Richard Dawkins in Playboy

[The following is a guest post by Faye Flam, a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer.]

For those of you too young to remember a time before Internet pornography, Playboy was a very popular magazine. Men could claim they bought it for the articles, and indeed, Playboy established a niche combining degrading images of women with meaty pieces on politics, business and, yes, science. 

This week, the classic “girly” porno magazine featured an extensive interview with the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, which ranges over evolution, debunking creationism, the relationship between science and religion and animal rights. The format is Q & A – with T & A along the right margin. Richard Dawkins also poses for a picture, but he does not appear to be naked. 

Last time I looked at Playboy was in the 1990s when one of my former colleagues at the Inquirer authored an article about Mars exploration. It was a substantial, beautifully written piece of science writing, though it was creepy seeing crotch shots on the backs of the pages. 

In its electronic form, the Dawkins piece kept the porn in the right margin – lots of boobs and a butt that follow the reader from page to page. The author of the piece was Chip Rowe, who doesn’t appear to be a specialist in issues scientific but he did a good job, asking well-informed questions and delving into provocative areas.  

Rowe asked how Dawkins viewed Stephen Jay Gould’s statements that science and religion can co-exist as long as they stay out of each other’s way – the so-called non-overlapping magisteria concept. 

I’ve often thought people who disagree about compatibility of science and religion are answering two different questions. Some think the question is whether individual scientists can function and still maintain their religious faith. Others are addressing whether scientific and religious worldviews are intellectually and philosophically in conflict. The latter is what Dawkins is answering.  

Dawkins: Gould was trying to win battles in the creation-evolution debate by saying to religious people, “You don’t have to worry. Evolution is religion-friendly.” And the only way he could think to do that was to say they occupy separate domains. But he overgenerously handed the domains of morals and fundamental questions to religion, which is the last thing you should do. Science cannot at present—maybe never—answer the deep questions about existence and the origins of the fundamental laws of nature. But what on earth makes you think religion can? If science can’t provide an answer, nothing can.

Rowe also prompted Dawkins to address common objections to evolution, including the ubiquitous: “Why are there still apes?”  

DAWKINS: We are apes. We descend from extinct animals that would have been classified as apes. We are not descended from modern chimps or bonobos or gorillas. They’ve been evolving for exactly the same length of time as we have.

It was nice to see Rowe bring up a misconception I hear even from seemingly educated people – that “random” chance couldn’t possibly produce all the complexity of life. 

DAWKINS: Mutation, the raw material for natural selection, is random in the sense that it is not systematically directed toward improvement. But natural selection is highly nonrandom, because it’s choosing improvements from that pool of variation that mutation throws up. There’s also an awful lot of chance in which species go extinct. When a comet hit the earth, all the dinosaurs went extinct except birds. A few mammals survived, and we’re descended from those few mammals, perhaps those that were hibernating underground. 

There was one revealing segment of the interview in which Dawkins started riffing about animals rights:  

PLAYBOY: Peter Singer, who co-founded the Great Ape Project, suggests apes deserve basic rights. Do you agree?

DAWKINS: Why stop at apes? Why not pigs?

PLAYBOY: But apes are our cousins.

DAWKINS: So what? We’re all cousins. What if octopuses, which are much more distant cousins, had evolved an intelligence equivalent to ours?

PLAYBOY: But they didn’t.

DAWKINS: You can base your morals on kinship if you want, but why should you? I’d prefer to go with Jeremy Bentham and base my morals on the question, Can they suffer? 

Overall a good job, though I found it too long, and the first third was a rehash of material from Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. Rowe probably knows his readership, though, and Playboy readers may not be that familiar with Dawkins. Also, for some readers, the porn could provide some diversion along the way. 

In defense of Playboy readers, I’d like to include a snippet from a piece by a colleague of mine at Philadelphia Inquirer piece about the making of a braille Playboy with no photos: "The braille edition of Playboy is a popular item…'Some people really do read it for the articles.'"

-Faye Flam

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