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Zoology of the Beagle Image Courtesy of Dr. John van Wyhe at the Darwin Online Project

 

 



 

 

Darwin 2009 at
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Richard Dawkins
"The Purpose of Purpose"
McCasland Field House, University of Oklahoma, Norman
Free and open to the public
March 6th 2009


Video of Richard Dawkins' lecture "The Purpose of Purpose"
featuring footage of each of the locations of Dawkins' recent Amercian Tour
Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Nebraska. Edited by Josh Timonen.

Audio of Richard Dawkins' lecture at OU:

 

On March 5th and 6th, the famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins visited the University of Oklahoma as a part of the "Darwin 2009" events celebrating and commemorating the contributions of the British naturalist Charles Darwin to modern science. Dawkins agreed to come to Oklahoma to take part in the ongoing series of events that is aimed at raising awareness of the importance of Darwin's work to our current understanding of the richness and diversity of life. OU is hosting one of the largest and most sustained series of events to commemorate Darwin's life and work anywhere in the world. Whilst here Dawkins asked to spend time with students from various departments, both from Zoology, Religious Studies and the History of Science.

 

Dawkins visit provokes complaint in the legislature, and concerns over attempted censorship:

Because of Dawkins' atheist views his visit was always going to be controversial, however, it has since become controversial for other reasons. State Representatives have been accused of attempting to use the political powers of their office influence what can and cannot be discussed on campus. History of Science Professor Piers J. Hale said, "I find it deeply toubling that elected State officials appear to be using the powers of their office to attempt to censor the opinions of those with whom they personally disagree. OU President David Boren has quite correctly pointed out that this is an issue of freedom of speech, and thus of constitutional prerogative.  The open discussion of ideas, free from intimidation, investigation, or any other form of coercion, is fundamentally necessary if we are to achieve the level of civil discourse to which any institution of higher educaton aspires, and which is a cornerstone of any modern democracy."

Republican Todd Thomsen (R-Ada) filed resolutions in the Oklahoma House on the day that Dawkins was due to speak in an attempt to drum up support for an official censure of the University for allowing its faculty and students to extend an invitation to Professor Dawkins. He did so on the grounds that he believed Dawkins' views to be "contrary and offensive to the views and opinions of most citizens in Oklahoma." Further, HR1014 and HR1015 both attempt to make the case that the indepth exploration of Darwin's contribution to our modern understanding of the world which is the purpose of the "Darwin 2009" series, is deeply innappropriate.

Some members of OU faculty are concerned that Thomsen's attempt to garner House condemnation of Dawkins' visit to campus compromises academic freedom and the contitutional right to freedom of speech. Thomsen, who is head of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in southeastern Oklahoma, singled out the University President, the Dean of Arts and Sciences, and the Chair of the Department of Zoology for particular criticism. HR1015 also claimed that the several inter-disciplinary lecture series, symposia and the "Darwinian Revolution" Dreamcourse on the history of evolution were each part of an attempt at a "one-sided indoctrination of an unproven and unpopular theory." In a statement that corrected Thomsen on the role of the university, OU President David Boren pointed out that far from it being appropriate for the univeristy to censor opinion, "One of the basic functions of the university is to be a free marketplace of ideas. Free speech on a university campus is protected by the First Ammendment."

Professors Hale and Weaver interviewed by Fox25 News in Oklahoma

 

In evident contradiction of both Thomsen and Hamilton's concerns that OU's Darwin events were in any way one-sided, Ray Martin, the student President of the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) club and opinion editor of the OU Daily, said of the "Darwinian Revolution" course taught by Hale, " the course itself has come under some pressure from state legislators and others. I can assure you (and I'm certain everyone else in the course would do the same) that the course has been very fair, and Dr. Hale has encouraged much diversity of thought and varying view points in class discussions."

Hamilton acknowledges religious motivation:
Subsequent to Thomsen's failed attempts to prevent Dawkins from speaking, Representative Rebecca Hamilton (D-OKC) filed an 'open records request' asking for all the email correspondence between OU faculty and Richard Dawkins regarding his visit to OU. Hamilton was concerned about rumours that OU had paid taxpayer dollars to bring Dawkins to campus. In a recent television interview for Fox 25 News, Hamilton explained that her motivations were religious: "a valid viewpoint would be to give the good reasons for faith," she said.

With Representatives so influential in voting on appropriations that fund the University, Faculty remain concerned that Thomsen and Hamilton's actions serve to intimidate and pressure faculty to only invite speakers with whom, or to discuss issues with which these politicians agree.

Below is an account of Dawkins visit to OU and of his public lecture "The Purpose of Purpose":

 

Richard Dawkins' visit to Norman:

Thursday March 5th:
Students and faculty on the Darwin 2009 Committee, from a broad range of departments and units across the OU campus were happy to host Richard for a Dinner at Legends Restaurant. Dawkins was happy to chat with students and faculty alike, and was clearly enthusiastic to be in Norman.

Ricahrd Dawkins at OU Dawkins at OU
Richard Dawkins and OU student members of Darwin 2009
Richard Dawkins and OU faculty Ingo Schlupp and Barry Weaver


Richard Dawkins meets with enthusiastic students and faculty at Legends Restaurant

Dawkins at OU
Dawkins at OU
Richard Dawkins and undergraduate geology and history of science student Vanessa Harvey
Richard Dawkins and zoology faculty Richard Broughton and Rosemary Knapp

 

Friday March 6th:

Professor Richard Dawkins began his day with a meeting with both undergraduate and graduate students from the zoology department, the history department, and the religious studies department. He spent over an hour discussing students projects with them.

Dawkins at OU Dawkins at OU
Richard Dawkins requested time in his schedule to discuss students' work with them
Dawkins was impressed with the quality and range of work being undertken by students at OU
Dawkins at OU Dawkins at OU
Zoology student Randy Lewis describes his work
Religious Studies student Adrienne Powell talks about her project
Dawkins at OU
Dawkins at OU
Botany/Microbiology student Matt Jones
Richard Dawkins responds to students' work

 

Professor Dawkins also found time to visit the OU History of Science Collections located on the 5th floor of Bizell Library. The University of Oklahoma holds one of the most outstanding collections of rare and manuscript archives in the history of science in the nation. Among OU's treasures are a complete collection of each of Darwin's works in first edition, as well as over 400 volumes of the various editions in many languages. This collection is a valuable resource for scholars both on campus and for those who travel to visit the collections from around the world. Professor Dawkins was particularly keen to read some of the Darwin letters that the Library holds, as well as to see one of the first editions of Darwin's famous On the Origin of Species, which was first published by the London publisher John Murray on November 24th of 1859.

Dawkins at OU Dawkins at OU
Dawkins views rare examples of Darwin's work in geology.(L-R: Stephen Weldon, Richard Dawkins, Kerry Magruder, Russell Hunter)
History of science faculty and students enjoy the opportunity to enlist Dawkins' help in deciphering some of Darwin's handwriting
Dawkins at OU
Dawkins at OU
Just a small part of the rare Darwin collections held by the History of Science Collections here at OU
Reading the first editon of Darwin's Origin of Species

 

"The Purpose of Purpose"

The OU Field House played host to Professor Dawkins on the evening of Friday 6th. The world-famous evolutionary biologist delivered a lecture entitled "The Purpose of Purpose" to a crowd that neared the 3500 capacity of the building. Dawkins received an enthusiastic welcome as he developed his theme for the evening: that not only is the appearance of purposeful design in the world actually the result of the undesigned processes of evolutionary adaptation, but that so too is our own intellectual capacity to set up goals and purposes for ourselves. Such has been the anticipation of Professor Dawkins' visit that students and members of the community were lining up hours in advance.

 

Dawkins at OU Dawkins at OU
Crowds started accumulating hours in advance
Dawkins attracts Longhorns to the Sooner State. Quang Tran and Richard Lindsey drove from Texas

Dawkins draws an audience from as far afield as Texas and Illinois!
The weather was great for the many students and members of the wider Norman community who waited for hours to hear Professor Dawkins speak. Students Quang Tran and Richard Lindsey travelled up from Texas for the day, arriving at 9:00am to be sure of a seat. Quang had brought a number of Dawkins' books with him in the hope of getting Dawkins to sign them. "This event is so cool" he said. Dawkins stayed after the talk to sign books that people had either brought with them, or which they had bought at the event. Hundreds waiting patiently in line for him to do so. "I don't think I have ever had so many people wait for a book-signing," Dawkins comented afterwards as he left the venue at nearly eleven pm. At least one woman drove for ten hours to get here from Illinois!

Dawkins at OU Dawkins at OU
"The Purpose of Purpose"
Professor Barry Weaver introduces Richard Dawkins
Dawkins at OU Dawkins at OU
Dawkins distinguished between the appearance of purposful structures in nature that result from adaptation, and the purposeful actions of human agency
Richard Dawkins speaks to a packed house at the University of Oklahoma

 

"How?" and "Why?"
After being introduced by Barry Weaver, the OU professor who was instrumental in bringing Dawkins to Norman, Dawkins began his lecture by distinguishing questions that ask "How" something occurs from "Why" something occurs. He suggested that although thinkers from earlier centuries have thought it quite appropriate to enquire into the purpose of certain naturally occuring things, such as other species, these kind of questions are simply inappropriate, in the same way, he said, as it would be inaapropriate to ask the question "What is it for?" about Ayers Rock, the prominent tourist attraction in Australia.

Talking at cross-purposes
This led Dawkins to draw the distinction between what he called "archeo-purpose," the adaptive structures that we see in the world that appear so well fitted to an apparent purpose, but which are not the product of design, and what he called "neo-purpose," the intentional design of human intent and agency. He illustrated this difference with the examples of bird's wing, which is beautifully adapted to flight by millenia of evolutionary selection, and a man-made aeroplane respectively.

Dawkins argued that not only are the beautiful adaptations that we see in the natural world the product of the slow and gradual accumulation of favourable variations as a result of natural selection, but that so too is our ability to consciously formulate goals and to strive towards their fulfilment. However, because of the complexity and resultant flexibility of our brains and our thought processes, Dawkins argued that we are unique in the animal world in that we alone have developed the capacity to make even the most non-Darwinian of choices - choices that have no bearing on our survival or reproductive success. The choice to use contraception and the choice to go hangliding would both fall into such a category, he said. "Why do humans set up non-Darwinian goals?" he asked. "Because our brains are flexible in their capacity to be re-programmed," he said. This allows for what called the "cultural subversion" of the Darwinian imperatives that dominated the lives of our ancestors.

This was the crux of Dawkins presentation and is a significant comment on where Dawkins stands regarding the complex relationship between culture and biology, of where and how aspects of human free choice and agency relate to the deeply ingrained instinctual behaviours that we have acquired through Darwinian mechanisms of selection and inheritance.

Dawkins argued that the fact that in many ways we have evolved to a point where we can liberate ourselves from the the tyranny of simply abiding by the maxim of "survive and reproduce," is not a bad thing. For whilst our capacity for creative and independent thinking can, and has at certain points in our history, led to great tragedy, it is also our evolved mental flexibility, our ingenuity, and our amazing creativity that present us with the possibility of solving some of the most pressing social, cultural and environmental problems that humaity faces today.

While many of the questions raised by the audience brought Dawkins to talk explicitly about his rejection of religious belief, his discussion of the evoltuion of purpose was his latest contribution to the debates in sociobiology and evoltionary psychology that date from the mid 1970s. E.O. Wilson, who wrote Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975 and Dawkins' own The Selfish Gene (1976) brought discussion of the natural origins of behaviour to public notice.

 

Dawkins at Ou Dawkins at OU
Dawkins signed books for people who waited in line for over an hour after his talk
Richard Dawkins announced that the Richard Dawkins Foundation will make a $5000 donation to Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education
Dawkins at OU Dawkins at OU
Volunteers pose for a photograph with Richard Dawkins after the event
OU Professor Barry Weaver receives a standing ovation for his part in bringing Dawkins to the OU campus

Science Education
Dawkins spoke for an hour and answered questions from the audience for a further 50 minutes. Questions ranged from whether the arts and human love of music might not be an evolved social survival strategy to whether religious faith might itself be an evolved phenomenon. Asked about science education Dawkins announced that the American branch of the registered charity the Richard Dawkins Foundation will be making a $5000 donation to the Oklahoma-based organisation "Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education," which continues to fight to defend science eduation in this state. He also revealed that after his next book, which is due out at the end of this year, he intends to turn his attention to writing for a younger, pre-teenaged audience. He was adamant that good education should focus upon teaching children how to think rather than what to think. In this context he argued that although he thought it absolutely necessary to teach children about religion, he believed it to be "particularly wicked" to teach children that they were one religion rather than another, Catholic as opposed to Protestant, or Muslim as opposed to Christian.

On evidence for the existence of God
Asked about how certain he was that there was no God, Dawkins admited that he was, to speak correctly, agnostic on this point. He admitted that one cannot categorically conclude that something does not exist simply because we see no evidence for its existence, however, he suggested that this only put the liklihood of there being a God on a par with the idea that fairies were real. Thus, he confessed, he was an "agnostic, leaning heavily towards atheism."

Quoting his good friend, the late Douglas Adams, he concluded: "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"

For more information on future events visit www.ou.edu/darwin.[here]

 

Piers J. Hale.

Page last updated, and counter since June 18th 2009

"Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history..."

Charles Darwin image courtesy of British Heritage

Charles Robert Darwin
(1809-1882)

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed, into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful, have been and are being, evolved."

On the Origin of Species (1859)

Contact Us:
For general enquiries please email us at: DarwinEvents@ou.edu

Co-Chairs of the Darwin 2009 Committee:
Dr. Piers J.Hale:
phale@ou.edu
Prof. Ingo Schlupp:
schlupp@ou.edu
Prof. Barry Weaver: bweaver@ou.edu
Dr. Stepehn Weldon:
spweldon@ou.edu

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Links on these pages to non-university sites do not represent endorsement by the University of Oklahoma or its affiliates; neither should the opinions or statements expressed herein be taken as a position of or endorsement by the University of Oklahoma.