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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Dawkins, Clinton Richard (1941- )

"Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence."

"I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world."

"You cannot be both sane and well educated and disbelieve in evolution. The evidence is so strong that any sane, educated person has got to believe in evolution."

-- Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is an eminent British ethologist, evolutionary theorist, and popular science writer who holds the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.

Dawkins first came to prominence with his 1976 book The Selfish Gene which popularised the gene-centric view of evolution, and introduced the terms meme and memetics into the lexicon. In 1982, Dawkins made a major contribution to evolutionary theory with the publication of his book The Extended Phenotype which argued phenotypic effects could stretch far beyond an organism's body. He has since written several best-selling popular books on evolution, and appeared in a number of television programmes on evolutionary biology, creationism and religion. He is an atheist, Humanist, skeptic, "Bright," and - as a commentator on science, religion and politics - is among Britain's best known public intellectuals. In a play on Thomas Huxley's epithet "Darwin's bulldog", Dawkins' outspoken manner has led him to be dubbed Darwin's Rottweiler.

Personal life
Dawkins was born in Nairobi, Kenya, where his father, Clinton John Dawkins, was a farmer and former wartime soldier, called up from colonial service in Nyasaland (now Malawi). Dawkins' parents came from an upper-middle class background; the Dawkins name was described in Burke's Landed Gentry as "Dawkins of Over Norton". His father was a descendant of the Clinton family which held the Earldom of Lincoln and his mother was Jean Mary Vyvyan Dawkins, née Ladner. Both were interested in the natural sciences and answered the young Dawkins' questions in more scientific than anecdotal or supernatural terms.

Dawkins describes his childhood as "a normal Anglican upbringing" but reveals he began doubting the existence of God when he was about nine years old. He was later reconverted because he was persuaded by the argument from design; though he began to feel the customs of the Church of England were "absurd" and had more to do with dictating morals than with God. When he was taught about evolution at the age of sixteen his religious position changed, as he felt that evolution explained the illusion of design.

He married Marian Stamp on August 19, 1967. They divorced in 1984. Later that year, Dawkins married Eve Barham – with whom he had a daughter, Juliet – but they too subsequently divorced. He married his third wife, actress Lalla Ward, in 1992. Dawkins had met her through mutual friend Douglas Adams, who worked with Ward on the BBC TV sci-fi series Doctor Who.

Dawkins moved to England with his parents when he was eight and attended Oundle School. He then studied zoology at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was tutored by Nobel Prize-winning ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen. He gained a second class BA degree in zoology in 1962, followed by an MA and DPhil degree in 1966.

Between 1967 and 1969, Dawkins was an assistant professor of zoology at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1970 he was appointed a lecturer and then in 1990 a reader in zoology at the University of Oxford, before becoming the University's first Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science in 1995. He has been a fellow of New College, Oxford, since 1970.

Dawkins has been editor of four scientific journals, and founded the Episteme Journal in 2002; he has also acted as editorial advisor for nine publications, including the Encarta Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Evolution. He writes a column for the Council for Secular Humanism's Free Inquiry magazine and serves as a Senior Editor. Since May 2005, Dawkins has been a contributing blogger at The Huffington Post.

He was formerly president of the Biological Sciences section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and serves as advisor for several other organisations. He has sat on several judging panels for awards as diverse as the Royal Society's Faraday Award and the British Academy Television Awards. In 2004 the Dawkins Prize – awarded for "outstanding research into the ecology and behaviour of animals whose welfare and survival may be endangered by human activities" was initiated by Oxford's Balliol College.

In 2005 Discover Magazine referred to Dawkins as "Darwin's Rottweiler", a description later adopted by the Radio Times and Channel 4, recalling the epithet "Darwin's Bulldog" given to Darwin's nineteenth-century advocate Thomas Henry Huxley. It also suggests comparison with Pope Benedict XVI, who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, was known as "God's Rottweiler".


Evolutionary biology
The Selfish Gene is one of Richard Dawkins' best known worksDawkins is probably best known for his popularisation of the concept of the selfish gene. This view is most clearly demonstrated in his books The Selfish Gene (1976), where he notes that "all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities", and The Extended Phenotype (1982) which describes natural selection as "the process whereby replicators out-propagate each other."

As an ethologist, interested in animal behaviour and its relation to natural selection, he popularised the idea that the gene is the principal unit of selection in evolution. This gene point of view also provides a basis for understanding kin selection which was formulated by his friend, Bill Hamilton. In his books, Dawkins uses the imagery of the Necker Cube to explain that the gene-centric view is not a scientific revolution, but merely a new way of visualising evolution.

Critics of Dawkins' approach suggest that the gene as the unit of selection is misleading, but that the gene could be described as a unit of evolution. The reasoning for this assertion is that in a selection event an individual either succeeds or fails to survive and reproduce, but over time proportions of alleles in a population changes. In The Selfish Gene, however, Dawkins explains that he is using George C. Williams' definition of gene as "that which segregates and recombines with appreciable frequency," rather than the now common molecular biology usage. Similarly, it is commonly argued that genes can not survive alone, but must cooperate to build an individual, but in The Extended Phenotype Dawkins argues that because of genetic recombination and sexual reproduction, from an individual gene's view all other genes are part of the environment to which it is adapted.

In the controversy over interpretations of evolution (the so-called Darwin Wars), one faction is often named for Dawkins and its rival for Stephen Jay Gould. This reflects the pre-eminence of each as a populariser of contesting viewpoints, rather than because either is the more substantial or extreme champion of these positions. In particular, Dawkins and Gould have been prominent commentators in the controversy over sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, with Dawkins generally approving and Gould critical. A typical example of Dawkins' position is his scathing review (published in January 1985) of Not in Our Genes by Rose, Kamin and Lewontin. Two other thinkers often considered to be in the same camp as Dawkins are evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker and philosopher Daniel Dennett, who has promoted the gene-centric view of evolution and defended reductionism in biology.

Dawkins coined the term meme to explain how ideas spread, which spawned the theory of memetics. His intention in using the idea in The Selfish Gene was originally as a thought experiment on the evolution of self-replicating units, and Dawkins has largely left it to other authors, such as Susan Blackmore, to expand on the idea. Memetics, gene selection and sociobiology have been criticised as being overly-reductionist by such thinkers as the philosopher Mary Midgley, with whom Dawkins has debated since the late 1970s. Midgley said that to debate Dawkins would be as unnecessary as to "break a butterfly upon a wheel." Dawkins replied that this statement would be "hard to match, in reputable journals, for its patronizing condescension toward a fellow academic."

Although Dawkins coined the term independently, he has never claimed that the idea of the meme was new; there had been similar terms for similar ideas in the past. John Laurent, in The Journal of Memetics, has suggested that the term "meme" itself may have derived from the work of the little-known German biologist Richard Semon. In 1904, Semon published Die Mneme (which was published in English, as The Mneme, in 1924).

His book discussed the cultural transmission of experiences with insights parallel to those of Dawkins. Laurent also found the use of the term "mneme" in The Soul of the White Ant (1927), by Maurice Maeterlinck, and highlighted its similarities to Dawkins' concept. The key distinction of Dawkins' formulation, ironically paralleling the insights provided by memetics, is that it caught on and thus became dominant.

Creationism and religion
Dawkins is an established critic of creationism, describing it as a "preposterous, mind-shrinking falsehood." His book The Blind Watchmaker is a critique of the argument from design, and his other popular-science works often touch on the topic. On the advice of his late colleague
Stephen Jay Gould, Dawkins refuses to participate in debates with creationists because doing so would give them the "oxygen of respectability" that they want; Dawkins argued that creationists "don't mind being beaten in an argument. What matters is that we give them recognition by bothering to argue with them in public." Dawkins did, however, take part in the Oxford Union's 1986 Huxley Memorial Debate, in which he and John Maynard Smith defeated their creationist counterparts by 198 votes to 115.

In a December 2004 interview with Bill Moyers Dawkins stated that "among the things that science does know, evolution is about as certain as anything we know." When Moyers later asked, "Is evolution a theory, not a fact?", Dawkins replied, "Evolution has been observed. It's just that it hasn't been observed while it's happening."

Dawkins is an ardent and outspoken atheist, an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and vice-president of the British Humanist Association. In his essay "Viruses of the Mind," he uses memetic theory to explain the phenomenon of religious belief and the various characteristics of organised religions, such as the common belief in punishments awaiting non-believers.

The Atheist Alliance instituted the Richard Dawkins Award in 2003 in his honour. Dawkins is known for his contempt for religious extremism, from Islamic terrorism to Christian fundamentalism, but he has also argued fiercely with liberal believers and religious scientists, including many who otherwise champion his science and fight creationism alongside him, from biologist Ken Miller to Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries.

Dawkins continues to be a prominent figure in contemporary public debate on issues related to science and religion. He sees education and consciousness-raising as the primary tools in opposing what he considers religious dogma. These tools include the fight against certain stereotypes. Dawkins notes that feminists have succeeded in making us feel embarrassed when we use "he" when it could be "she". Similarly, he suggests, a phrase like "Catholic child" or "Muslim child" should be seen just as improper as "Marxist child" or "Neo-Libertarian child." Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, when asked if the world had changed, and if it had, how had it changed, Dawkins responded:

Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness.

Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let's now stop being so damned respectful!

Dawkins has expressed a Malthusian concern over the exponential growth of human population and the issue of overpopulation, though his proposed solutions can be described as typically Humanist. He is critical of Catholic attitudes to family planning and population control.

As a supporter of the Great Ape Project, a movement to extend human rights to all great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans), he contributed an article to the Great Ape Project book entitled "Gaps In The Mind". In this article, he criticised contemporary society's moral attitudes as being based on a "discontinuous, speciesist imperative."

In January 2006, Dawkins presented a two-part Channel 4 documentary, The Root of All Evil?, addressing what he sees as the malignant influence of organized religion in society. It included excerpts from his discussions with various religious individuals. Critics claimed the programme gave too much time to marginal figures and extremists, and that Dawkins' confrontational style did not help his cause; Dawkins, however, rejects these claims, citing the number of moderate religious broadcasts in everyday media as suitable balance to the extremists in the programmes. Further, he challenges the definition of 'extremist', given that the general British perception of 'extreme' religious views may be viewed in some countries as "mainstream".

Awards and recognition
Dawkins holds honorary doctorates in science from the University of Westminster and University of Hull, and is honorary doctor of the Open University. He also holds honorary doctorates of letters from the University of St Andrews and Australian National University, and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1997 and Royal Society in 2001. He is Vice-President of the British Humanist Association and honorary patron of the Trinity College University Philosophical Society.

Other awards he has won include the Royal Society Literature Award (1987), Los Angeles Times Literary Prize (1987), Zoological Society of London Silver Medal (1989), Michael Faraday Award (1990), Nakayama Prize (1994), Humanist of the Year Award (1996), the fifth International Cosmos Prize (1997), Kistler Prize (2001), Medal of the Presidency of the Italian Republic (2001), Bicentennial Kelvin Medal (2002). In 2005 the Hamburg-based Alfred Toepfer Stiftung organization awarded him their Shakespeare Prize in recognition of his "concise and accessible presentation of scientific knowledge."

Dawkins topped Prospect magazine's 2004 list of the top 100 public British intellectuals, as decided by the readers, receiving twice as many votes as the runner-up. Additionally, in 1995 Dawkins was invited on Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4.

Dawkins, who holds the Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, is known for his books The Blind Watchmaker, The Selfish Gene, River out of Eden and Climbing Mount Improbable. In all of his work he successfully explains how complex forms of life evolved from simple forms of life. In a number of lectures and debates, notably the Voltaire Lecture "Viruses of the Mind", he demands that scientists and other rational people stop waffling and accept the lack of evidence for religious claims and draw the obvious conclusions: there is no god, and religion is a pack of lies.


"The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The 'everlasting arms' hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor's placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary. These are some of the reasons why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains. God exists, if only in the form of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the environment provided by human culture." -- from The Selfish Gene


Dawkins wrote an article for Free Inquiry magazine (Volume 18, Number 2) where he disputes the claim that science and religion occupy separate domains. It can be found at


The following interview is excerpted from a conversation between Mother Jones contributing writer Michael Krasny and Richard Dawkins. The interview took place on March 17, 1997, at San Francisco's Herbst Theater at a California Academy of Sciences benefit.

MK: You're known for your atheism and your comment that "religion is a virus." Are you more tolerant toward religion these days?

RD: No. I am often asked to explain as a biologist why religion has such a hold. The theory is this: When a child is young, for good Darwinian reasons, it would be valuable if the child believed everything it's told. A child needs to learn a language, it needs to learn the social customs of its people, it needs to learn all sorts of rules -- like don't put your finger in the fire, and don't pick up snakes, and don't eat red berries. There are lots of things that for good survival reasons a child needs to learn.

So it's understandable that Darwinian natural selection would have built into the child's brain the rule of thumb, "Be fantastically gullible; believe everything you're told by your elders and betters."

That's a good rule, and it works. But any rule that says "Believe everything you're told" is automatically going to be vulnerable to parasitization. Computers, for example, are vulnerable to parasitization because they believe all they're told. If you tell them in the right programming language, they'll do it. Computer viruses work by somebody writing a program that says, "Duplicate me and, while you're at it, erase this entire disk."

My point is that the survival mechanism that makes children's brains believe what they're told -- for good reason -- is automatically vulnerable to parasitic codes such as "You must believe in the great juju in the sky," or "You must kneel down and face east and pray five times a day." These codes are then passed down through generations. And there's no obvious reason why it should stop.

There's an additional factor in the virus theory, which is that those viruses that are good at surviving will be the ones that are more likely to survive. So, if the virus says, "If you don't believe in this you will go to hell when you die," that's a pretty potent threat, especially to a child. Or, if it says, "When you become a little bit older you will meet people who will tell you the opposite of this, and they will have remarkably plausible arguments and they'll have lots of what they'll call evidence on their side and you'll be really tempted to believe it, but the more tempted you are, the more that's just Satan getting at you." This is exactly what many creationists in this country have been primed with.

MK: You've said that when you discovered Darwin, everything fell into place. You felt a peace of mind. How was your atheism confirmed by Darwinism?

RD: Before I discovered Darwin, I was fascinated by the apparent design and beauty of living things. I knew enough biology to know that living creatures are prodigiously complicated and elegant. They look exactly as though they'd been designed. That was why I believed in a divine creator. Because I had been so persuaded by this argument for design, when I discovered Darwinism, I had a kind of "road to Damascus" experience.

I think there is a serenity that comes from understanding, from being able to solve a mystery. And the bigger the mystery, the greater the serenity. When you think about the diversity, complexity, and beauty of life -- the elegance of the apparent design of life -- it adds up to a colossal mystery. And the solution, Darwin's solution, is quite remarkably simple. My serenity comes from the satisfaction of seeing a really, really neat, elegant explanation that can explain so much.


In the following excerpt from "God's Utility Function," Scientific American, November 1995, p. 85 Dawkins questions the idea of a universe with a mystical purpose:

"The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. <quoting Darwin:> The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference."


Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.

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