altruism and the problem of sexual selection, which are respectively the ant and the peacock. In the case of the peacock, it’s a really interesting historical analysis, in the case of sexual selection, because what she shows is that the modern difference between the two major schools of thought in sexual selection—I won’t have time to go into them, but there are two rather different kinds of theories of sexual selection that we have today—these can be traced back all the way to Wallace and Darwin, the two founders of the theory of natural selection. Wallace and Darwin agreed about many things, but they disagreed about sexual selection. Darwin was completely happy to postulate that female birds, for example pea hens, choose peacocks for the brightness and color of their plumage. And Darwin was quite happy to simply accept that females had whims, which were sufficient to explain male plumage. But Wallace hated that idea, he felt there was something kind of mystical about it. Wallace wanted there to be a definite, a real utilitarian functional reason why females should have those tastes. So Wallace always wanted pea hens, for example (female pheasants or whatever they are) to be choosing males not just because they’re pretty, but because they are, their prettiness, their elegant plumage is a badge of something useful. And that dichotomy, between beauty for beauty’s sake on the one hand, on the Darwin side, and beauty as a badge of utilitarian usefulness on the other side, which is Wallace’s view, Helena Cronin shows lasts right into the twentieth century, and I think that’s a wonderful piece of scientific history, history of ideas, married up with real hard science.
DEVINS: And good writing, as well.
DAWKINS: Brilliant writing.