If I ruled the world: Richard Dawkins

Prospect Magazine

If I ruled the world: Richard Dawkins


Human intelligence is undervalued these days. We must do away with rulebooks and start trusting our own judgement

Click here to find out what other big names such as Simon Schama and Grayson Perry would do if they ruled the world

How often do we petulantly mutter something equivalent to: “If I ruled the world, I’d…” Yet when an editor offers you the same self-indulgence out of the blue, the mind goes blank. Frivolous answers are easy enough to reel off: ban chewing gum, baseball caps and burqas, and equip all trains with mobile phone jammers. But such pettiness is unworthy of the editor’s generosity. How about the other extreme, the utopian, pie-in-the-sky decree of universal happiness, and abolishing starvation, crime, poverty, disease and religion? Too unrealistic. So here’s a manageably modest yet still worthwhile ambition: if I ruled the world, I would downgrade rulebooks and replace them, wherever possible, with humane, intelligent discretion.

I’m writing this on a plane, having just passed through security at Heathrow. A nice young mother was distraught because she wasn’t allowed to take on board a tub of ointment for her little girl’s eczema. The security man was polite but firm. She wasn’t even permitted to spoon a reduced quantity into a smaller jar. I couldn’t grasp what was wrong with that suggestion, but the rules were unbendable. The official offered to fetch his supervisor, who came and was equally polite, but she too was bound by the rulebook’s hoops of steel.

There was nothing I could do, and it was no help that I recommended a website where a chemist explains, in delightfully comedic detail, what it would actually take to manufacture a workable bomb from binary liquid ingredients, labouring for several hours in the aircraft loo, using copious quantities of ice in relays of champagne coolers helpfully supplied by the cabin staff.

The prohibition against taking more than very small quantities of liquids or unguents on planes is demonstrably ludicrous. It started as one of those “Look at us, we’re taking decisive action” displays, the ones designed to cause maximum inconvenience to the public just to make the dimwitted Dundridges who rule our lives feel important and look busy.

It’s the same with having to take our shoes off (another gem of official wallyhood that must have Bin Laden chuckling victoriously into his beard)—and all those other exercises in belated stable door-shutting. But let me get to the general principle. Rulebooks are themselves put together by human judgements. Often bad ones, but in any case judgements made by humans who were probably no wiser or better qualified to make them than the individuals who subsequently have to put them into practice out in the real world.

No sane person, witnessing that scene at the airport, seriously feared this woman was planning to blow herself up on a plane. The fact that she was accompanied by children gave us the first clue. Supporting evidence trickled in from the brazen visibility of her face and hair, from her lack of a Koran, prayer mat or big black beard and, finally, from the absurdity of the notion that her tub of ointment could, in a million years, be magicked into a high explosive—certainly not in the cramped facilities afforded by an aircraft loo. The security official and his supervisor were human beings who obviously wished they could behave decently, but they were powerless: stymied by a rulebook. Nothing but an object, which, because it is made of paper and unalterable ink rather than of flexible human brain tissue, is incapable of discretion, compassion or humanity.

This is just a single example and it may seem trivial. But I am sure that you, dear reader, can list half a dozen similar cases from your own experience. Talk to any doctor or nurse, and hear their frustration with having to spend a substantial proportion of their time filling in forms and ticking boxes. Who sincerely thinks that is a good use of expert, valuable time; time that could be spent caring for patients? No human being, surely—not even a lawyer. Only a mindless book of rules.

How often does a criminal walk free on a “technicality”? Perhaps the arresting officer fluffed his lines when delivering the official caution. Decisions that will gravely affect a person’s life can turn on the powerlessness of a judge to exercise discretion and reach the conclusion that every single person in the court, including the criminal and his defence lawyer, knows is just.

It isn’t as simple as this, of course. Discretion can be abused, and rulebooks are important safeguards against that. But the balance has shifted too far in the direction of an obsessive reverence for rules. There must be ways to reintroduce intelligent discretion and overthrow the unbending tyranny of going by the book without opening the door to abuse. If I ruled the world, I would make it my business to find them.

If I Ruled the World: Simon Schama

If I Ruled the World: Grayson Perry

If I Ruled the World: Richard Branson

If I Ruled the World: Michael Morpugo

  1. February 25, 2011

    Rob Slack

    Nice idea. I have less faith in my fellow citizens than you do (though perhaps that is because I deal with Talk Talk and the Post Office/Royal Mail).

  2. February 25, 2011


    Very interesting perspective and I agree that people need to appreciate the importance of using their own intelligence with regards to such decisions, however I feel doing away with the rulebooks would be too extreme a reaction.

    Encouraging people to use their initiative, to be able to reason why rules where put into place and therefore where they can be relaxed a little in certain circumstances makes much more sense.

  3. February 25, 2011

    Gwydion M Williams

    Professor Dawkins should think more carefully about rules before he sneers at them A woman with a child might be smuggling bomb parts for a confederate on another flight. And if he were to watch the film Battle of Algiers, he would see a scene in which three radical-nationalist women intentionally put on revealing Westernised clothing to smuggle a bomb through a security cordon. ‘Profiling’ would not just cause offence, it would be likely to fail.

    He might also like to try imagining himself in the position of an official who decides to deny someone something they want, but has to take personal responsibility rather than being able to cite a rulebook. Has he ever tried dealing with a really pushy demanding person? Someone who ignores other people’s needs and pushes for as much as they can grab?

  4. February 26, 2011


    ‘Computer says no’ -As someone who has recently bought a flat and now is trying to rent it, I can relate. But I relate even more working as a ‘consultant’ for the UK government and lots of development NGOs and projects whose appetite for manuals, toolkits, guidelines and matrices (why no just say tables?) seems insatiable.

    Common sense is a matter of the past. Rulebooks are not just frustrating for their users -and victims; they also dumb down those who must follow them. People who have to ask a computer or consult a checklist are deskilled, their brains forget how to think.

    I wonder if the Bible and the Koran would fall in Richard Dawkins ‘rulebook’ category.

  5. February 26, 2011

    George Emmanuel

    I was dispointed to hear Prof Dawkins trivialising the importance of safety at airports.
    Has he not heard of the Sri Lakan Tamil Tiger mother killing her own baby to protect
    other terrorists ?

  6. February 26, 2011


    I share Prof.Dawkins frustration, but I think he sidesteps two rather important issues:

    1. most people have nowhere the intellectual reach that he has; many can barely read or write;

    2. most people are “telebots”; they robotically respond to their TV which increasingly does their thinking for them.

    If we apply the Pareto Principle to society the 80% of the population have 20% of the thinking power. On the question of discretionary behaviour I think the ratio is more likely to be 95:5.

  7. February 27, 2011


    There’s something going on and I think Prof D has fingered it. It’s the process in which people see “guidance documents” as rule books. I must have had this argument a hundred times. Guidance is guidance, it is not law! So what has happened to create this army of jobsworths? Are they frightened? Have they not been adequately trained in how to use their judgement to implement guidance rather than hide behind it?
    I have just witnessed somebody cobbling together a document to satisfy their company’s ISO 9000 inspector. They tell me that they have to get it right. Why? Because the inspector may find something wrong of course, but this inspector will not, beforehand, advise them what they need to do. Oh no. If he finds a fault, it means a further visit at 300 quid. If he gave advice, then that visit may not be necessary. Oh, I need a drink!

  8. February 27, 2011

    Ruddy Hell

    I hope you do ban religion, then you’ll see what happens.

  9. February 27, 2011

    Angel Jimenez

    On the surface, it seems to have merit until you consider that giving a bureaucrat leeway would be tantamount to legalizing corruption. Indeed, even though it’s often our (just) desire, law enforcement may not exert its discretionary powers at peril of being perceived corrupt.

  10. February 27, 2011


    Many decades ago, folks found a way around the rulebook. When a criminal was guilty but got off on a technicality (example – you were allowed to beat your wife with a stick as punishment, so long as the stick was no thicker than your thumb). The mob outside the court understood the law would let the man free, but when he emerged from the court, the mob intervened and took the man’s life, not before a painful lynching. This was the price of beating your wife to death with a stick simply because the law allowed it. A grim triumph of justice over rule of law.

    Similarly, and on a less gruesome note, the airport security equivalents of the past would have sternly told the lady she couldn’t bring the cream, then with a wink slide it back into her bag.

    The problem now is not so much the rules but the fervour with which we enforce them, having taken on an American blindness akin to the blind faith that drives it forward.

  11. February 27, 2011

    Dakota Wilfred Hart

    This is a brilliant article and states much more in what human unity is capable of if not governed by fear and control. The auther is more than correct in his views. We don’t need lawyers or rulebooks to know instinctually what is right or wrong. The generalities of society seems bent on following rules and conformity when the human spirit would is capable and intended for so much more. The concepts presented here if followed would empower instead of limiting potential and free versus enslave creativity, originality and faster allow the human race as a whole to seek its true potential. A shame that this mans thinking and social acension is wasted on those that already are aware of this. Life is a banquet and most humans are dying without enough to eat. Who for example would buy a million dollar, diamond encrusted purse when it could open itself up to feed a nation. Truly wasteful and self indulgent. There is free energy available with endless supply but who would benefit from this? Humanity for some reason has an opportunity for greatness and is on the brink of realizing the more knowledge of power we have the less we know, sadly we understand ourselves less and less. Fear, control, who knows…why is it that most people could name 7 deadly sins yet are unable to name but 1 or 2 virtues? Instead of limits, restrictions and rulebooks what if as an experiment we create and island of opportunity where ANYTHING is possible was the guidebook instead of rulebook…imagine how communication alone might improve if trust and love replaced fear and hate. Would words even be needed or would feelings and emotional intelligence develope these humans into an evolutionary jump? Food for Grey matter.

  12. February 28, 2011

    Edward Harkins

    Professor, you use two terms in close proximity; ‘obsessive reverence for rules’ and ‘reintroduce intelligent discretion’.

    If authorities suppress discretion and intelligence and grow utterly reliant on fixed inflexible rules, and the fixed inflexible imposition of those rules, then they actually render their defences more open to penetration by a committed, cunning and observant opponent.

    All the opponent need do is grow familiar with the fixed, inflexible systems and work out ways to either ‘trick’ and subvert the system – or simply bypass it (the Maginot Line in WW2 was possibly one of the greatest examples of a powerful but fixed inflexible system being simply bypassed by an intelligent attacker).

    The staff maintaining the fixed inflexible systems will, moreover, be motivated to invest all of their faculties and energies into upholding the system at all costs – rather than into intelligent, resourceful and resilient watchfulness against the potential threats.

    One of the greatest deterrents to wrong do-ers is, arguably, the guardian who acts in vigilant, proactive, and incisive but unpredictable ways. Intelligence and discretion are essential to such ways.

  13. February 28, 2011


    What utter foolishness.

    The point of rules it to allow people who don’t have the time, emotional distance, proper context, and/or intellectual power to analyse every instance of a particular type of situation and behave in a manner that suits society.

    “No sane person, witnessing that scene at the airport, seriously feared this woman was planning to blow herself up on a plane. The fact that she was accompanied by children gave us the first clue. Supporting evidence trickled in from the brazen visibility of her face and hair, from her lack of a Koran, prayer mat or big black beard”

    I don’t want to sound like a fear-mongering nut, but as soon as you tell terrorist what they have to look like to blow up a plane, that’s what they’ll look like. The stakes are too high to allow every TSA agent to make a judgement call on who looks like a terrorist.

    Of course, if the rules are stupid, the rules are stupid. If you can’t make a bomb in an airplane bathroom, rules designed to prevent you from making a bomb in an airplane bathroom are stupid. It seems to me a lot of rules regarding air safety are designed more to give you the illusion of air safety than any real safety.

    “How often does a criminal walk free on a “technicality”? Perhaps the arresting officer fluffed his lines when delivering the official caution.”

    That’s an interesting question. I’m sure it appears to be a high percentage of the time because it’s counterintuitive. In the US, we don’t allow a criminal to walk free because he wasn’t properly “Mirandized”, we just dis-allow any confession that a suspect makes before being informed of his/her rights as evidence in his/her trial. In the US, they’re not supposed to be considered criminals until they’ve actually been convicted of a crime, regardless what the cop thinks. http://tafkac.org/legal/legal_technicalities.html

  14. March 1, 2011


    What’s wrong with baseball caps? They’re simple, cheap and functional (at least in countries that have sunshine)? Oh wait, they’re American. No wonder they fail to meet the Prof’s standards of intellectual snobbery. Might as well ban jeans while you’re at it.

  15. March 3, 2011

    Clodoaldo Leite

    Actually the baby was carrying the bomb, look again! Thank God you’re not ruling the world…

  16. March 5, 2011

    Peter Davis

    If everyone was considered to be a rounded, grounded, developed human being respected for his or her input on the basis that all such people are sensible in their outlook, then fine. But we live in societies that no longer nurture developmental-relevant stages of growth but expose the developing personality to influences beyond its development or which damage or usurp a healthy development, creating egocentric persons who would seek their own benefit at the expense of others until, hopefully, they learned to wake up to reality. For such people a framework of guidelines that contained the excesses of their behaviour might be necessary. This, despite its institutional failings, was probably an early realisation of the Church (the more enlightened of its views, that is). Though sharing prof Dawkins views on many aspects of religion it must not be dismissed out of hand that a proper appreciation of religion reveals it to have precisely this concern, which is to say, leading individuals beyond egocentrism to more selfless consideration for others and trusting to their discretion. There are too many misunderstandings and assumptions, even on prof Dawkins part, that are complex in their being unknown even to ourselves when we think we are giving informed consideration to a matter which later we realise lacked the necessary knowledge on our part. If such insight were to underpin society’s ‘rules’ with known caveats of human imperfections in making them, they might be flexible enough for people to consider them guidelines. But there is too much else time does not allow consederation for here – the effect of class and social heirarchy on a person’s sense of feeling worthy of being recognised as having the intelligence and discrection, for example. Developmentally we are as different as chalk and cheese in some respects, relatively speaking, in the course of a full life. We might be equal in our right to have an opinion – that doesn’t make our opinions equal. Whose discretion do we trust?

  17. March 22, 2011


    Although I have no way of proving my theory I strongly suspect that in countries like Britain the tendency to be “by the book” is stronger than in most other countries. It is both a blessing as well as a curse. In the case of airport/flight security, I agree it is a curse.

    I moved to Israel a few years ago from the UK and I feel much safer on El Al than other airlines. Why? Because the profiling the Israelis do is far more effective than silly, annoying rules implemented in Europe. Even though it can be annoying to lone-travelling men under 50.

    Anyway, the issue is not just confined to airports. The tendency has pervaded every part of society. As someone rightly said “Computer say nooooo…” British comedians get it.

    Once again, Britain is not the only country with a Holy Rulebook, but I would argue it’s the most devout.

  18. March 23, 2011


    It is disappointing to see the common myth that criminals get off on a ‘technicality’ reproduced yet again. The mere breach of a procedural rule does not often lead to an acquittal. More must be shown: any breach (or breaches) must adversely affect the fairness of any subsequent proceedings.

  19. June 24, 2012


    A new rule: No Rules!
    - more muddled logic from Professor Dawkins.

  20. June 26, 2012

    Nick Keegan

    I agree, but I was taken aback by the rather general view of how a suspicious person may appear in the queue for security: beard, Koran etc!

  21. July 25, 2012

    J Denver

    Yes, rulebooks are put together by human judgments. That’s it. That is why we need rules from someone with better judgment. The Jewish Talmud is an example of humans trying to improve on the 10 principles and the case law that was added to them, and coming up with a hodge podge of contradictions and nonsense. Even Christians couldn’t get their heads round the fact that you wouldn’t need volumes of rules if you could just apply the spirit or intent of the law – the 10 principles. This from Romans blows me away: ” the natural human mind is hostile against God: it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. ” ie it is not fit for purpose. The Hebrew volume of rules was written as the civil law of a specific society who couldn’t apply the spirit of the original overarching principles and had to be protected from themselves and from each other. Those rules don’t all suit today’s society, but if we were only capable of applying the 10 principles sensibly to every situation and were confident that everybody else was too, we wouldn’t need any more rules, and we would be in the utopia that Richard Dawkins dreams of and conveys so eloquently and entertainingly.

  22. November 4, 2013

    Martien de Graaf

    Dear Prof. Dawkins, as I remarked yesterday on twitter, obviously those rigid rules lead to ludicrous situations. However, you were right in saying that it isn’t about your jar of honey or that woman’s ointment. Is there any proof that those rules have NOT foiled any attempts at terrorism? I’m sorry but I still don’t agree with you. It’s a nice thought that we could loosen up a bit on the rules. However, I don’t share your optimism about human intelligence. Just look at the twitterdiscussion we had yesterday. How quickly did that descend into the realm of a shoutingmatch with abuse to boot. Even from you (can’t really blame you though, I’m sure you’ve been subjected to that kind of crap for most of your life). Just look at the everyday news, how much stupidity can solely be blamed on the rulebooks instead of people interpreting them? Let’s concentrate on those rulebooks urging their followers to do horrible things. I’ve once heard you say that the universe, in spite of its beauty is a really nasty place and you are right. And since humanity is a part of it, it has it’s nasty side as well. So isn’t trying to prevent the nasty bits worth accepting some inconvenience? Respectfully yours.

  23. November 4, 2013

    Thomas Lee

    The system you want is Adhocracy.
    Adhoc being from latin meaning ‘for the purpose’, Adhocracy is the counter to bureaucracy.

    • November 4, 2013


      When too many rules have been enacted bureaucracy becomes adhocracy.

  24. November 4, 2013

    Dylan Taylor

    While agreeing with Dawkin’s desire to see our collective existence less bound by rules, his argument falls apart, for me, because he considers the use of discretion to involve collating such evidence as the following: “…the brazen visibility of her face and hair, from her lack of a Koran, prayer mat or big black beard…” It seem Dawkins wishes to live in a world we racial profiling (big black beard, rather than blonde mustache) and a person’s reading material (Koran rather the Bible or The Selfish Gene) should deem them suitable targets for harassment by authorities. I, personally, would prefer that everyone is equally disadvantaged through the following of rule books, than some groups be targeted by bigots using their ‘discretion’ based on ‘simple evidence’.

  25. November 4, 2013


    Dear Professor Dawkins,

    There is this very interesting book I am researching right now that says rules were created by humans to help deal with uncertainty and that there are many countries on this earth with attitudes toward rules ranging from ”Befehl is Befehl” to ”bon plaisir” to paying a lip service or ignoring rules altogether.

    However I would like to say that where human lives might be in danger I don’t mind to be inconvenienced by 100ml limit on liquids – is not a huge burden to ask passengers is it? It has been around for a pretty long time which poses question why this particular mother could not follow such a simple guidance.

    Best Regards

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