Yesterday I offered readers a link to a video of a thought-provoking conversation (transcript here, video here) between J. Craig Venter and Richard Dawkins (if you haven’t found the time to look at it yet, I do hope you will). In the ensuing thread, however, rather than discussing any of the forward-looking topics that had come up, our commenters focused exclusively on the various ways that people found Dawkins annoying or disappointing, and I piled on as well.
Yes, he can be a bit of a pill. But in that video, I saw something that shouldn’t go unremarked.
In the course of the conversation, the topic turned to molecular taxonomy: the working out of ancestral relations among species by the study of the divergence of their genomes. This is an important tool, and one that Dawkins has devoted a great deal of his time to the study of; the particulars of the tree of life depicted in his outstanding book The Ancestor’s Tale depend heavily on this analytical technique.
During the course of the onstage discussion, Venter mentions to Dawkins that in the course of his work he has come to realize that a great deal of genetic material has been exchanged between species, over geological time, by the action of viruses. Dawkins is quick to realize that this might be something of a bombshell as far as the reliability of molecular taxonomy is concerned, and presses Venter on the point. There are plainly technical details to examine further, but Venter seem to think that this is indeed a relevant concern.
Dawkins, having immediately grasped the implications of this suggestion for a field in which he has worked for his entire career, is quite plainly startled; it may well mean that much of what he has considered to be solidly established taxonomy will have to be re-examined. But he knows that Venter is arguably in a better position than any one alive to much such a claim, and that if he is indeed doing so, then it must be taken seriously, no matter what the implications.
And here is the point: Dawkins, obviously shocked, makes clear nevertheless that while he will need some convincing, he is open to changing his mind. He is willing, in that moment, and on that public stage, to be shown that much of his hard-won understanding of the branching tree of life might in fact be wrong.
I understand that the man rubs a lot of people the wrong way, but this deserves our respect. Dawkins gets a lot of heat for his sustained assault upon religion, but here he exemplifies what is right about science.