Richard Dawkins on Poetry

Richard Dawkins, Screengrab
The evolutionary biologist reads Robert Frost.

By Michael Segal | Poetry on NAUTILUS

In some ways, Richard Dawkins has been thinking about contingency for most of his life.

The book that catapulted him to fame, The Selfish Gene, is about one kind of contingency, which shapes genetic codes and chooses winning species (and genes). This contingency is nested in many others. In his memoir, An Appetite For Wonder, Dawkins imagines a dinosaur that would have caught and eaten the shrew-like ancestor of all mammals, had it not sneezed. “We all can regard ourselves as exquisitely improbable,” he writes.

Then there are the contingencies of an individual life. Is it true, Dawkins wonders, that “the course of a named individual’s life is sucked back, magnetically, into predictable pathways, despite the Brownian buffetings of sneezes and other trivial, or not so trivial, happenings?” Would Dawkins still have been Dawkins, had he been raised in a religious household? If he’d had different tutors?

In this video, Harvard poetry professor Elisa New sits Dawkins down in a lush field outside the Aspen Institute and talks to him about the most famous American poem on the topic of contingency, Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” The conversation was recorded as part of New’s initiative, Poetry in America, which brings poetry into classrooms and living rooms around the world.

read more