As I've mentioned many times (for example, here) at 3QD, Richard Dawkins has been one of my greatest intellectual heroes since I first read The Selfish Gene and then The Extended Phenotype in college. I was recently fortunate enough to spend some time with Richard in New York City. When about to meet someone whom one holds in as high esteem as I do Richard, one is often a bit apprehensive that the flesh-and-blood person behind the works that one has so admired might not live up to the inflated demigod of one's imagination, and so I was a bit nervous as I walked over to Richard's hotel to pick him up.
I needn't have been. From the moment I said hello to him in the lobby of his hotel, Richard was warm, thoughtful, considerate, polite, and needless-to-say, exceedingly sharp as well as knowledgeable about, well… everything. As we were walking back from his hotel (to my sister's, where I was going to interview him and then have dinner) we spoke about genetic linguistics and some of the work of Cavalli-Sforza, and I was telling Richard about how learning German has recently made obvious to me many common Indo-European roots of words in English and my own language Urdu. For example, I never made any connection between the English word “bread” and the Urdu word for the same thing, “roti,” until I saw the German word for bread, which is “brot.” Now “roti” is just a dimunitive of “rot” (which still exists in Urdu as the word for a very large bread) and it is easy to see how “brot” could easily have become “bread” on the one hand, and by losing the initial “b,” also become “rot” on the other. I also told Richard about the odd dialect of German that is spoken in the South Tyrol where I live at the moment, and then he suddenly pointed at something excitedly: there was a man walking by us on Broadway with a cat balanced very comfortably on top of his head (I kid you not), calmly surveying the mad NYC rush about her! But he then immediately switched back to our conversation to ask about the third language (after German and Italian) spoken by a small minority in the South Tyrol, Ladin. And he knew more about it than I. This is how I found Richard: attuned to the environment, but also possessing immense reserves of knowledge, easily deployed, about whatever one happens to mention to him. [Photo shows John Allen Paulos, Richard, and me.]
To his credit, Richard was not too taken aback by the low-tech setup of a camera-mounted-on-my-suitcase, manned by my nephew Asad, in my bedroom at my sister's, the site of our interview. (There was a last minute confusion and we couldn't get the right equipment, like mics and a tripod, and so there are a few distracting sounds like phones ringing, etc. Sorry about that.) But I think we still managed to have an interesting conversation. Judge for yourself by seeing the video below. But before I leave you to watch the video, I cannot resist telling you about something that (really!) happened at dinner after our talk: on my way to add some more Bihari Kebab to my plate, I walked by Richard speaking to a very good-looking young woman, and this is what she was saying to him: “Wait, so you really don't believe in God?” 🙂