Richard Dawkins and the poetry of reality

In the USA alone, every day, a lucky 10,000 people hear of Richard Dawkins for the first time.
XKCD by Randall Munroe;
Statistically, you know about Richard Dawkins already, so I won’t go into the vast list of accomplishments he has contributed to the world. I’d rather focus on how his great poetic skill and his scientific work have contributed much to the Seven Secular Sermons.

Richard Dawkins references poetry quite frequently. He has said that he’d love to be a poet. Asked for a single word of advice on the storytelling of science, Dawkins chose the word “poetry”. This is consisent with his style of language, which is reliably crisp, melodic, visual and earnest – exactly the type of language of (good) poetry. So when I put his “To be read at my funeral” into the common metre, the translation from the original opening…

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.

…to the first stanza…

We’re lucky, we who have to die,
we’re lucky we can mourn.
Most people never say goodbye
because they’re never born.

…felt very easy and natural, because Dawkins’ expression was already quite poetic. This skill of poetic expression becomes even more obvious in the poetry Dawkins occasionally writes himself. Here’s an example, posted on Twitter:

Darling let us wean a type
Of mixture of us 2.
Offer up your genotype
& shuffle our codes anew
Let me extend my phenotype
Deep inside of you

Looking at the poetic technique here, I have to say this is quite accomplished.

  • It squeezes six lines of ABABAB rhymes into the 140 characters of Twitter, although it has to sacrifice the words “two” and “and” and some punctuation in order to do so.
  • It funnily contrasts the refined technical language of biology with the lecherous desire for penetration.
  • It cleverly references The Extended Phenotype.
  • The meter, while imperfect, is pretty good.
  • And it does all that making both grammatical and biological sense.

Clearly some amount of focused writing went into this poem. Writing and publishing it constitutes, in biological terms, a costly signal that here’s somebody who actually appreciates poetry.

The other example I’d like to point out is a poem Dawkins wrote and read aloud at his 70th birthday. He later put it at the end of the second volume of his autobiographical memoir Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science. It is a bit longer but worth quoting in full:

Now of my three score years and ten,
Seventy won’t come again:
And take from seventy springs the lot…
Subtraction tells you what I’ve got.
But only if you’re so alarmist
As to believe the ancient psalmist.
For what is said in holy writ
I’m one who doesn’t care a bit.
Away with actuarial mystics!
I’ll throw my lot with hard statistics.
The bible may be old and quaint…
Necess’rily so… it ain’t
(I’ll go along with George and Ira).
Across the Reaper’s bows I’ll fire a
Warning shot. I’m not about
To let life’s Umpire give me out,
‘Leg before’, or ‘caught and bowled’,
At least until I’m really old
And reach that bourn – the one we learn,
From which no travellers return:
That decent inn – no Marriott –
Presaged by time’s winged chariot.
Still time to gentle that good night.
Time to set the world alight.
Time, yet new rainbows to unweave,
Ere going on Eternity leave.

Now of course the AABBCC rhyme scheme takes an order of magnitude less work than ABABAB, especially because here there’s no strict limit to the number of lines so he could include bits extraneous to the narrative just to easily find a rhyme for something. So this could have been jotted down in less than 30 minutes. But look at how many other famous poems Dawkins manages to quote here!

This, again, is evidence of a deep and educated love for classic poetry.

And look at that last line! “Eternity leave” – an original creation as far as I can tell, not lifted from anybody’s poem. For this wonderful expression, Dawkins abandons his otherwise near-impeccable meter. He further highlights it with its position at the very end of the poem, and throws a capitalization on top just to make sure it stands out. This is because this expression has much of the hard-to-pin-down aesthetic quality of “being poetic” that Dawkins not only recognizes and honors, but that he actively uses in much of his writing.

I believe that Dawkins’ skill of poetic expression would be more obvious if it wasn’t outshone by his scientific achievements and his controversial positions. Still it is there, barely noticed but quietly working in the background, helping eyeballs remain stuck in his many many books. While Lucretius, much earlier, already proved poetry and explanation do mix, Dawkins has proven that poetry can strengthen science.

The second, and more obvious, influence Richard Dawkins has on my work is through his scientific work, featured in the Seven Secular Sermons in several places. I used The Selfish Gene in Sermon 2: The Games of Entropy and I’m now working off The Ancestor’s Tale in writing Sermon 3: One of Us. The fifth Sermon will owe even more to Dawkins because it will be centered around Memetics, a proto-scientific perspective on cultural transmission that Dawkins basically invented.

Thirdly, finally, Richard Dawkins has been championing Militant Atheism, which I’d summarize as “active opposition to the influence that organized religions project on their members and their surroundings”. And he has, in Unweaving the Rainbow, The Magic of Reality and other works, championed awe and wonder at the marvellousness of the universe, both as an aesthetic good in itself and as a substitute to the supernaturalist awe and wonder that religions provide. Richard Dawkins (along with Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan and many others)  imparted this sense of awe and wonder at reality on me so successfully that I’ve embarked on this project to glorify it. My didactic poetry is an attempt to substitute the didactic poetry that all major religions include, and which just might be a necessary component for what should replace religion.

So who is Richard Dawkins to me? Every writer imagines readers liking their work, and for the Seven Secular Sermons, Richard Dawkins is my favorite imaginary reader. Of course this is a preposterous fantasy. I’m nowhere near the giants of poetry that he reads. I’m not even a poet, just a scientist writing a poem because I cannot not do it. And by the time I’ll be done, Richard Dawkins will (hopefully) be 80 years old. Still, for all the reasons above, I can be certain that if he were ever to read my Sermons, he’d like them rather a lot. And that makes me happy, out here in my cozy little obscurity.