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A child's Darwinian revolution
A UK region 2 DVD review of GROWING UP IN THE UNIVERSE (The Royal Institution
Lectures for Children, 1991
) by Camus
"By all means let's be open-minded, but not
so open-minded that our brains drop out."
"I am against religion because it teaches us to
be satisfied with not understanding the world."
Richard Dawkins, author The God Delusion and currently the
's most infamous/respected (delete applicable) scientist.


A few weeks ago, a class of ten year olds was asked how the world was created. The primary school in question is not a 'faith' school (forgive the closed apostrophed shudder). All save one of the ten year olds said god, Eden, Adam and Eve while the rebel of the group suggested the big bang theory and natural selection. It's 2007. If that last but one sentence doesn't send a shiver dancing up and down your spine... We are still teaching children myth as truth, metaphor as fact. The ravings of a group of men in the desert all scared of dying – so in their profound ignorance, they created their own life after death fantasies – is still being pushed as an authentic account of a provable scientific event. We are still peddling ineffable bullshit to our children and forging a future of polarised belief. Warfare ensues. My imaginary friend is better than your imaginary friend. And where has that got us? The body bags' business is booming. Boom, boom. And it's not funny.

Tabula Rasa.

Latin is never a good way to start any kind of review but hell, who're you going to sue? Tabula Rasa. Blank slate, clean start, empty vessel. Beginning as blank slates, we become who we are by way of what we are told and from those accounts, we choose to believe 'A' over 'B'. As a parent, one becomes uniquely positioned to fill that blank slate with useful, life enhancing information; "Gravity is not your friend..." "Fire is pretty, yes, but...!" and "Eating stuff you pretend to hate just because you haven't tried it yet will make you live longer..." This is all solid, good advice in this, a world in which those assertions have proved to be true in actuality, free from belief systems to confuse and obfuscate. Jump off a building and the truth of gravity will make soup of your internal organs. Put your hand in the fire and you will know searing pain. As a parent one is also uniquely positioned to fill that blank slate with fabrication, lies and falsehoods given the presence of faith-based 'truth' through two aspects of its existence: antiquity and ubiquity. If it's old and all over the place there must be some truth in it. It's like a enormous club and it seems from the very weight of it, unsporting not to join. Clubs also hurt if you're hit over the head with one. After all if Jim tells you you're drunk, you can argue or ignore him. If fifty people tell you you're drunk it's time to lie down. Speaking of beds (and not in tongues), I am writing this in a hotel room with two Bibles. Jesus. What if I sleep in the middle of the bed? Will I rot in hell's eternal torment? A mid-pillow purgatory?

So we indoctrinate our children (who know no better) and pass off some of the best and most intriguing questions in life to an old book that seems to be proof positive that men invented religion and not some all-powerful magical being giving celestial dictation. God explains nothing except our profound need for consolation that 'our end' in not 'the end'. If you're reading this, you've begun. It's reasonable, scientifically, to believe that you will not restart after your death so it's time to really live!

How do we turn the tide from the falsity and uselessness of organised faith to the truth of genuine scientific enquiry? We have to teach our kids to think for themselves. Here's a thing. Life came about because of a deity clicking his/its/her fingers over six days (magic!) or gradual natural selection. Children are hard-wired to believe stuff their parents tell them. (Dawkins touches on this in the final lecture and I promise all this was written before I had seen it). It's in their genes and works as a basic survival mechanism. Surely those people who brought them into the world wouldn't make stuff up. Hello. I ask only this. Could those who imprint religious belief on to the young be wrong? If so, then do I have a DVD set for you. And it will be the best £12.99 you will ever spend.

My anti-religious fervour was not born in a negative, arrogant womb. It's simply the distress I feel in knowing that out there, lies are sown as undeniable fact and it's primarily children at risk from this contamination. The facts are that the truth of provable science is simply wondrous (Google Hubble and be in awe at the universe's images), so why should those facts be denied to those who are force-fed cripplingly closed minded middle ages folklore?

Yes, the DVD's lectures were recorded in 1991 and their scientific examples and practical demonstrations could be open to some serious updating. Yes, the five hours require a certain rigorous attention. Yes, Richard Dawkins has, of late, come across as a strident and unapologetic almost-atheist (I, for one, am not sorry about that and the 'coming across as' is more media provocation. The man seems quietly reasonable, like Sam Harris in his dialogues with the faithful and in his books, The End of Faith and Letter To A Christian Nation). This is the DVD that does what the Bible must have done for so many, so many centuries ago. Growing Up In The Universe is a five-hour introduction to the wonder that is life on this planet. Each lecture fills me with awe regarding the blue ball I call home and not once do we need a supernatural explanation for any of it. Hell, if ardent religious folk could grasp what awe is out there, scientifically proven, they'd close their Bibles and open their minds. No one loses with Darwinism.

Dawkins has more to tell us about who we are than any religious text. Trust me. Science will move you to believe in the unbelievable and god's hold on our imaginations suddenly seems petty and insular. The five lectures are simply presented with the quaint technology available at the time. Refreshing to see such a stalwart of intellectualism using an old Mac portable (but then the man met his wife at a Douglas Adams party so we shouldn't be surprised). In fact his book The God Delusion is dedicated to the large nosed biped who so entranced me as a teenager and who died clutching his towel at a gym in Santa Barbara in May 2001. Adams didn't live to see what religion wrought in the following months of that significant year. 2001 wasn't so much a space odyssey as a faith atrocity.

By way of review, here are a couple of wonderful snippets and resulting appreciation offered by the DVDs under the headings of the five lectures:

1. Waking Up In The Universe

"A woman can do it with nine months development,
little research and only a little help from a friend..."

The human brain is the most sophisticated object in the known universe and hey, you've got one! Yes, you had to go through the complex reproductive process to obtain one but the fact is that if you are reading this, you are the proud possessor of a human brain. What are the odds? Actually the odds of you being here reading this are staggeringly small. If you could grasp just how small, you'd wake up each morning thrilled to be alive and the prospect of more discoveries about the wonder that is your life before being shut down for good, with luck, at extreme old age. If you've passed on your genes then you've done your job (as far as evolution is concerned). I am not naïve to think that life is wonderful for all (there are many things that conspire to make it hard. I could have done without pain for a start) but as a child you ask questions. If you have teachers and guardians that are well informed then the world isn't so much an oyster as a sumptuous banquet just waiting for you to taste its many pleasures.

The tossing pennies rubbishing of psychic events and the cannonball aimed squarely at Dawkins' own head (faith in scientific principles) are small but exquisite pleasures in this particular lecture and I'm happy to report that my ten year old put his hand up more than once after the audience was asked a question. That's getting your audience involved.

2. Designed and Designoid Objects

The propensity to believe in a celestial design is widespread. In the 2nd lecture, Richard Dawkins carefully peels apart the illogic in this irrational thesis and goes on to demonstrate with lucidity and intellectual rigor the difference between things that really have been designed and things that have come about by natural selection. Again my ten year old asked the right question when he said "But if god made the world, who made god?" Dawkins takes this further and uses the same argument to blow its own conclusions out of the water.

3. Climbing Mount Improbable

"More giddy in my desires than a monkey..."

Absolute luck verses the smearing of the luck. Even Darwin had a problem with the eye. There are certain parts of living creatures that seem completely unexplainable. If gradual selection is true, what use is 'half' an eye to any living creature? Dawkins manages to bring the answer to this conundrum over to children in a way that completely entranced me (I add up to four and a half ten year olds). These live lectures like any live performance are prone to small misadventures and of course every time Dawkins' comes across a problem (a recalcitrant stick insect for example) it's amusing in itself. What's also nice to note is Dawkins' very slight nervousness. It's gratifying to see that he does not command an audience as much as impart his scientific wisdom with the faintest tickle of anxiety. To those Dawkins-bashers, this proves (at the very least) that he's very human.

In the papers last week there was a story about a beetle whose male and female bodies create ever increasing weapons and counter-weapons against each other (in effect the conclusion was the female does not want to mate and therefore does not satisfy some basic Darwinian assumptions). I read this story with that slack jawed 'duh' of incomprehension. The fact that the beetle is still with us (regardless of her battery of weapons aimed at the male of the species) proves that Darwinian assumptions are present and correct. "Hello!" to the science editors of the papers. The beetle is here. It has evolved. If it is here, it is here by gradual natural selection. What's the big deal? Men and women have fought throughout the ages. We're still here.

4. The Ultraviolet Garden

"Flowers are to make the world pretty and
to help the bees make honey for us..."

So said a little girl after being asked what flowers were for. Christopher Hitchens in the recently released book God Is Not Great (it is to Islam what The God Delusion is to Christianity) said that he smelled a rat when his teacher, a well respected and regarded Christian, told him that nature was predominantly green because it's the colour most restful to human eyes. Hitchens was nine years old and had no knowledge of natural selection but he knew then that the eyes were adjusted to nature not the other way around. In this lecture Dawkins goes into how other animals have very different ways of seeing and sensing the world. Did you know a bee can't see the colour red or that if all the bees disappeared, thirty percent of our food plants would be wiped out? Talk about the interconnected-ness of all things (the philosophy of one Dirk Gently, created by the afore mentioned Hitch-Hiker's Guide writer, Douglas Adams). I mention him again because (a) he shall not be forgotten and (b) he guest stars in this lecture in a delightful cameo as he reads his 'Dish of the Day' extract from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the ultimate example of the erroneous belief that nature is at our beck and call and we have mastery over it. In our dreams.

5. The Genesis of Purpose

"How to put the universe inside your skull."

How do we interpret reality? In effect, it's a virtual reality we live in because our brain interprets the sense data from our five senses and constructs the universe from this information. This seems pretty straightforward until Dawkins explains it and then it becomes inspiring. He uses a very crude virtual reality helmet to illustrate his points and it's so old fashioned you almost want to say "Aaaah". But this lecture is the meat and potatoes of his five hour thesis. Salmon Rushdie had been fatwah'ed and Dawkins mentions this in same breath as the persecution and incarceration of Gallileo by the Catholic Church. But it's an important point. Crude belief systems that ignore and argue against scientific truth can only chip away at what we have striven to build. And if Dawkins could have glanced into the future and saw what further harm – in the 21st Century no less – would be wrought by fundamentalists on the mental lists, then I'm sure he would have lobbied harder to get these fascinating and brilliant lectures out into the world. Well, we have that chance now and we shouladamsd take it up as voraciously and as quickly as we can.

I don't say this often but this DVD set is important because a rational future is important and it's the children we have to look to for that future. Teach your children well.

sound and vision

The two disc set is presented in a 4x3 aspect ratio and the picture quality shows some of its age (it was recorded on tape with those Dalek-like TV cameras) but stands up well enough and is nothing to complain about. It's – curiously – a region free NTSC DVD with no subtitles but the Richard Dawkins Foundation is deluged with desires for an updated sub-titled version. The sound is quite adequate (these are lectures, plain and simple) with a nice introductory 'Evolution' animation with a theme tune written by a past colleague of mine Roger Bolton. Hullo, Roger!

extra features

None but I do treat each lecture as an extra special feature...


This is an important DVD set, one to learn from in the best way possible. It positively screams for an update. You can only buy this DVD from one source. Buy two. One for you and your family and one for your school. Trust me, they are superb... £12.99 for five hours of lucid wisdom and inspiring your children (and you). Please, I urge you to buy this.

Grab your copies at:

All proceeds go to towards spreading the scientific word via Dawkins' web site.

Growing Up in the Universe

UK 1991
300 mins
Stuart McDonald
Richard Dawkins
Douglas Adams

DVD details
region 0 NTSC
4:3 OAR
Dolby 2.0 mono
The Richard Dawkins Foundation
release date
out now
review posted
30 June 2007

See all of Camus's reviews