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Richard Dawkins

Clinton Richard Dawkins DSc, FRS, FRSL (known as Richard Dawkins; born March 261941) 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, he made a major original contribution to the science of evolution with the theory, presented in his book The Extended Phenotype, that phenotypic effects are not limited to an organism's body but can stretch far into the environment, including the bodies of other organisms. 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.

Dawkins is an Atheist, Humanist, sceptic, "Bright," and – as a commentator on science, religion and politics – is among the English-speaking world's best known public intellectuals. In a play on Thomas Huxley's epithet "Darwin's bulldog," Dawkins' impassioned defence of Darwinian evolution has earned him the appellation "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).[1] Dawkins' parents came from an affluent 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.[2]

Dawkins describes his childhood as "a normal Anglican upbringing,"[3] but reveals that 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 that 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 again changed because he felt that evolution could account for the complexity of life in purely material terms, and thus that a designer was not necessary.[3]

He married Marian Stamp, in 1967 but 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 actress Lalla Ward, in 1992.[4] Dawkins had met her through mutual friend Douglas Adams, who worked with Ward on the BBC TV sci-fi series Doctor Who. Ward has illustrated a number of Dawkins' books.


Dawkins moved to England with his parents at the age of 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.[5]

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.[6] In 1991, he delivered the annual Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, entitled Growing Up in the Universe – the lectures later formed the basis for his book Climbing Mount Improbable.

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. He has also been 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"[7] – was initiated by Oxford's Balliol College.

In 2005, Discover magazine referred to Dawkins as "Darwin's rottweiler,"[8] a description later adopted by the Radio Times[9] 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

File:Selfish Gene 2.jpg

The Selfish Gene

Dawkins is probably best known for his popularisation of the gene-centered view of evolution – a view most clearly set out 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), in which he 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 advocates the idea that the gene is the principal unit of selection in evolution.

In his books, Dawkins uses the imagery of the Necker Cube to explain that the gene-centered view is not a scientific revolution, but merely a new way of visualising evolution. The Necker Cube, a simple two-dimensional line drawing of a cube, is interpreted by the brain as one of two possible three-dimensional shapes. Dawkins argues that the gene-centered view is a useful model of evolution for some purposes, but that evolution can still be understood and studied in terms of individuals and populations.

The gene-centered view also provides a basis for understanding altruism. Altruism appears at first to be a paradox, as helping others costs precious resources – possibly even one's own health and life – thus reducing one's own fitness. Previously this had been interpreted by many as an aspect of group selection, that is, individuals were doing what was best for the survival of the population or species. But W. D. Hamilton used the gene-centered view to explain altruism in terms of inclusive fitness and kin selection, that is, individuals behave altruistically towards their close relatives, who share many of their own genes.[10] (Hamilton's work features prominently in Dawkins' books, and the two became friends at Oxford; following Hamilton's death in 2000 Dawkins wrote his obituary and organised a secular memorial service.[11]) Similarly, Robert Trivers, thinking in terms of the gene-centered model, developed the theory of reciprocal altruism, where one organism provides a benefit to another in the expectation of future reciprocation.[12]

Critics of Dawkins' approach suggest that taking the gene as the unit of selection is misleading, but that the gene could be described as a unit of evolution. The reasoning here is that in a selection event, an individual either succeeds or fails to survive and reproduce, but over time it is proportions of alleles in a population which change.[13] 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."[14] Similarly, it is commonly argued that genes can not survive alone, but must cooperate to build an individual,[15] but in The Extended Phenotype, Dawkins argues that because of genetic recombination and sexual reproduction, from an individual gene's viewpoint, all other genes are part of the environment to which it is adapted. Recombination is a process which occurs during meiosis in which pairs of chromosomes cross over to swap segments of DNA. These sections are the "genes" to which Dawkins and Williams refer.

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.[16] A typical example of Dawkins' position is his scathing review (1985) of Not in Our Genes by Rose, Kamin and Lewontin.[17] Two other thinkers often considered to be in the same camp as Dawkins are the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, and the philosopher Daniel Dennett who has promoted the gene-centric view of evolution and defended reductionism in biology.[18]


Dawkins coined the term meme (analogous to the gene) to describe how Darwinian principles might be extended to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena, which spawned the theory of memetics. While originally floating the idea in The Selfish Gene, Dawkins has largely left it to other authors, such as Susan Blackmore, to expand upon it.[19] 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.[20] Writing in the journal Philosophy, Midgley stated that to debate Dawkins would be as unnecessary as to "break a butterfly upon a wheel."[21] Dawkins replied that this statement would be "hard to match, in reputable journals, for its patronizing condescension toward a fellow academic."[22]

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 been 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."[23] 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. He argues 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."[24] 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.[25]

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."[26]


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 some of the common characteristics of organised religions, such as the belief that punishment awaits non-believers. In 2003, The Atheist Alliance instituted the Richard Dawkins Award in his honour. Dawkins is well 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,[3] including many who might otherwise champion his science and fight creationism alongside him, from the biologist Kenneth Miller[8] to the Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries.[27]

Dawkins continues to be a prominent figure in contemporary public debate on issues relating to science and religion. He sees education and consciousness-raising as the primary tools in opposing what he considers to be religious dogma. These tools include the fight against certain stereotypes, and he has adopted the positive term "bright," as a way of improving the image of atheists.[28] Dawkins notes that feminists have succeeded in making us feel embarrassed when we routinely employ "he" instead of "she." Similarly, he suggests, a phrase such as "Catholic child" or "Muslim child" should be seen to be just as improper as, say, "Marxist child" or "Neo-Libertarian child." Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, when asked how the world might have 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! [29]

File:Dawkins root of all evil.jpg

Attending a sermon by Ted Haggard in The Root of All Evil?

In January 2006, Dawkins presented a two-part Channel 4 documentary entitled The Root of All Evil?, addressing what he sees as the malignant influence of organised religion in society. Critics claimed the programme gave too much time to marginal figures and extremists, and that Dawkins' confrontational style did not help his cause;[30][31] Dawkins, however, rejected these claims, citing the number of moderate religious broadcasts in everyday media as providing a suitable balance to the extremists in the programmes.[32]

Oxford theologian Alister McGrath, author of Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life, has accused Dawkins of being ignorant of Christian theology and mischaracterising religious people generally. McGrath asserts that Dawkins has become better known for his rhetoric than for his reasoning, and that there is no clear basis for Dawkins' hostility towards religion. In response Dawkins states that his position is that Christian theology is vacuous, and that the only area of theology which might command his attention would be the claim to be able to demonstrate God's existence. Dawkins criticises McGrath for providing no argument to support his beliefs, other than the fact that they cannot be falsified.[33]

Other fields

In his role as professor of the public understanding of science, Dawkins has been a harsh critic of pseudoscience and alternative medicine. His popular work Unweaving the Rainbow takes John Keats' claim – that by explaining the rainbow, Isaac Newton had diminished its beauty – and argues for the opposite conclusion. Deep space, the billions of years of life's evolution, and the microscopic workings of biology and heredity, Dawkins argues, contain more beauty and wonder than myths and pseudoscience.[34] Dawkins wrote a foreword to John Diamond's posthumously published Snake Oil, a book devoted to debunking alternative medicine, in which he asserted that alternative medicine was harmful, if only because it distracted patients away from more successful conventional treatments, and gave people false hopes.[35] Dawkins states that "There is no alternative medicine. There is only medicine that works and medicine that doesn't work."[36]

Dawkins has expressed a Malthusian concern over the exponential growth of human population and the issue of overpopulation.[37] In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins briefly introduced the concept of exponential population growth, with the example of Latin America which, at the time the book was written, had a population which doubled every forty years. Dawkins' proposed solutions can be described as typically Humanist, and he is critical of Catholic attitudes to family planning and population control, stating that leaders who forbid contraception and "express a preference for 'natural' methods of population limitation," will get just such a method – starvation.[38]

As a supporter of the Great Ape Project – a movement to extend human rights to all great apes – Dawkins contributed an article to the Great Ape Project book entitled Gaps In The Mind, in which he criticised contemporary society's moral attitudes as being based on a "discontinuous, speciesist imperative."[39]

Awards and recognition

Dawkins holds honorary doctorates in science from the University of Westminster, the University of Durham[40] and University of Hull, and is honorary doctor of the Open University.[5] 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.[5] 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).[5] 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."[41]

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.[42] Additionally, in 1995, Dawkins was invited on Desert Island Discs, a long running music program on BBC Radio 4.[5]




See also Papers and commentary by Richard Dawkins (no longer maintained) and Dawkins' Huffington Post articles.


  • The God Who Wasn't There
  • Double Helix: The DNA Years
  • Three Tales (opera)
  • The Richard Dimbleby Lecture
  • Don't Panic
  • The Atheism Tapes
  • Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief
  • The Root of All Evil?

Books about Dawkins

  • Kim Sterelny Dawkins vs Gould: Survival of the Fittest (2001) ISBN 1840462493 – Debates on evolutionary theory between Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould.
  • Roger Steer Letter to an Influential Atheist (2003) ISBN 1850784787 – A Christian critique of Dawkins.
  • Alister McGrath Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life (2005) ISBN 1405125381 – A critique of Dawkins' attack on theistic religion.
  • Alan Grafen & Mark Ridley (editors) Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think (2006) ISBN 0199291160 – A series of 26 essays on Dawkins and his work.

See also Books by and about Richard Dawkins and Richard Dawkins Bibliography, these links are useful but no longer maintained.

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:


Interviews and feature articles

Criticism of Dawkins' views on religion

Creationist criticism


Notes and references

  1. John Catalano, 1995. Biography of Richard Dawkins. World of Dawkins. Accessed 2006-01-29.
  2. BBC News Online, 2001-10-12. "Richard Dawkins: The foibles of faith." Accessed 2006-01-29.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Jonathan Miller, Richard Dawkins & Richard Denton (director), 2003. The Atheism Tapes: Richard Dawkins. BBC Four television. Unofficial transcript.
  4. Robin McKie, 2004. "Doctor Zoo." The Guardian. Accessed 2006-04-07.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Richard Dawkins, 2006. Curriculum Vitae. (PDF).
  6. Simonyi Professorship, 2006. Prof. Richard Dawkins. Accessed 2006-01-29.
  7. Balliol College News. The Dawkins Prize. Accessed 2006-02-06.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Stephen S. Hall, 2005. "Darwin's Rottweiler." Discover magazine.
  9. Radio Times, 2006-01-02. p. 27.
  10. W.D. Hamilton, 1964. "The genetical evolution of social behaviour I and II." Journal of Theoretical Biology 7: 1-16 and 17-52.
  11. Richard Dawkins, 2000. "Obituary: Bill Hamilton." The Independent, 2000-03-10.
  12. Robert Trivers, 1971. "The evolution of reciprocal altruism." Quarterly Review of Biology. 46: 35-57.
  13. Gabriel Dover, 2000. Dear Mr Darwin. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, ISBN 0753811278.
  14. George C. Williams, 1966. Adaptation and Natural Selection. Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-02615-7.
  15. Ernst Mayr, 2000. What Evolution Is. Basic Books, ISBN 0465044263.
  16. Henry Morris, 2001. The Evolutionists. Henry Holt & Company, ISBN 071674094X.
  17. Richard Dawkins, 1985. "Sociobiology: the debate continues." New Scientist, 1985-01-24.
  18. Daniel Dennett, 1995. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0684802902.
  19. Susan Blackmore, 1999. The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press, ISBN 019286212X.
  20. Mary Midgley, 2000. Science and Poetry. Routledge.
  21. Mary Midgley, 1979. "Gene Juggling." Philosophy 54, no. 210, pp. 439-458.
  22. Ophelia Benson, 2003. "About Butterflies and Wheels."
  23. Richard Dawkins, 2002. "A Scientist's View." The Guardian.
  24. Richard Dawkins, 2003. A Devil's Chaplain. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, p. 256.
  25. John Durant, n.d. "A critical-historical perspective on the arguments about evolution and creation." From Evolution and Creation: A European perspective, Svend Anderson & Arthur Peacocke Eds. Aarhus, DK: Aarhus Univ. Press. pp. 12-26.
  26. Bill Moyers et al, 2004. "Now with Bill Moyers." PBS. Accessed 2006-01-29.
  27. Richard Dawkins, 2006. The Root of All Evil?.
  28. Richard Dawkins, 2003. "The Future Looks Bright." The Guardian.
  29. The Guardian, 2001-10-11 "Has the world changed?." The Guardian. Accessed 2006-01-29.
  30. Howard Jacobson, 2006. "Nothing like an unimaginative scientist to get non-believers running back to God." The Independent.
  31. Ron Ferguson, 2006. "What a lazy way to argue against God." The Herald.
  32. Richard Dawkins, 2006. "Diary." New Statesman.
  33. Marianna Krejci-Papa, 2005. "Taking On Dawkins' God:An interview with Alister McGrath." Science & Theology News, 2005-04-25.
  34. Richard Dawkins, 1998. Unweaving The Rainbow. Penguin.
  35. John Diamond, Richard Dawkins (foreword) & Dominic Lawson (ed), 2001. Snake Oil and Other Preoccupations. Vintage.
  36. Richard Dawkins, 2003. A Devil's Chaplain. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  37. David A. Coutts, 2001. "Dawkins: An exponentialist view." Accessed 2006-03-31.
  38. Richard Dawkins, 1989. The Selfish Gene, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press.
  39. Richard Dawkins, 1993. "Gaps In The Mind." In The Great Ape Project, Paola Cavalieri & Peter Singer eds. London: Fourth Estate.
  40. Durham News & Events Service, 2006. "Durham salutes science, Shakespeare and social inclusion." Accessed 2006-04-11.
  41. British Embassy in Berlin, 2005. "Shakespeare Prize for Richard Dawkins." Accessed 2006-01-29.
  42. David Herman, 2004. "Public Intellectuals Poll." Prospect magazine.
  43. Gordy Slack, 2004-04-30. "The Atheist." Accessed 2006-01-29.

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