Royal Institution Christmas Lectures
Growing Up In The Universe
Growing Up in the Universe was a series of lectures given by Richard Dawkins as part of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, in which he discussed the evolution of life in the universe.
The lectures were first broadcast in 1991, in the form of five one-hour episodes, on the BBC in the UK. The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science was granted the rights to the televised lectures, and a DVD version was released by the foundation on April 20, 2007.
To start off part one, Dawkins discusses the amazing capabilities of the human body and contrasts these with the limited capabilities of computers and other man-made machines. He uses a small totem pole (which is used in ancestor worship) to illustrate the importance of studying our ancestors to understand how we've evolved. To contrast ease of reproduction with the difficulty of becoming an ancestor, Dawkins uses the example of paper folding to explain exponential growth. Dawkins then tells the audience that exponential growth does not generally happen in the real world - natural factors come into play which control the population numbers, meaning that only an elite group of organisms will actually become distant ancestors. To be in this elite group, the organism must "have what it takes" to survive and pass on their genes to offspring.
The long chain of successful ancestors means that the probability of our existence is very small, and we are lucky to be alive. By turning down the lights and shining a small spotlight on a large ruler in front of him, Dawkins illustrates the darkness of the distant past and of the unknown future.
After expounding on how lucky we are to be alive, and urging us not to waste the precious time that we have, Dawkins brings up the usefulness of science in aiding our understanding of the universe. He mentions the reply that Michael Faraday gave to Sir Robert Peel when asked about the use of science. Faraday's response was "What is the use of a baby?" Dawkins explains that Faraday was either referring to the vast potential of a baby, or to the idea that there must be something more to life than growing up, working, getting old, and dying. There must be a point to it all; Perhaps science can uncover the answers to our biggest questions.
Richard Dawkins delivering the first lecture, "Waking Up in the Universe."
To shake off the "anesthetic of familiarity," Dawkins shows the audience a number of strange terrestrial organisms which he humorously nicknames "By-Jovians," playing off a term we might use to refer to living organisms from another planet, for instance Jupiter. He uses a scanning electron microscope to look at small organisms including mites, mosquitoes, and a bee being parasitized by a strepsiptera. Using a model of a eukaryotic cell, he discusses the mitochondria and presents the audience with a complicated diagram of the metabolic pathways.
Dawkins suggests that we can also shake off the familiarity by stepping backwards in time. By using a single pace to represent going back 1000 years, he starts at year zero and takes four steps in front of his desk, going back to 4000 B.C.E. Pointing to a portrait of Homo habilis, he states that to go back to the time of habilis, he would have to walk about two kilometers. He has audience members hold up portraits of other human ancestors, telling them how far he would have to walk to get back to the time of each one.
By imagining what an advanced alien species would think of humans if they were to arrive on Earth, Dawkins suggests that their science would be similar to ours. They would know about pi, the Pythagorean theorem, and the theory of relativity. However, Dawkins explains that the alien anthropologists would most likely scoff at our local, parochial religious beliefs. He then contrasts evidence-based beliefs with revealed, tradition-based, and authority-based beliefs.
To explain the problem with beliefs in the supernatural, Dawkins conducts a small experiment with the audience to "find the psychic." Using a coin, he assigns half the audience to will it to land on heads, and assigns the other half to will it to land on tails. After each flip, the section of the audience that was wrong is eliminated from the experiment, and he repeats the experiment using the remainder. After eight coin flips, only one boy in the audience remains. Dawkins then asks the question "Is he psychic?" Obviously, because of how the experiment was set up, one person was bound to have been correct about the result of each coin flip. Dawkins argues that this is exactly how seemingly supernatural events occur in the real world, especially when the "audience" is the entire population of the planet.
To conclude the lecture, Dawkins claims that there is nothing wrong with having faith in a proper scientific prediction. To illustrate this, he takes a cannonball which has been suspended from the ceiling with a rope, pulls it aside and touches it to his forehead. He announces that he is going to release the cannonball, letting it swing away from him, and that when it comes back to him, he is going to ignore his natural instinct to run because he has faith in his scientific prediction of what will happen - the cannonball should stop about an inch short of his forehead. He releases the cannonball, and his prediction is proved correct.