Richard Dawkins's Biography(Photos)
Clinton Richard Dawkins, FRS, FRSL (born 26 March 1941) is a British biological theorist with a background in ethology, ethologist and popular science writer. He is a popular science author focusing on evolution.
Dawkins is one of Britain's best-known academics. He came to prominence with his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, which popularised the gene-centred view of evolution and introduced the term meme. In 1982, he further developed the gene-centred view with his book The Extended Phenotype:The Gene as the Unit of Selection, emphasizing that the phenotypic effects of genes are not necessarily limited to an organism's body but can stretch via biochemistry and behaviour into other organisms and the environment. He is well-known as a presenter of the case for rationalism and scientific thinking. His later works continued to expand upon these ideas and their implications.
Dawkins is one of the world's most widely publicised atheists. He is a prominent critic of religion, creationism and a wide variety of pseudoscience. In his 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design, he argued against the watchmaker analogy, an argument for the existence of a supernatural creator based upon the complexity of living organisms. Instead, he described a dysteleological perspective on the process of evolution by natural selection as "blind", without a design or a goal. In his 2006 million-selling book The God Delusion, he contended that a supernatural creator almost certainly does not exist, writing that such beliefs, based on faith rather than on evidence, qualify as a delusion. He was a co-founder of the Out Campaign, as a means of advancing atheism and freethought.
Dawkins retired from Oxford University in 2008 and remains a writer and public figure.
Early life and education
Dawkins was born in Nairobi, Colony of Kenya, British Empire. His father, Clinton John Dawkins, was an agricultural civil servant in the British colonial service, in Nyasaland (now Malawi). His father was called up into the King's African Rifles during the second world war and was based in Kenya and his father returned to England in 1949, when Richard was eight. Both of his parents were interested in natural sciences, and they answered his questions in scientific terms. He describes his childhood as "a normal Anglican upbringing". Though he began having doubts about the existence of God when he was about nine years old, he was persuaded by the argument from design, an argument for the existence of God or a creator based on perceived evidence of order, purpose, or design in nature. He attended Oundle School from 1954 to 1959. By his mid-teens, he had instead concluded that the theory of evolution was a better explanation for life's complexity, and became nonreligious.
Dawkins studied zoology at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was tutored by Nobel Prize-winning ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen, graduating in 1962. He continued as a research student under Tinbergen's supervision at the University of Oxford, receiving his M.A. and D.Phil. degrees in 1966, while staying as a research assistant for another year. Tinbergen was a pioneer in the study of animal behaviour, particularly the questions of instinct, learning and choice. His research in this period concerned models of animal decision making.
Career in academia Further information: List of academic papers by Dawkins
From 1967 to 1969, Dawkins was an assistant professor of zoology at the University of California, Berkeley. During this period, the students and faculty at UC Berkeley were largely opposed to the ongoing Vietnam War, and he became heavily involved in the anti-war demonstrations and activities. He returned to the University of Oxford in 1970 as a lecturer in zoology, and in 1990 was appointed a Reader.
In 1995, Dawkins was appointed Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science in the University of Oxford, a position that had been endowed by Charles Simonyi with the express intention that the holder "be expected to make important contributions to the public understanding of some scientific field". Since 1970, he has been a fellow of New College, Oxford. In September 2008, he retired from Oxford.
Dawkins has been referred to in the media as "Darwin's Rottweiler", by analogy with English biologist T. H. Huxley, who was known as "Darwin's Bulldog" for his advocacy of Charles Darwin's evolutionary ideas. During a mid-2008 BBC video on the science advice he might give to a U.S. President, Dawkins suggested
In order not to believe in evolution you must either be ignorant, stupid or insane".
Career as a popular science writer
Dawkins' latest book, entitled The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, expounds the evidence for biological evolution. All of his previous works dealing with evolution had assumed its truth, and not explicitly provided the evidence to this effect. This book was written to fill that gap. He has announced plans to "write a book aimed at youngsters in which he will warn them against believing in 'anti-scientific' fairytales". It will be published by Transworld, and is set to be released in autumn 2011.
Selfish gene Further information: Gene-centred view of evolution
In his scientific works, Dawkins is best known for his popularisation of the gene-centred view of evolution. This view is 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". In his role 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. Dawkins popularised these ideas in The Selfish Gene, and developed them in his own work. He is particularly sceptical about the practical possibility or importance of group selection as a basis for understanding altruism. This behaviour appears at first to be an evolutionary paradox, since helping others costs precious resources and decreases one's own fitness. Previously, many had interpreted this as an aspect of group selection: individuals were doing what was best for the survival of the population or species as a whole, and not specifically for themselves. British evolutionary biologist W. D. Hamilton had used the gene-centred view to explain altruism in terms of inclusive fitness and kin selection that individuals behave altruistically toward their close relatives, who share many of their own genes. Similarly, Robert Trivers, thinking in terms of the gene-centred model, developed the theory of reciprocal altruism, whereby one organism provides a benefit to another in the expectation of future reciprocation. In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins explains that he is using George C. Williams' definition of the gene as "that which segregates and recombines with appreciable frequency". In The Extended Phenotype, Dawkins suggests 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. To those who opposed the "selfish gene" idea, Dawkins could be merciless; a typical example of Dawkins' position was his scathing review of Not in Our Genes by Steven Rose, Leon J. Kamin and Richard C. Lewontin.
The concept of the selfish gene has cause some controversy because of its apparent philosophical implications, based on one's theory of mind and whether one views the validity of the concept of selfish gene as definitely the primary or perhaps only means of selection. Some, such as Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett, accept the latter. Dennett has promoted a gene-centred view of evolution and defended reductionism in biology. A pair of new disciplines that emerged from this school of thought were sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. While many biologists think of selfish gene as one of several possible mechanisms by which selection occurs and may or may not use its terminology to describe their work, some non-biologists have expressed concern that an overemphasis on the concept leads one to make oversimplifications and to infer erroneous implications. This difference in emphasis lead to the so-called 'Darwin Wars' (which is closely related to the ongoing evolutionary psychology controversy), leading to several exchanges between Dawkins and the American paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould over the matter. He has consistently been sceptical about non-adaptive processes in evolution (such as spandrels, described by Gould and Lewontin) and about selection at levels "above" that of the gene. Despite their academic disagreements, Dawkins and Gould did not have a hostile personal relationship, and Dawkins dedicated a large portion of his 2003 book A Devil's Chaplain posthumously to Gould, who had died the previous year. The philosopher Mary Midgley, whom Dawkins clashed with in print concerning The Selfish Gene, has criticised gene selection, memetics and sociobiology as being excessively reductionist.
Dawkins coined the word meme (the cultural equivalent of a gene) to describe how Darwinian principles might be extended to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. This has spawned the field of memetics. Dawkins' memes refer to any cultural entity which an observer might consider a replicator. He hypothesised that people could view many cultural entities as capable of such replication, generally through exposure to humans, who have evolved as efficient (although not perfect) copiers of information and behaviour. Memes are not always copied perfectly, and might indeed become refined, combined or otherwise modified with other ideas, resulting in new memes, which may themselves prove more, or less, efficient replicators than their predecessors, thus providing a framework for a hypothesis of cultural evolution, analogous to the theory of biological evolution based on genes. Since originally outlining the idea in his book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins has largely left the task of expanding upon it to other authors such as Susan Blackmore.
Dawkins has been a critic of pseudoscience and alternative medicine. His 1998 book Unweaving the Rainbow takes John Keats' accusation that, by explaining the rainbow, Isaac Newton had diminished its beauty, and argues for the opposite conclusion. He suggests that deep space, the billions of years of life's evolution, and the microscopic workings of biology and heredity contain more beauty and wonder than do "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 from more successful conventional treatments, and gave people false hopes. Dawkins later wrote that "there is no alternative medicine. There is only medicine that works and medicine that doesn't work." In the 2007 TV documentary The Enemies of Reason, Dawkins discusses what he sees as the dangers of abandoning critical thought and rationale based upon scientific evidence. He specifically cites astrology, spiritualism, dowsing, alternative faiths, alternative medicine and homeopathy. He has noted that libel laws in Britain and particularly how they are enforced in London stifles criticism of pseudoscience.
Dawkins has taken stances as an environmentalist and with selected aspects of animal rights. 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, he criticises contemporary society's moral attitudes as being based on a "discontinuous, speciesist imperative". Dawkins has expressed concern about the growth of the planet's human population, and about the matter of overpopulation. In The Selfish Gene, he briefly mentions population growth, giving the example of Latin America, whose population, at the time the book was written, was doubling every 40 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 in the form of Malthusian catastrophe such as starvation.
Dawkins has be involved in many media productions about this political agenda. He regularly comments on contemporary political questions via Internet and traditional media; his opinions include opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the British nuclear deterrent and many of the actions of U.S. President George W. Bush. Several such articles were included in A Devil's Chaplain, an anthology of writings about science, religion and politics. He is a supporter of the Republic campaign to replace the British monarchy with a democratically-elected president. In The Enemies of Reason documentary he discusses how the Internet can be used to spread religious hatred and conspiracy theories with scant attention to evidence-based reasoning. Dawkins is set to present an episode of the upcoming five-part television series The Genius of Britain, along with fellow scientists Stephen Hawking, James Dyson, Paul Nurse, and Jim Al-Khalili. This is part of a long-standing partnership with Channel 4. The programme will focus on major British scientific achievements throughout history.
In 2006, Dawkins founded the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS), a non-profit organisation. The foundation is in developmental phase. The Foundation was granted charitable status in the United Kingdom and the United States. RDFRS plans to finance research on the psychology of belief and religion, finance scientific education programs and materials, and publicise and support secular charitable organisations. The foundation offers humanist, rationalist and scientific materials and information through its website. Unedited interviews of some of Dawkins' video productions are made available by the RDFRS.