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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
"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
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
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."
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.