Josh Wakefield and Richard Dawkins
October 3, 2007 at the Alys Stephens Center - Birmingham, Alabama

Clinton Richard Dawkins (born March 26, 1941) is a British ethologist, evolutionary biologist and popular science writer who holds the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford.

Dawkins first came to prominence with his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, which popularized the gene-centered view of evolution and introduced the term meme, helping found the field of memetics. In 1982, he made a widely-cited 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 into the bodies of other organisms. He has since written several best-selling popular books, and appeared in a number of television and radio programs, concerning evolutionary biology, creationism, and religion.

Dawkins is an outspoken anti-religionist, atheist, secular humanist, and skeptic, and he is a supporter of the Brights movement. In a play on Thomas Huxley's epithet "Darwin's bulldog", Dawkins' impassioned advocacy of evolution has earned him the appellation "Darwin's Rottweiler".

Personal Life

Dawkins was born on March 26, 1941 in Nairobi, Kenya, and named Clinton Richard Dawkins. 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 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, nιe Ladner. Both were interested in the natural sciences, and answered the young Dawkins' questions in scientific terms.

Dawkins describes his childhood as "a normal Anglican upbringing", 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 better understood evolution, at age 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. 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 Emma Dawkins in 1984 – but they, too, divorced. He married actress Lalla Ward in 1992. Dawkins had met her through their mutual friend Douglas Adams, who worked with Ward on the BBC TV science-fiction series Doctor Who. Ward has illustrated over half 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 BA degree in zoology in 1962, followed by MA and D.Phil. degrees in 1966, and a Sc.D. in 1989.

From 1967 to 1969, Dawkins was an assistant professor of zoology in the University of California, Berkeley. In 1970 he was appointed a lecturer, and in 1990 a reader in zoology in the University of Oxford. In 1995, he was appointed Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford, a position endowed by Charles Simonyi with an express intention that Dawkins be its first holder. He has been a fellow of New College, Oxford since 1970. He has delivered a number of inaugural and other notable lectures, including the Henry Sidgwick Memorial Lecture (1989), first Erasmus Darwin Memorial Lecture (1990), Michael Faraday Lecture (1991) (recently released on DVD as Growing Up In The Universe), T.H. Huxley Memorial Lecture (1992), Irvine Memorial Lecture (1997), Sheldon Doyle Lecture (1999), Tinbergen Lecture (2000), and the Tanner Lectures (2003).

In 1996, Charles Simonyi referred to Dawkins as "Darwin's Rottweiler", a description later adopted by Discover magazine, and the Radio Times. He has also been called "the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell" and compared to Ernst Haeckel.

Dawkins has edited a number of journals and has acted as editorial advisor for several publications, including 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, is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism, a fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and serves as advisor for several other organizations. He has sat on numerous 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 behavior of animals whose welfare and survival may be endangered by human activities" – was initiated by Oxford's Balliol College.


Evolutionary biology
In his scientific works, Dawkins is best known for his popularization 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 behavior and its relation to natural selection, he advocates the idea that the gene is the principal unit of selection in evolution.

Dawkins has been consistently skeptical about non-adaptive processes in evolution and about selection at levels "above" that of the gene. He is particularly skeptical about the practical possibility or importance of group selection.

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. (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 organized a secular memorial service). 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.

Critics of Dawkins' approach suggest that taking the gene as the unit of selection — a single event in which an individual either succeeds or fails to reproduce – is misleading, but that the gene could be described as a unit of evolution – the long-term changes in allele frequencies in a population. 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". Another common objection is that genes cannot survive alone, but must cooperate to build an individual, and therefore can not be an independent "unit". However, 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 that 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 a set of controversies over the mechanisms and interpretation of evolution (the so-called "Darwin Wars"), one faction was often named after Dawkins and its rival after Stephen Jay Gould, reflecting the pre-eminence of each as a popularizer of relevant ideas. 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 of Not in Our Genes by Rose, Kamin and Lewontin. Two other thinkers often considered to be in the same camp as Dawkins are Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett, who has promoted a gene-centric view of evolution and defended reductionism in biology. Dawkins and Gould, however did not have a hostile relationship, and Dawkins dedicated a large portion of his book A Devil's Chaplain to Gould.

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. This spawned the field of memetics. While originally floating the idea in The Selfish Gene, Dawkins has largely left the task of expanding upon it to other authors, such as Susan Blackmore. Philosopher Mary Midgley, whom Dawkins has debated since the late 1970s, criticizes memetics, gene selection, and sociobiology as being excessively reductionist. Among other exchanges, Midgley stated 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 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 Life of the White Ant (1926), by Maurice Maeterlinck, and highlighted its similarities to Dawkins' concept.

Dawkins is a prominent critic of creationism, describing it as a "preposterous, mind-shrinking falsehood". His book The Blind Watchmaker contains a critique of the argument from design, and his other popular science works often touch on the topic. In 1986, Dawkins participated in the Oxford Union's Huxley Memorial Debate, in which he and John Maynard Smith debated A. E. Wilder-Smith and Edgar Andrews, president of the Biblical Creation Society. But on the advice of his late colleague Stephen Jay Gould, Dawkins generally refuses to participate in formal 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."

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 went on to say, "It is rather like a detective coming on a murder after the scene. And you… the detective hasn't actually seen the murder take place, of course. But what you do see is a massive clue ...Circumstantial evidence, but masses of circumstantial evidence. Huge quantities of circumstantial evidence."

Dawkins is an ardent and outspoken atheist, an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society, a vice-president of the British Humanist Association and a Distinguished Supporter of the Humanist Society of Scotland. In his essay "Viruses of the Mind" (from which the term "faith-sufferer" originated), he suggested that memetic theory might analyze and explain the phenomenon of religious belief and some of the common characteristics of organized religions, such as the belief that punishment awaits non-believers. In 2003, The Atheist Alliance International instituted the Richard Dawkins Award in his honor. Dawkins is well known for his contempt for religious extremism, from Islamist terrorism to Christian fundamentalism, but he has also argued with liberal believers and religious scientists, from the biologist Kenneth Miller to the former Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries.

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 putting positive connotations on those with a naturalistic world view. Dawkins notes that feminists have succeeded in making us feel embarrassed when we routinely employ "he" instead of "she"; similarly, he argues, a phrase such as "Catholic child" or "Muslim child" should be seen to be just as improper as, say, "Marxist child". Children should not be classified based on their parent's ideological beliefs.

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 labeled 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!”

In January 2006, Dawkins presented a two-part television documentary entitled The Root of All Evil?, (a title which Dawkins had no say in and with which he has repeatedly expressed his dissatisfaction) addressing what he sees as the malignant influence of organized religion in society. Critics said that the program gave too much time to marginal figures and extremists, and that Dawkins' confrontational style did not help his cause; Dawkins rejected these claims, citing the number of moderate religious broadcasts in everyday media as providing a suitable balance to the extremists in the programs. He further remarked that someone who is deemed an "extremist" in a religiously moderate country, may well be considered "mainstream" in a religiously conservative one.

Dawkins has ardently opposed teaching intelligent design in science lessons. He has described intelligent design as "not a scientific argument at all but a religious one" and is a strong critic of the pro-Creationist organization Truth in Science. Dawkins has said the publication of his September 2006 book, The God Delusion, is "probably the culmination" of his campaign against religion. Dawkins was a featured speaker at the November 2006 Beyond Belief conference.

Oxford theologian Alister McGrath, author of Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life and The Dawkins Delusion?, has accused Dawkins of being ignorant of Christian theology. In response, Dawkins stated his position that Christian theology is vacuous, and that the only area of theology which might command his attention would be the arguments to demonstrate God's existence. Dawkins criticized McGrath for providing no argument to support his beliefs, other than the fact that they cannot be falsified. Dawkins had an extended debate with McGrath at the Sunday Times Literary Festival in 2007. Another Christian philosopher, Keith Ward, explores similar themes in his book Is Religion Dangerous?, arguing against the view of Dawkins and others that religion is socially dangerous. Criticism of The God Delusion has also come from professional philosophers such as Professor John Cottingham of the University of Reading. Other commentators, including Margaret Somerville, have suggested that Dawkins "overstates the case against religion", asserting that global conflict would continue without religion from factors such as economic pressures or land disputes. Dawkins' defenders, however, claim that the critics misunderstand Dawkins' point. During a debate on Radio 3 Hong Kong, David Nicholls, president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, argued that Dawkins does not contend that religion is the source of all that is wrong in the world. Rather, it is an "unnecessary part of what is wrong."  Dawkins himself has said that his objection to religion is not solely that it causes wars and violence, but also because it gives people an excuse to hold beliefs that are not based on evidence.

Dawkins believes that "the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other."  He disagrees with Stephen Jay Gould's idea of "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA) and with similar ideas proposed by Martin Rees regarding the coexistence of science and religion without conflict, calling the former "positively supine" and "a purely political ploy to win middle-of-the-road religious people to the science camp".  Regarding Rees's claim in Our Cosmic Habitat that "Such questions lie beyond science, however: they are the domain of philosophers and theologians," Dawkins replies "What expertise can theologians bring to deep cosmological questions that scientists cannot?".  Rees has suggested that Dawkins' attack on even mainstream religion is unhelpful, and Robert Winston has said that Dawkins "brings science into disrepute"

Of "good scientists who are sincerely religious", Dawkins names Arthur Peacocke, Russell Stannard, John Polkinghorne, and Francis Collins, but says "I remain baffled . . . by their belief in the details of the Christian religion".

The Richard Dawkins Foundation

In 2006, Dawkins began a new foundation, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. This is currently in the development phase, but seeks generally to advance the causes of rationalism and humanism.

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. 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. Dawkins states, "There is no alternative medicine. There is only medicine that works and medicine that doesn't work."

Dawkins has expressed concern over the exponential growth of human population and the issue of overpopulation. In The Selfish Gene, he 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 that doubled every forty years. He is critical of Roman 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.

As a supporter of the Great Ape Project – a movement to extend certain moral and legal rights to all great apes – Dawkins contributed an article entitled "Gaps In The Mind" to the Great Ape Project book edited by Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer. In this essay, Dawkins criticizes contemporary society's moral attitudes as being based on a "discontinuous, speciesist imperative".

Dawkins also regularly comments in the newspapers and weblogs on contemporary political issues; opinions expressed include opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the British nuclear deterrent, and US President George W. Bush. Several such articles were included in A Devil's Chaplain, an anthology of articles about science, religion and politics.

Awards and recognition

Dawkins holds honorary doctorates in science from the University of Westminster, the University of Durham and University of Hull, and an honorary doctorate from the Open University and from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. 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.

Dawkins has won numerous awards, including the Royal Society of 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), and the Bicentennial Kelvin Medal of The Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow (2002). 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. In 2005, the Hamburg-based Alfred Toepfer Foundation awarded him their Shakespeare Prize in recognition of his "concise and accessible presentation of scientific knowledge". Dawkins was the Galaxy British Book Awards Author of the Year for 2007. Dawkins was listed in Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2007.

Since 2003, the Atheist Alliance International has awarded a prize during their annual conferences, honoring an outstanding atheist whose work has done most to raise public awareness of atheism during that year. It is known as the "Richard Dawkins award", in honor of Dawkins' own work.



Selected essays

Selected documentaries

Books about Dawkins and his ideas

  People I Have Met

Last updated: Thursday, October 04, 2007 09:04:48 PM CST.  All images are © Copyright Josh Wakefield and may not be reproduced without express written permission.  All rights reserved.