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Faith and Belief: Richard Dawkins evolves his arguments

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blankRichard Dawkins, best known as the author of "The Selfish Gene" (1976) and "The God Delusion" (2006), is at the Atheist Alliance International Convention in Burbank to discuss his new book, "The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution" (Free Press: 470 pp., $30), but he can't get from one banquet hall to the next without someone asking to take a picture with him.

Modest and professorial, Dawkins is mobbed, celebrity-style, no matter which audience he tells there is no God. As for Mother Nature, he adds, she doesn't care either -- natural selection is not a good-natured process, but one that favors mutant efforts to get ahead. The evidence for evolution, he concludes, is irrefutable; all living things evolved from a common ancestor, so grow up and stop whining. There is no master plan. We (our genes, that is) are on our own.

No wonder the creationists want to kill the messenger. Dawkins has been accused of aggression, militancy, arch-adaptationism and even -- don't say it -- reductionism. His critics hurl themselves against him in article after debate after full-length book, peppering him with questions: What about the gaps in the fossil record? How about the possibility of an intelligent designer? Would you believe the Earth is only 10,000 years old?

Forty percent of Americans, according to polls taken by Gallup at regular intervals since 1982, "deny that humans evolved from other animals and think that we -- and by implication all life -- were created by God within the last 10,000 years." Such figures vary around the globe. A full 85% of Iceland's population believes we developed from earlier species, but only 27% share that view in Turkey, an Islamic country. In Britain, Dawkins' home turf, 13% of the population actively denies evolution.

...Dawkins' next book will be for 12-year-olds, an expansion on a letter about the importance of critical thinking that he wrote to his daughter, Juliet, now a medical student, when she was 10. In it, he describes the dangers of "tradition," "authority" and "revelation" as reasons for believing anything.

"Dear Juliet," this new book begins. "Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me. Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know? How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the sun and are really far away? And how do we know that Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the sun? The answer to these questions is 'evidence.' "
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