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Richard Dawkins: Daisy Chain Podcast
Week Six

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 week, Dawkins talks about how he links together the scientists in his book. He provides an example while talking about three connecting scientists: Niko Tinbergen, Ernst Mayr, and Edward O. Wilson. If you missed the five previous podcasts, you can find them here.


Transcript after the jump.

DORIAN DEVINS: Well, one of the fun things about this book is you can see the connections between the people as you read.

RICHARD DAWKINS: Well, I tried to do that. I tried to string them together as a sort of daisy chain. It’s not possible to do that all the time, of course, but I tried to provide a kind of connecting thread. And I wrote half a page or so between each—well, before each—piece. And when I could, I tried to link it to the previous one to make a kind of a chain.

DD: Well, another interesting person you have in here is Niko Tinbergen.

RD: Tinbergen, yes. He was also on the staff at Oxford. He was my own supervisor. He won the Nobel Prize in 1973, rather oddly. The thing is, there is no Nobel Prize for biology, there’s only one for medicine, so the only way the Nobel committee can ever squeeze in a real biologist is by sneaking the medical prize over, and that’s how Tinbergen got his. He was one of the founding fathers of the science of ethology, and he was a great field naturalist, he spent all of his research time out in the wild studying seagulls and other wild creatures. He perfected the art of doing experiments in the wild. You sort of think of experiments as being things that you do in the lab, and he did a certain amount of that as well, on sticklebacks in tanks, but mostly he did his experiments in the wild. And he was the sort of start of a whole trend for people to do experiments, real experiments, real proper experiments with experimental method, but in the wild.

DD: And he was a contemporary of Ernst Mayr, correct?

RD: I would say he was a little younger than Ernst Mayr, although he died a lot earlier. No, maybe he was a contemporary, actually. Yes, I think he must have been pretty much a contemporary now that I think about it. He was a very, very kind, avuncular, smiling Dutchman. He did his early work in Holland, at the University of Leiden, and then he moved to Oxford. And he was a major figure in Oxford zoology, a very inspiring figure, and certainly inspired me as I was his graduate student.

DD: Could you see him as a predecessor to someone like E. O. Wilson, for example?

RD: Yes, in a way. Well, Wilson is an entomologist, an expert, indeed a world expert, on ants. But yes there is a sense in which he was, because he wrote a book called Social Behavior in Animals. Wilson wrote a book called Sociobiology. And so Tinbergen was, in a sense, a predecessor of Wilson in studying and writing about social behavior from an evolutionary point of view. Nowadays, Tinbergen’s books would seem very out of date, whereas Wilson’s books do not seem out of date.

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