Nautilus Features Poetry in America Conversation with Richard Dawkins

What are the forces that shape us, that make us the way we are?  How much control do we have over the decisions we make each day?  Are we mere products of our environment, or do we have the power to transform the world around us? Questions like these have long guided research by scientists, social scientists, and philosophers.  But, as this Nautilus feature on Poetry in America’s conversation with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins demonstrates, such questions also lend themselves to poetic inquiry.

Enter “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost, which is perhaps one of the most famous American poems ever written.  Indeed, even if you haven’t read much Frost, you’ve probably at least heard this poem’s often-quoted closing lines:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

For many readers, the poem affirms human agency–the power that we have to affect change, to make choices, in our own lives.  But Dawkins presents another interpretation of the poem, one that focuses on contingency:

There are roads not taken at every moment in history and the entire history of the world is changed because of these utterly trivial choices of taking one road rather than another … But I’m interested in the possibility that there might be a kind of magnetic pull to bring you back to the path …”
– Evolutionary Biologist Richard Dawkins

To see the conversation in full, and to learn more about Dawkins’s reading of “The Road Not Taken,” be sure to take a look at today’s Nautilus feature.

But, remember:  if your interpretation differs, don’t discount your own reading.  As Dawkins says so well,  “I think you can get different things from a poem, and it probably shouldn’t be read in only one way.”  Your interpretation makes all the difference.

Note:  This footage was filmed by Poetry in America at the Aspen Institute in the summer of 2015.  Portions of this conversation appeared in the Poetry in America Modernism course for HarvardX.

For more on the connections between poetry and science, check out this Nautilus piece featuring a conversation between historian of science and physicist Peter Galison and Elisa New.