By Adam Scott
A lecture given by evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins on the University of Oklahoma campus Friday night was received with varying levels of applause and cheers by a generally sympathetic crowd.
The only disruption during the evening was a protester who spoke up during the question-and-answer session following the hour-long lecture.
The man carrying a yellow legal pad, who described himself as a biologist, condemned Dawkins, telling him to "shut the f--- up" and that the controversial scientist, a self-professed agnostic with strong atheistic leanings, would "burn in hell."
Dawkins gave a free public talk titled "The Purpose of Purpose" at 7 p.m. Friday in McCasland Field House on the OU Norman campus.
Most response to the lecture and to the man giving it was significantly more positive, with cheers and applause as Dawkins took the stage dying down into dwindling chuckles only after he admonished the crowd, "You haven't heard me yet."
Dawkins opened by saying he did not wish to "blow (his) own trumpet, but it isn't everybody who's the subject of legislation in Oklahoma," as text depicting Oklahoma House Resolution 1014, authored by Todd Thomsen (R-District 25, serving Hughes, McClain, Pontotoc and Pottawatomie counties) and strongly opposing "the invitation to speak on the campus of the University of Oklahoma to Richard Dawkins of Oxford University," was displayed on a screen behind the scientist.
After the resulting swells of laughter and applause from many of those present died down, Dawkins proceeded to lay the groundwork for his lecture while simultaneously ridiculing those who oppose a purely empirical approach to existence with graphics suggesting "intelligent falling" as an alternative to the theory of gravity and storks delivering babies as an alternative to the theory of sexual reproduction.
The overtly silly tone, complete with clips of Dawkins and others offering sound bites on the stork-versus-sexual-reproduction "debate" set to samples of the George Thorogood and the Destroyers' song "Bad To the Bone," gave way within a few minutes to a serious statement of opinion by Dawkins concerning "people who reject science."
"They've lost in the courts of law, they've lost and lost in the halls of science and they continue to lose with every new piece of evidence in support of evolution," Dawkins said.
"Taking offense is all they've got left."
After objecting strongly to H.R. 1014's assertion, as Dawkins said "that the University of Oklahoma should only hear ideas that the citizens of Oklahoma agree with," the biologist then asked, "What on earth is a university for, if it only reinforces opinions that students already hold?"
Dawkins then announced that, due to how impressed he was at the struggle of some Oklahomans "to resist this kind of nonsense," his foundation recently donated $5,000 to the group Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education.
After further applause, Dawkins launched into detailing much of the evolution-centered theories advanced in his works including "The Selfish Gene" (1976) and "The God Delusion" (2007).
Asserting that humans, like other organisms, are "survival machines," generally designed to survive and pass on their genes to the next generation, Dawkins said accomplishing this goal of survival came down to evolved traits and the two levels of purpose possible for some of those traits.
The core of the evolutionary biologist's speech was the assertion that two levels of purpose exist for an evolved trait, namely "archi-purpose," or original purpose, and "neo-purpose," or a secondary purpose to which an evolved trait can be diverted from its original function.
The central example Dawkins gave to his theory of purpose was human intelligence, which, the scientist asserted, can be turned to the pursuit of constructive goals or of destructive goals.
Dawkins noted the "archi-purpose" of human intelligence, the ability to make advanced plans and have goals, can be subverted by the "neo-purpose" of human intelligence, namely its capacity to change those plans and goals.
The crux of Dawkins' objection to religion came down to what the scientist described as an effect like that seen in the World War II film "Bridge on The River Kwai" (1957), in which Alec Guinness' character, Lt. Col. Nicholson, directs the building of a bridge that will aid the Japanese soldiers holding Nicholson and his comrades captive, rationalizing away any objection to helping the men who are his declared enemies in war. Nicholson instead becomes fanatically devoted to the pure pursuit of constructing a durable and well-crafted bridge. The film does not have what could be considered a happy ending by most conventional criteria.
After the anecdote-filled lecture, Dawkins, greatly celebrated in atheist circles, fielded numerous questions and a few comments over roughly the next hour, conceding more than once that he did not in any way assert his views to be any sort of absolute authority.
Responding to a question concerning atheism and his affiliation with it, Dawkins said on a scale from one to seven, one being absolutely certain there is a God, seven being absolutely certain there is no God, "I would put myself between six and seven."
Dawkins' next book, "The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution," will be published in September.
The lecture was part of Darwin 2009 at OU, a year-long series of events coordinated by faculty and students to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of "Origin of Species." For more information on Darwin 2009 events, visit www.ou.edu/darwin and for information on Dawkins' talk visit ve.ou.edu/dawkins.html.