Richard Dawkins Teaching Evolution to Religious Students


Dawkins teaching evolution at Park High School, London. He answered several questions of the students, most of whom doubt evolution.


  1. Professor Dawkins is without doubt a great biologist, a great writer and a tremendous advocate for reason and science. But Professor Dawkins, may I respectfully suggest that you don’t attempt to teach teenagers again. This was patronising, rambling and failed to answer far too many questions. Not the Professor’s finest hour, sadly.

  2. I hope that more teachers with the experience of Richard Dawkins will teach evolution to our young adults. This is where we need to begin to educate and challenge their young minds. Professor Dawkins was very respectful of the students beliefs but also challenging to their way of thinking.
    I was aghast as how little the students understood about the basic mechanics of evolution. The question of half a heart, the watchmaker’s argument, displays an utter lack of understanding of evolution. I also was stunned at how some students stated that even when confronted with all the evidence they would simply fall back on their religious views to explain how life began. Coming from such young minds with so much yet to learn I found that idea disturbing. Why build such an impregnable wall in such a small closed fortress?
    I fear that unless the students will be entering into a career of science their adult views on evolution will be that science offers nothing more than an opinion. This leads me to ask, as adults, how will their religion guide their decisions that may effect others? Will these be decisions that are not rational and based on evidence but based on how their religion informs them? Where will that lead us all?

  3. Dear Richard, this debate surely should be set correctly as religion against not just evolution, but science and philosophy.
    Philosophy is the love of learning the desire to know about everything. The discovery of evolution came about by curiosity, scientific investigation and analysis. We would not have landed on the moon without science.
    Religion with its closed outlook is arguably the antithesis of the enquiring human mind.

  4. I would endorse these comments. In fact I was horrified at the student’s ignorance, after all, they looked to be in their teens. Surely by this time they are starting to question the obvious indoctrination that their parents, peers and some teachers have subjected them to. The apparent lack of enquiring minds is something that religion has a lot to answer for. In fact, to my mind, it is bordering on the criminal abuse of children – strong views I know – but hopefully in future generations this will be acknowledged as true. There was a time when we sent children down coal mines and up chimneys, thankfully no longer allowed – this is the mental equivalent. All we needed was for one of them to say “Am I bovvered?”

  5. Although they didn’t know much about evolution, did you notice they knew exactly what questions to ask! I could see the children’s parents sitting on their shoulders right throughout the class. The children were prepped to ask questions the patents thought would trip Richard up, the classics.

    I still think it was productive as the children asked more and more questions. From little acorns, as they say.

    I didn’t mind the continuos, sometimes out of focus, unscripted content. Done for a reason I think, to show that nothing was hidden.

  6. They knew what questions to ask, sometimes without fully understanding themeselves what it was they were asking.

    The only negative I had over Richard’s performance was the confidence about the paucity of life in the universe at the opening. I think this moderately reasonable guess, stated as near fact may come to detract from the genuine facts that followed.

  7. I thought that Professor Dawkins missed some opportunities to explore areas that were problematic to the students.

    One student asked whether evolution was “finished”. Instead of simply saying that evolution takes too long for us to bear witness, concrete examples, such as industrial melanism in moths or drug resistance in bacteria could have been used to demonstrate the basic principles of natural selection that are sensible on a human timescale.
    Professor Dawkins at one point stated that he assumed that the students all understood the basics of variation and natural selection. But it was apparent to me that while some may have had a limited understanding, most did not have a solid grasp. The evolution of dog breeds, it seems to me, offers one palpable example of how quickly selection directed by humans can operate. Industrial melanism and antibiotic resistance could apply here as well.
    One student asked why do we need to find out about evolution. One very practical application relates to understanding antibiotic resistance. If physicians and antibiotic developers had had a better grasp of evolutionary theory, we might not be in quite the mess that we are in presently with respect to antibiotic-resistant microbes. Pesticide resistance in insects offers another example.
    One student brought up the matter of how difficult it is to understand evolution. That could have served as an opening to draw a distinction between faith and understanding based on facts. Religious faith is of no use whatsoever in understanding antibiotic resistance. A scientist with an evolutionary perspective would have been more likely to appreciate the potential problem early on.
    Another student thought that the “random coincidence of evolution” was hard to understand. Obviously, this student and others were confused about the underlying mechanisms of evolution.
    The comments about intelligent design also provided an opportunity to offer up some examples of very unintelligent design.

    Of course, it is easier for a bystander, like me, to offer criticisms than it is to be the person in the hot seat.

  8. I think RD missed an opportunity to repudiate the claim in the Koran about the development of the embryo. The scribes who wrote the Koran obtained information about the development of the embryo from the writings of Aristotle. The explanation in the Koran is wrong as Aristotle was also wrong.

  9. Mark makes some excellent points. In fact, at around 27:25 Dawkins says (approximately) that the evidence for evolution is indirect and we can’t “see it with our own eyes.” On the contrary, it would have been better to point out examples of evolution that we see happening right now. Mark’s example of antibiotic resistance is an important example, and the recent development of teixobactin makes it especially topical.

    Immediately prior to that, Dawkins got sucked into the silly semantic debate about evolution being a “theory,” and he offered the example of the earth being round as a theory that to all intents and purposes we now accept as a fact. I think Newtonian mechanics would have been a better example, with many more parallels to biological science.

    Much of Dawkins’s presentation was excellent, and I trust he would take my criticisms in the spirit of Bertrand Russell’s “Eighth Commandment”: “Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent that in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.”

  10. The comment from Rishangles is harsh but, I’m sorry to say, not an unreasonable assessment.

    Much of the discussion was a waste of Dawkins’s expertise and a missed opportunity. For example, when asked about “the missing link,” he pounded the table and said that lots of intermediaries are known. It would have been much better to talk about what we know about Australopithecus, Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, and their offshoots. He might have mentioned interbreeding between Homo sapiens sapiens and Neanderthals and gone on to discuss questions about speciation in general.

    Toward the end Dawkins was asked about how the heart evolved. If I’m not mistaken, all vertebrates have hearts. So what does that tell us about how long ago the heart evolved? How is an elephant’s heart similar or different to a rat’s heart? How about each of those compared with a frog’s heart? There could have been a really interesting scientific discussion in place of the amateur philosophizing about epistemology. (By the by, I think the former more effectively disabuses students of their religious superstition than the latter.)

    So I offer a challenge to those of you with the time and discipline-specific expertise: go through the list of questions posed by the students in this video and aggregate a set of detailed answers that are informative about the science, along with resources for further study by especially interested students. (Dawkins’s wonderful book The Ancestor’s Tale is one possibility.)

  11. At the of the video, one kid asks how we could live with half a heart. Dawkins could answer “How about 3/4 of a heart, as reported in Young, AH., Rare Anomaly of the Human Heart—A Three-Chambered Heart in an Adult aged Thirty-Five Years. Journal of Anatomy and Physiology. 1907;41(Pt 3):190-197. That pretty much quashes the counterargument that a heart must be perfectly and fully formed to work, so how could evolution be true cause it couldn’t have instantaneously produced a four chambered human heart.
    Same thing for the argument about an incomplete eye: People have lost their lenses but retained adequate eyesight, so the argument that half an eye is useless so evolution is wrong fails also.

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