As New York’s chief law enforcement officer, Eliot Spitzer has taken on the titans of Wall Street to get a fair deal for Main Street. His far-reaching investigations have uncovered fraudulent practices in some of the nation’s biggest companies and helped restore transparency and honesty to industries that provide important products and services to regular Americans, mutual funds, prescription drugs, and insurance. David Brancaccio goes inside the mind, motivations and investigations of one of the nation’s most feared and respected attorneys general, the man they call “the sheriff of Wall Street.”
Richard Dawkins is one of the most controversial thinkers in the world today. His book THE SELFISH GENE describes in stunning detail a world where the mission for all life is nothing more than to replicate itself. Just as the long-simmering battle over how evolution is taught in America’s schools is heating up again, Dawkins’ most recent book, THE ANCESTOR’S TALE, sheds light on the most compelling aspects of evolutionary history and theory. Bill Moyers gets perspective from Dawkins, a prominent zoologist, on critical thinking and on the backlash against the very notion of evolution. Richard Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford and his other books include: THE EXTENDED PHENOTYPE and THE BLIND WATCHMAKER, for which he won the Royal Society of Literature Award and the LOS ANGELES TIMES Literary Prize.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. It was just three years ago this week, believe it or not, that once-mighty Enron, the colossus of the naughty 90s boom-boom-and-bust capitalism, threw in the towel and filed for bankruptcy. You remember Enron. Run by Kenny “good old boy” Lay, bosom buddy of a budding President, brought to his knees, and maybe to jail, by that old-time religion concocted of high-flying hubris and downright greed.
They cooked the books at Enron — after marinating them in snake oil — and left thousands of shareholders and employees to feed on the scraps.
That was just the beginning. From telecom giants to huge hospital chains, from stock brokerages to mutual funds, you could have thought American capitalism had become vast conspiracy to con investors. You could also have thought the lords and captains of the master class had learned their lesson, along with a little humility. Not so.
Look at this editorial in Thursday’s USA TODAY. Seems the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the business roundtable and individual firms are doing everything they can to rollback the reforms passed in the wake of Enron.
So the animal spirits are back, to borrow Lord Keynes’ famous phrase, and if the wolves have their way, the lambs had better get ready for another predator’s ball.
BRANCACCIO: Of course, government can’t help much. These days government is not supposed to crack down, it’s supposed to get ever smaller.
The idea of tougher regulation seems so passe in this era of government as meddling nuisance not as protector when it comes to business. But at least one man doesn’t buy into that. He’s been called the most powerful politician outside of Washington. Why? Because he’s applying the rule of law to corporate behavior.
Producer William Brangham and I take a look.
It doesn’t start out looking all that terrifying. A cramped room near Wall Street. Reporters squeeze in. State officials mill about. But this man is about to scare the pinstripes off of some very powerful business leaders.
SPITZER: I thank you for coming down on this nice bright sunny day.
BRANCACCIO: This is Eliot Spitzer. He’s the Attorney General for the state of New York. But make no mistake: what he’s doing here will affect people all over the country.
On this day, Spitzer is telling the world that he believes the biggest insurance broker in the world, Marsh and McLennan, has been rigging insurance bids and taking kickbacks and thereby defrauding its customers.
SPITZER: It is disappointing for what it once again reveals about the craven disregard for ethics and the law in some of our largest corporations—
BRANCACCIO: It’s not the first time he’s gone on the attack.
CNBC ANCHOR: Hurricane Eliot today hits the insurance industry—
BROKAW [NBC Nightly News]: Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has charged—
CNBC ANCHOR: The industry, now in the crosshairs of corruption-hunter Eliot Spitzer—
BRANCACCIO: Over the last six years, Spitzer has uncovered what he sees as corrupt practices in some of the country’s biggest industries: investment banks, drug companies, mutual funds.
SPITZER: This investigation is broad and deep and it is disappointing…
BRANCACCIO: His threats of prosecution have led to fines in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Just the announcement of a Spitzer investigation is enough to send a company’s stock down a hole. But Spitzer has had an impact far beyond a company’s stock price: virtually all of the industries he’s targeted have been forced to change the way they operate, affecting long into the future the way they do business with millions of Americans.
But what exactly is Wall Street’s top cop trying to enforce? He says it’s the rules that make capitalism work.
You’ve written that the role of the government as it applies to the markets is not one of passive spectator. You also said it wasn’t one of lion tamer. I think the phrase was “market facilitator,” you came up with.
SPITZER: Right, right.
BRANCACCIO: What do you mean by that?
SPITZER: Well, I begin with where I think most of us would begin which is to be fundamentally dedicated to the market economy. The free market works if it is properly bounded by a set of rules. The free market creates jobs, moves capital, creates wealth. I don’t think there’s any doubt it is the system that we believe in, support and want to encourage and ensure its survival. But those pieces will work only if there is integrity, transparency and a core honesty in the system that sometimes the market itself cannot guarantee. Government must guarantee that integrity, transparency and fair dealing.
BRANCACCIO: The argument is provocative: regulation doesn’t stand in the way of markets. Rather, Spitzer’s view is that following ground rules that are crystal clear actually helps business by increasing consumer confidence, making people more likely to spend and invest.
SPITZER: Today I’m announcing the preliminary results of a 10 month investigation of one of the nation’ s most prominent Wall Street firms.
BRANCACCIO: Spitzer first got the attention of investors around the country in 2002 when he revealed that stock analysts for some of the country’s biggest financial players were lying to their customers.
Take Merrill Lynch: their star internet analyst Henry Blodget was saying enthusiastic things about stocks in certain companies, including one called Infospace. But Spitzer found internal emails showing Blodget actually thought Infospace stock was a bad bet, “a piece of junk,”a “powder keg.”
Why promote a stock you think is garbage? Spitzer alleged it was to suck up to Infospace and maybe then they would give some lucrative investment banking business to Merrill Lynch.
In 2003, Spitzer turned his attention to the mutual fund industry.
SPITZER: Today what we’re doing is beginning to focus on mutual funds.
BRANCACCIO: Spitzer’s team showed that dozens of companies were illegally letting their richest clients profit at the expense of smaller investors. Many on Wall Street were privately furious, but Spitzer had them by the horns.
SPITZER: I’ve been met with this push-back virtually every time we’ve made a major case. Somebody says, “Well, you shouldn’t need to intervene. The market will solve the problem.” Well, the market doesn’t solve the problem if people are committing fraud and getting away with it. And that’s why I said when the business model was consistent and flawed, we needed to step in and say, “No, your ethical violations need to be confronted.”
BRANCACCIO: Daniel Gross has been tracking Spitzer’s career for years. He writes a financial column for the online magazine SLATE.
GROSS: One of the things that distinguishes Spitzer from many other prosecutors is that he’s really a creature of the world that many Wall Street executives inhabit.
BRANCACCIO: Gross says that New York’s Attorney General has a lived a life that makes him especially suited to tangling with the titans of industry. Spitzer’s family made it big in real estate. He’s a child of privilege who’s been a big Wall Street investor himself.
GROSS: That, I think, has given him a unique vantage point from which to assess what’s wrong with these industries, figure out how to correct them. And when he’s in the room with these executives at these very big companies, he knows how to speak to them.
BRANCACCIO: Spitzer’s high-profile investigations have made him enemies, though few in the financial community risk expressing their distaste for him on camera. But there’s one Wall Street insider who has no problem talking about Spitzer. James Cramer co-hosts a show on the financial channel CNBC. He used to work at Goldman Sachs then he ran one of the country’s most successful hedge funds. And one of his investors was his friend and Harvard Law School classmate, Eliot Spitzer.
You’re a man who has long experience hanging out with captains of industry, people in the business community. What do they tell you when the name Eliot Spitzer comes up in conversation?
CRAMER: If they’re in a group, they’ll tell me that he’s the Anti-Christ. If they’re individual and we’re alone at a bar, best thing. Best thing that ever happened. Because for the most part people want to be good, but whole cultures have flourished where the people who are honest don’t do as well as the people who are dishonest. I think that Eliot is changing the calculus back to where the honesty is rewarded and the dishonest is out of favor again. Most people want to be honest.
BRANCACCIO: So this is an okay role for government?
CRAMER: I think it’s a great role. It’s a great role. We de-regulated to the point in this country where thrown bids are commonplace, where corrupt research is accepted, and where a lot of people, where you’ll be in the room and everyone will say, “Look, so what? So the client doesn’t know.”
SPITZER: We have asked ourselves how do we confront those problems.
BRANCACCIO: Cramer says that a lot of the things Spitzer uncovered in his investigations were really open secrets on Wall Street. The in-crowd knew all along that investment banking research was corrupted by conflicts of interest or that mutual fund managers gave a key perk to their richest clients.
GROSS: In the ’90s, we were in a bull market the entire decade. And a bull market covers up all kinds of sins. Nobody asked any questions when they were making money. Who was gonna rock the boat?
CRAMER: If it were just the so-called “few bad apples,” then Eliot would be overstepping. But these are just whole orchards of corruption. And when I look at what the mutual funds did where they basically just stole from Mom and Pop, and it’s almost every mutual fund did it. And everybody accepted it? I mean, institutionalized chicanery at a level that I find almost— You want to take a shower after you read this stuff.
BRANCACCIO: The problems on Wall Street came after of decades of Democrats and Republicans championing the idea of de-regulation.
At the same time, the watchdogs in Washington had the muzzles clamped on. The Securities and Exchange Commission — the agency that’s supposed to oversee investment banks and mutual funds — had seen its budgets and staff squeezed for at least ten years.
Then in 2001, President Bush appointed Harvey Pitt to the SEC’s top job. Pitt was a Washington lawyer who’d represented or lobbied for many of the same firms he was now supposed to watch over.
GROSS: So at precisely the time when a bulldog, a well-funded bulldog was needed in Washington, 2001, when Enron and then WorldCom and all these scandals broke, there was no leadership in Washington. The SEC was underfunded and it was poorly led. That created the vacuum for Spitzer to step in.
SPITZER: Washington, when it went through its spasm of deregulation, decided just to step back from enforcing even the most fundamental basic rules of integrity in the marketplace. The SEC went through a period and I think it’s better now. But it went through a period where it really pulled back. It was pressured to pull back from addressing some of these core issues.
BRANCACCIO: But you clearly don’t buy the argument that the best way for the markets to operate is for the good companies pleasing their customers more. They’ll get the business. They will win. And the sleazy companies will ultimately be punished by their customers and they will lose.
SPITZER: Right. It didn’t work is the simple answer. Every time we have found fundamental impropriety, whether it was the analysts, mutual funds, insurance, pharmaceuticals. And nobody in those sectors, not once, has any industry voice before we found the impropriety, has any self-regulatory body stood up and said, “Wait a minute, guys, we’ve gotta problem. Stop.”
BRANCACCIO: To see how Eliot Spitzer operates, take a look at his most recent investigation into the insurance broker Marsh and McLennan. The case started out like many of his do: a couple of tips came into Spitzer’s office suggesting he look into the relationship between insurance brokers and insurance companies.
SPITZER: We began asking questions of the most senior management at this company about a theoretical problem.
CRAMER: Every single one of these attacks that he makes starts like this. He goes into the insurance business and says, “Look, I think you guys are taking kickbacks.” And some gray beard in the insurance industry or their lawyer will say to him, “You know, you don’t really understand the insurance industry.”
SPITZER: They came into my office and they said, “Eliot, you don’t understand the insurance industry.”
CRAMER: About three months later the lawyer then goes into the client on the defense side and says, “Hey listen, you know, Spitzer, actually, he’s done a lot of homework.” “No, no, no. He’s just gunning for Governor. That’s all he’s about.” Then another three months go by and the lawyer comes in and says, “Look, you know, I think that if we got in front of a jury, I think we’re gonna go down.” “Well, how much money do we have to pay?” “No, I mean, I think, I think you might go to jail.” “Oh.”
SPITZER: I said, “You’re right. I don’t understand the insurance industry. But I understand fraud and bid rigging.”
BRANCACCIO: Fraud and bid rigging are pretty frank terms, but that’s exactly what Spitzer accused Marsh of doing. Spitzer also alleged there were problems throughout the commercial insurance industry in America. His complaint also named industry heavyweights AIG, Ace, Hartford and Munich-American.
Here’s how it works: let’s say you start a company that makes wheelbarrows, and you want an insurance policy. You pay Marsh and in return, they’re supposed to gather competing bids from different insurance companies. Say, insurance companies Tom, Dick and Harry and Marsh then helps your wheelbarrow company pick the best policy.
But Spitzer’s investigation alleged that Marsh and others had the system rigged so that while it would appear that you were getting competitive bids, in fact, Marsh had already determined which insurer would get your business—in this case, Harry. Why Harry? Not only were you paying Marsh, but Harry was paying them too. The industry calls payments like this “contingent commissions” and says they’ve disclosed them for years. Spitzer alleges they’re nothing more than kickbacks that were not at all clear to clients.
SPITZER: We learned very quickly that the claim of adequate disclosure was simply false. The disclosures that are made were not only grossly inadequate, they were often misleading. And indeed the companies — and I say that plural — intentionally make it difficult for their clients to find out because they do not want that information to be made available.
COFFEE: He objected to Marsh & McLennan’s practice of receiving commissions from both the insurance company and from the customer.
BRANCACCIO: John Coffee studies white collar crime. He runs the Center on Corporate Governance at Columbia University Law School.
COFFEE: The industry said, “This is innocuous. This is a well established, long standing practice.” And you could debate that. But he pushed a little harder than anyone else had. And he found that because of these contingent commissions, you actually had brokers rigging bids, because they wanted to determine which particular insurance company would win the auction because they knew they were going to get a bigger commission from one than the other.
BRANCACCIO: Rigging bids? It turns out insurance companies Tom and Dick were playing along too, submitting fake bids to give the appearance of competition. The reason? So Marsh would steer business to them next time.
COFFEE: Once you start rigging bids, then it’s clear the system has moved into truly felonious behavior that is a per se violation of the anti-trust laws. And that’s it. He was able the show not simply a conflict of interest, which people were well aware of, but that that conflict of interest had caused what I’ll call clear cut smoking gun criminality.
BRANCACCIO: So how did the staid insurance industry become consumed in scandal, even outright criminality? The first thing you need to know is that there’s no federal agency oversight into this nearly trillion dollar industry. The Federal Trade Commission used to have some authority, but Congress got rid of that back in 1980. So this powerful industry is regulated piecemeal on a state-by-state basis.
In New York state, Eliot Spitzer has become the scourge of the big insurance companies. And here’s the part of the story that is trademark Spitzer. Not only did he denounce certain practices in the industry, not only did he strongly hint that Marsh replace its top leadership (which it did), but he told the industry how they had to change the way they do business.
For Marsh and McLennan, there’s no more double dipping. By losing those commissions from insurers, Marsh is losing a big chunk of its annual income — that was nearly 800 million dollars last year.
SPITZER: I’ve said to them, “Fellas, if you don’t want me or people like me to be coming in bringing these prosecutions, stop the behavior before we find it. Stop it on your own and change the way you’re doing business. And then you might get a remedy that you think is better from your perspective. But once I find this impropriety, we’re gonna be in the position where we say, ‘Here’s how you gotta solve it.'”
BRANCACCIO: And that’s one area where you to some extent in your office has been, I don’t know, revolutionary. You don’t necessarily go after the few bad apples. You often push quite hard for systematic change.
SPITZER: We do, and I’m attacked for it by some who say, “It’s not your job.” But on the other hand, where we see lines of business, entire sectors, where the way they’re doing business is designed to capitalize upon a conflict of interest, for instance, if the entire sector seems to be based upon that type of relationship, then I say to myself “Simply picking out one or two individuals and using them as examples is almost counter-productive, because it sends a message to everybody else, “You can get away with it.”
BRANCACCIO: It’s just so wild though the top law enforcement official of a state having a comment on a business model of an entire industry. I mean, you don’t have an MBA, do you?
BRANCACCIO: You have a law degree, as I understand.
SPITZER: I do have a law degree, the last time I checked. You’re right. I mean I don’t pretend to understand their businesses as well as they do. I think I understand them pretty well, quite frankly. By the time we’re done investigating, I think I understand the larger structures of investment banking or the mutual fund industry or now the insurance sector well enough to know where things are broken. So you’re right, I don’t have an MBA. But we do, when we see criminal wrong-doing that cuts to the core and is central to the way business is being done, I feel that we’ve got an obligation to address the larger issue, rather than just the one manifestation of the problem.
BRANCACCIO: Marsh and McLennan has been hit hard by Spitzer’s investigation: its stock has plummeted by nearly 38%, taking with it the value of thousands of pension plans of Marsh employees—and lots of jobs.
I can understand the attractiveness of fighting for ethical behavior. But real life is complicated. When you fight for ethical behavior, one of the costs, in the case of the current insurance case, is that Marsh & McLennan… about 3,000 layoffs. That’s 3,000 families, presumably. Does that ever get to you? Do you reflect on that?
SPITZER: Absolutely. It is very painful when you see regular families, good people, losing jobs, losing money in their portfolio because valuations drop. We have tried to cushion that in every way possible. We also have to enforce the rule of law. We have to ensure that there’s integrity. And these are tough judgment calls, very tough judgment calls.
BRANCACCIO: Because implicit in this is the idea of collective responsibility. They’re people losing their jobs who really didn’t have a direct hand in it.
SPITZER: No question about it. There are people who lost their job at Marsh who were not involved in the wrongdoing. When we went to Marsh and said you have a problem here, because there’s an underlying fraud, that is, that is leading to a revenue of 800 million dollars, they knew because they were going to have give up that revenue stream they had to downsize. That downsizing is not because we brought the cause of action against them. It’s because their business model relied upon fraud and impropriety. They couldn’t do it anymore.
BRANCACCIO: It strikes me that it takes a certain dark view of humanity to be Attorney General. What is it about your upbringing that left you with such a lack of trust?
SPITZER: No, no. Well, you see, I hope you’re wrong about that. I mean I think it takes an affirmative view that we can be saved. You know, I don’t want people taking that the wrong way. But you see, if I were essentially a pessimist, I’d throw up my hands and say, “Well, I’ll go out there and play the game and just do well for myself and not care.” It is the optimism and the notion that we can get people to play by the rules, if we are thoughtful in the way we enforce the law that keeps me going with this endeavor.
BRANCACCIO: The rap in some quarters about Eliot Spitzer is that you use these cases to get headlines because you seek higher office. Perhaps in fact the governorship of New York. How do you respond when you hear that?
SPITZER: Well, I guess what I would say is that I don’t write the headlines. I don’t determine what goes on what page of the newspaper. We make cases. We announce cases. So if these issues get attention, it’s because the issues merit attention. If it is the case that I’m— and I’ve said this before, I’m considering running for governor of the state of New York, it’s because of what we have done in this office, what I’ve tried to do. And we’ve been right in these cases. And I will not apologize for that. If we have revealed improprieties and wrongdoing, and the public will then pass judgment whether that is wise or not. That is the nature of our political process.
BRANCACCIO: If you do ultimately run, how are you gonna raise money from these big companies that you’ve been hassling for all these years?
SPITZER: I probably won’t. And, you know, that’s great. People should only be supportive if they agree with you. If they don’t agree with me, they shouldn’t give.
BRANCACCIO: Maybe you can raise money from these big companies who want you to become governor so you get out of their hair as Attorney General.
BRANCACCIO: Maybe that’s a fundraising strategy.
SPITZER: Yea, I’ll try it on them. I’m not sure it will work. But I’ll tell them it came from you and I’ll see. If it does, I’ll let you know.
BRANCACCIO: Since our interview the other day, Eliot Spitzer seems to have made up his mind about running for governor of New York, a seat now held by popular three-term Republican George Pataki.
The NEW YORK POST reports Spitzer, a Democrat, will announce his candidacy next week at a thousand-dollar-a-seat fundraiser.
The nexus of government, regulation and business is a key public policy issue that affects our country and your livelihood. That’s why NOW has been tracking this story and others like it. The public TV station you’re watching needs your support to keep bringing you NOW and all the other programs that you want to see.
For those of you staying with us, we want to take you back now to Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s first big crusade against Wall Street practices and a report Bill Moyers and producer Brenda Breslauer put together back in May of 2002.
Spitzer had Merrill Lynch in a headlock and was forcing the brokerage firm to change the way it did business.
MOYERS: It was big news across the country. The largest brokerage firm on Wall Street in a $100 million settlement for misleading its investors.
SPITZER: It was the Mr. and Mrs. Smith, whether in Utica, New York, or in Topeka, Kansas, or in Jupiter, Florida, who were the victims of this scam.
MOYERS: Merrill Lynch’s commercials convey a warm fuzzy feeling, Wall Street firms as purveyors of family values, a safe place for customers.
COMMERCIAL VOICEOVER: Because they trust a team of financial advisors at Merrill Lynch.
MOYERS: Actually, the small investor was being treated like a hick from the sticks as New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer discovered in his investigation.
SPITZER: My office developed evidence indicating that analysts gave misleading advice.
MOYERS: The evidence is a trail of damaging emails, emails in which research analysts say bad things about stocks the firm was telling investors to buy.
SPITZER: At the very moment they were telling us buy this stock, invest more of your money in it, they were saying internally, there’s absolutely no reason to own this stock. It’s a dog. It’s worse. They were making us lose money so they could get rich.
MOYERS: Example: LifeMinders, an internet company. Publicly, Merrill recommended the stock as an “attractive investment” and advised investors to “accumulate” it. Privately, Merrill’s analyst was saying of the very same stock: “I can’t believe what a POS [piece of sh-t] that thing is.” For [email protected], a stock known as ATHM, Merrill publicly said: “We do not see much more downside to the shares” and recommended investors “accumulate.” But privately the analyst was saying this “ATHM [is] such a piece of crap!”
SPITZER: The small investor was the victim. The big institutional investor, the sophisticated investors, probably knew that the analyst reports should not be relied upon.
TV REPORTER: What’s troubling you about Microsoft’s outlook?
MOYERS: The heart of the scam was a conflict of interest built into the system. A lot of the analysts you see on television picking stocks work for the research division of a Wall Street firm like Merrill Lynch. The Research Department is supposed to be completely separate from the banking division, a “Chinese Wall” between them, to avoid conflicts of interest. But in reality, analysts feel unspoken pressure from the investment bankers to come out with recommendations to buy stock. The reports can then be used by the Investment bankers to attract big corporate clients. Spitzer’s investigation revealed that the more business an analyst generated for the investment banking side, the more money the analyst made.
SPITZER: So even when they knew the stock was bad, they would say “Buy it,” because the company whose stock they were promoting was a client. It was somewhat like the restaurant reviewer being a partner in the restaurant. He issued a good report and said, “Come to this restaurant.” But if you read the review and didn’t know he was an owner in the restaurant, you were snookered.
Our purchase price was $54.
MOYERS: That’s what happened to these women in Jupiter, Florida who formed their own investment club in 1996.
KOPMAN: I think that we put a lot of emphasis on the work that the analysts were doing for the various brokerage firms. Especially the big ones because we believed in them. I guess we were very naive and we thought that that information was correct. They were the ones that were visiting the companies. So obviously, they would know a lot more than I would know by just reading about a company.
EHLERS: Historically, you believed in the stock market because everybody knew the stock market went up, the stock market went down, you assumed the analysts or whoever was following the stocks back in the older days knew what they were talking about.
MOYERS: Who is looking out for the little guy in this kind of market?
SPITZER: Look, there are many more small investors than there are big sophisticated investors. And I think if we can explain to the public, your interests are being subverted, hopefully those folks will stand up and say, wait a minute, somebody’s got to do something. And then maybe we will see real reform out of Washington, at the SEC, and there will be a change.
BRANCACCIO: Connect to NOW at pbs.org.
Following up on corporate scandals. What’s your state attorney general working on? News in the schoolyard battle over evolution.
Connect to NOW at pbs.org.
MOYERS: At least half of America is going to take issue with the cover story of the November issue of the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC magazine. There it is, with the provocative question boldly displayed, “Was Darwin Wrong?” The article inside answers just as boldly, “No. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming.”
But try telling that to this red-state mom in Cobb County, Georgia in the suburbs of Atlanta.
ROGERS: I believe that God created the world in six literal days about 6,000 years ago.
MOYERS: She’s not alone. A recent CBS/NEW YORK TIMES poll found that more than half of Americans believed that human beings were created by God just as we are today, and 65% said that biblical creation should be part of the curriculum, along with evolution. These Bible-based beliefs about the origins of life are churning American politics.
As USA TODAY reported recently, there have been efforts in 24 states this year to challenge the teaching of evolution in public schools. Because the Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that creationism is a religious belief and can’t be taught in public schools, this biblical worldview is being repackaged under a new banner.
They call it “intelligent design,” the notion that our world is far too complex not to have been issued from some higher power. A school district in Dover, Pennsylvania has become the first in the nation to require that students be taught the theory of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution.
With me now is a man who is puzzled by America’s seeming retreat from what science has to say about the world we live in. From his teaching base at Oxford University Richard Dawkins holds forth as one of the world’s foremost advocates for the public understanding of science. His books on the subject have been acclaimed by literary and scientific peers alike. They make science so clear and engaging that even a journalist like me gets it. My favorite among them is A DEVIL’S CHAPLAIN and now, the latest, THE ANCESTOR’S TALE: A PILGRIMAGE TO THE DAWN OF EVOLUTION.
A zoologist by training, Richard Dawkins was recently described by an influential British magazine as his country’s leading public intellectual. Welcome to NOW.
DAWKINS: Thank you.
MOYERS: What strikes me about this is that you have offered this trip back to the dawn of evolution at the very moment, in this country, there is a huge backlash against the very notion of evolution. Are you aware of walking into that buzzsaw of religion and politics here?
DAWKINS: Yes, I am. I mean I’m aware that the subject of evolution is, itself, controversial. I also feel that perhaps the fact that it’s a sweep of four billion years helps to get things in perspective. I mean, this is the real long-term view of life. Whereas temporary politics perhaps we cannot exactly shrug this off. But at least get it into perspective.
MOYERS: Even as you speak about the four billion years of evolution, I can hear minds going off in the audience that says, “Yes, but we can’t think that long. We’re concerned right now with this controversy in this country.”
One of the largest school districts in Georgia created a real stir, not long ago, when they insisted on putting a warning sticker on biology books saying, and I’ve got the exact quote here, “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.” What’s your response to that?
DAWKINS: All materials should be studied with an open mind, studied critically, etcetera. I’m all for that. What’s wrong is to single out evolution as though that is any more open to doubt than anything else. Of course, in science, there have been sort of open to doubt and things that need to be discussed.
And, of course, everything needs to be approached with an open mind. But, among the things that science does know, evolution is about as certain as anything we know. And that, of course, as you know, is accepted by responsible educated churchmen, as well as scientists.
MOYERS: When you say it’s about as certain as anything we know, how do we know it?
DAWKINS: We know it from a massive evidence, not just fossil evidence, which is actually rather less important, nowadays, than molecular evidence. There’s a huge quantity of evidence. Everything about the distribution of animals and plants over the earth’s surface. The distributions on genes within the animal and plant kingdoms, everything points to the overwhelming conclusion that evolution is true. That doesn’t mean that every detail of the theories— the details are necessarily true. But the fact that we and chimpanzees are cousins, the fact that we and amoebas are cousins, is beyond all educated dispute.
MOYERS: What do we have in common with jellyfish?
DAWKINS: We have a huge amount of DNA in common with jellyfish. At the deepest level, all living things that have ever been looked at have the same DNA code. And many of the same genes. We can actually measure how long ago the common ancestor of jellyfish and ourselves lived. Well, I say measure… estimate.
DAWKINS: —with a fair degree of plausibility. There’s not the slightest shadow of a doubt that we are cousins of jellyfish, albeit, rather distant cousins.
MOYERS: But how do you account for the fact that human beings have this intimation of something beyond us that, you know, apparently a jellyfish doesn’t entertain?
DAWKINS: Well, we have big brains. We have all sorts of things that jellyfish don’t have. We have language, we have culture, we have music, we have mathematics, we have philosophy. And we have these intimations which you describe. We are a very, very unusual species—
MOYERS: What’s the source of those intimations do you think? Wishful thinking?
DAWKINS: Well, I really don’t know. I mean I think that when you’ve got a big brain, when you find yourself planted in a world with a brain big enough to understand quite a lot of what you see around you, but not everything, you naturally fall to thinking about the deep mysteries. Where do we come from? Where does the world come from? Where does the universe come from? Why can we think?
Those are very, very deep questions. And it’s natural for us to hanker after solutions to that. And many solutions have been offered. And I think that’s what you’re seeing when you talk about those intimations.
MOYERS: Is evolution a theory, not a fact?
DAWKINS: Evolution has been observed. It’s just that it hasn’t been observed while it’s happening.
MOYERS: What do you mean it’s been observed.
DAWKINS: The consequences of. It is rather like a detective coming on a murder after the scene. And you— the detective hasn’t actually seen the murder take place, of course. But what you do see is a massive clue. Now, any detective—
MOYERS: Circumstantial evidence.
DAWKINS: Circumstantial evidence, but masses of circumstantial evidence. Huge quantities of circumstantial evidence. It might as well be spelled out in words of English. Evolution is true. I mean it’s as circumstantial as that, but it’s as true as that.
MOYERS: As you probably know, back in 1987, our Supreme Court ruled that creationism, the belief that the earth was created by a transcendent God in six days 4,004 years ago, thereof, that the Supreme Court ruled that creationism was a religious belief that, therefore, could not be taught in public schools. So now creationism has been repackaged, as I’m sure you know, along the line of intelligent design, the notion that life on earth results from a purposeful design, rather than random selection. And that a higher intelligence is actually guiding this progress. Is there any circumstantial evidence to support that claim?
DAWKINS: I suppose it is possible that one might look at the evidence of life, as we see it on this planet, and try to find some sort of evidence that it was intelligently designed. The evidence that has been offered just doesn’t even begin to suggest that it is intelligently designed. Once you understand how Darwinism works, then you could easily see that that’s a far better, far more parsimonious, far more scientific explanation than intelligent design.
MOYERS: To what extent is this important? I remember the story of the professor who was talking about evolution in class, and the student raises his hand and says, “Professor what difference does it make if some distant grandfather of mine was an ape?” And the professor said, “Well, it would make a difference to your grandmother.” But other than that, what is the practical consequence of presuming this?
DAWKINS: Well, I’m not sure about practical consequence. I take a rather more poetic view that when you’re in the world, and you’re only in the world for a matter of some decades, to have the privilege of understanding where you came from, what your antecedents are, what the reason for your existence is, is such a magnificent privilege. That not to have that, even if it doesn’t actually help you in practice, even if the knowledge and understanding of evolution doesn’t actually help you to do whatever you do, and you play football, or be a businessman, or whatever it might be.
Yet, you die impoverished. You die having not had a proper life if you have failed to understand what’s on offer. And what’s on offer today, in the 21st century, is a huge amount, far more than any of our predecessors in previous centuries had. And so I think it’s rather like saying, “What’s the use of music? What’s the use of poetry?” They may not be useful, but what’s the point of living at all if you don’t have them. To me, that is firmly planted in the real world. The real world is so wonderful that I don’t want more than that. And I think there is no more than that. But anybody who thinks they want more than that, I’m inclined to say, “How could you possibly want more than the real world? If you only you could understand how grand and beautiful and immense, and yet still incomprehensible the real world is. How can you want more than that?”
MOYERS: Where does this poetic sensibility come in you?
DAWKINS: I’m shot through with it, all the way through. Everything that I write is—
MOYERS: I know, that’s obvious. But where does that come from? You were a choir boy I believe. You read the Psalms, sang the songs?
DAWKINS: Don’t try and make it come from religion. It certainly didn’t come from religion. No, I think it comes from science itself. It comes from—
MOYERS: I mean I’m talking about the Psalms, I mean the literature.
MOYERS: Psalms as the literature.
DAWKINS: I appreciate very much the literature of the psalms of Ecclesiastes, some of the prophets of Genesis I appreciate very much. But I don’t think that’s where the sense of wonder comes from. That’s just great poetry.
MOYERS: When you were drawn to science, but, at the same time, you write with the clarity that marches in the service of the English language. I just wondered where, that can’t just be DNA.
DAWKINS: Oh, of course it isn’t. It’s DNA filtered through the brain, education, culture. We both read the Bible, we both read Shakespeare, we both get to our language from sources which in, although they may ultimately, in some sense, be based upon DNA, it would be demeaning to say it’s just DNA. In the same sort of way you can say that a computer contains huge quantities of literature and knowledge and encyclopedias and dictionaries, but the computer is nothing but ones and naughts. High voltage and low voltage fluctuating up and down.
I mean you know, at one level, that’s true. But you know that that’s a totally inadequate description of what’s going on in the computer. And that’s the same thing about a human mind.
MOYERS: What do you think about scientists who try to reconcile science and religion?
DAWKINS: Well, I think there are various ways of doing that. And Einstein, for example, was, as you know, always using the word God. Einstein used the word God as a kind of personification, a sort of literary personification of that which we don’t yet understand. And so he recognized, and was awestruck by the deep problems of the universe, and the things that we don’t understand. And he used the word God for that. And Einstein described himself as a very religious man. And in Einstein’s sense, I too am a very religious man.
MOYERS: How is that?
DAWKINS: Because I too feel there’s something deep and incomprehensible, and so far, uncomprehended at least. But what Einstein was not, and what I am not, is a believer in anything supernatural. Because I think that actually brings it down to a lower level. I think that the level of Einstein, where he was actually awestruck by the universe, and by the fundamental unsolved problems of the universe. To bring that down to the level of a personality who takes decisions, who designs things, who listens to prayers, who forgives sins, all of the things that supernatural gods are supposed to do, I think it diminishes it, and demeans it.
MOYERS: I’ve often thought it rather presumptuous to imagine God concerned about the outcome of the New York Jets or a New York Giants game, or even an American election.
DAWKINS: Yes, exactly.
MOYERS: Yet, religion, by its nature, according to the Christian tradition is the hope for things unseen.
DAWKINS: Well, that’s the Christians’ problem. I mean, that’s not my problem. Why should you believe in something for which there is no reason to believe. Where it becomes positively dangerous is if you start fighting with somebody else who has a different faith from yours.
And each of you is equally convinced that you are right and the other one is wrong. And because, precisely because it appeals only to faith, and not evidence, there is no way you could settle the argument other than killing each other. Whereas, if you disagree, as two scientists disagree, two scientists can sit down together, look at the evidence, and say, “Oh, I was wrong. I overlooked that bit of evidence.”
Or, “Here’s a new bit of evidence just come in which shows that my previous theory was wrong.” Scientists, at least in principle, will come to an agreement when all of the evidence is in. But that’s not what faith-based people do. They say, “I know I’m right. End of story.” That’s dangerous.
MOYERS: Is this why there’s no place in your world view for the supernatural, for religious tradition and authority?
DAWKINS: No, that’s right. There is a place for religious literature, and religious art, and religious music.
DAWKINS: Because it’s so beautiful. I mean, the B minor mass, or the Sistine Chapel, or the book of Ecclesiastes are beautiful works of art.
MOYERS: So beauty is very important as a result of faith.
DAWKINS: Beauty arises out of human inspiration. Humans take their inspiration from where it’s going. And in many cases, it has, indeed, come from religion. I’m not so sure it really comes from faith as, in many cases, it probably comes from the money that the church was able to command in order to commission these works.
MOYERS: How do explain the fact that there seems to be no room, or little room in America today, for challenging this, you know, the great faith as we say? For challenging religious authority expression? People back away from it.
DAWKINS: I’m, yeah, I’m a bit baffled by that. I really don’t understand it. I mean it shows itself in the fact that I probably not a single member of Congress or the Senate would ever dare to say that they don’t believe in a supernatural God.
MOYERS: No atheist would be elected president.
DAWKINS: That’s right. But they must be there. I mean it’s just not reasonable, that in an advanced, educated civilization, the people who rise to the top politically would be different in this country than every other country in the western world.
MOYERS: Don’t underestimate Richard Hofstadter book on anti intellectualism as a main current in American life—
DAWKINS: I don’t. And it’s very clear that a politician, in order to get elected, has to pretend to believe in a supernatural God. That doesn’t mean they actually do. If you look at the figures for the scientists elected to the National Academy of Sciences. This is the elite of American scientists. Which means they’re the elite of the world scientists. And something like 90 percent of them don’t believe in a supernatural god. Ninety percent. Whereas, if you look at the population at large, it’s about 90 percent who do. Well, that’s an astonishing mismatch between the intellectual elite, and the rest of the population.
And if the Congress is 100 percent believers in supernatural as they allege, I just don’t believe it. They’ve got to be at least a certain way in the direction of the elite scientists. Because they’re obviously clever enough to get elected to Congress.
MOYERS: What do you think happens to a society that tolerates the belief that the universe was created in six days?
DAWKINS: Well, I’m all for tolerance, but I’m worried about a society where a sufficiently large number of the electorate can actually swing the vote, not of course that the age of the earth actually affects current politics directly. But it shows such a divorce from reality. Such an inability to apprehend the real world in which people live.
That I really worry about the judgments that people will make in other fields, such as when they come to when they come— When you think about how young the world is supposed to be, according to this view, it’s 6,000— it’s less than 10,000 years old. This means the entire universe began sometime after the middle stone age. I mean, what kind of a grasp on reality does that suggest?
MOYERS: But don’t you think people who say they believe in that, or they think they believe in it, don’t you think they are not really sure, and that what they’ve substituted for that kind of a certainty, is the consolation that they find in belief. I mean religion as consolation is a very powerful force—
DAWKINS: It is. But it’s one thing to get consolation from a belief that there is a supernatural being who looks after you, perhaps takes care of you when you’re dead, that kind, that gives consolation.
How can it be consoling to believe in something which is just straight counterfactual? Just simply goes against the facts? Mind you, I just read recently that a substantial number of people who voted Republican this time believe that there is evidence that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq.
They believe they were actually found in Iraq. It’s one thing to say, “I believe there were weapons of mass destruction. But they were spirited over the Syrian border or something. They were smuggled away.”
That’s not what they’re saying. They’re saying they believe they have been found. Which contradicts everything that the evidence shows. I’m worried about people who are so out of the real world, that they delude themselves about evidence. Not about their opinions. But about evidence.
MOYERS: My favorite essay, in my favorite book of yours, A DEVIL’S CHAPLAIN, is the letter you wrote to your daughter when she was 10 years old. The title of it is “Good Reasons and Bad Reasons for Believing.” Would you read the last paragraph of that letter?
DAWKINS: I’d be pleased to.
“What can we do about all of this? It’s not easy for you to do anything because you are only 10. But you could try this. Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself, ‘Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?’ And next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them, ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say. Your loving Daddy.”
MOYERS: Thank you very much.
This transcript was entered on August 20, 2015.