Dawkins, Richard (1941-) is a British evolutionary biologist who became famous for explaining complex ideas about evolution to lay readers. His first book, The Selfish Gene (1976), debunked some of the theories of sociobiology, the study of the biological basis for the $ocial behavior of human beings and other animals. Dawkins formulates the basic principles of the sociobiological theory of evolution, the gradual development of species. Dawkins continued writing books that described and expanded Charles Robert Darwin's theories.
Clinton Richard Dawkins was born on March 26, 1941, in Nairobi, Kenya, and spent his first eight years in Africa. In 1949, the family moved to England. Dawkins was influenced by the writings of British naturalist Charles Robert Darwin, who became famous for his theories on evolution. Like several other scientists before him, Darwin believed that, through millions of years, all species of plants and animals had evolved (developed gradually) from a few common ancestors. As a young researcher, Dawkins began to helieve that the idea of an all-powerful God of creation no longer made sense. He later criticized religion as a leftover from unenlightened times and for ignoring scientific truths.
Dawkins attended Oxford University, where he studied zoology, receiving his bachelor's degree in 1962 and his doctoral degree in 1966. Dawkins worked on his doctorate under Nikolaas Tinbergen, a Dutch-born zoologist, who studied the evolution of animal behavior. Tinbergen shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.
After a two-year teaching appointment in the zoology department at the University of California at Berkeley from 1967 to 1969, Dawkins returned to Oxford in 1970 to be a lecturer in animal behavior and later, reader in zoology. He also became a fellow of New College, Oxford, in 1970.
Dawkins became a celebrity scientist with his first book, The Selfish Gene (1976), in which he argued that replicators—not individuals, populations, or species—are the driving force of evolution. Replicators include both genes and memes. Genes are the hereditary material in cells that determine the characteristics of an organism. Dawkins saw genes as our prime mover: selfish and interested only in their own survival and reproduction. He asserted that behavior and physiology (the organic processes of an organism) can be explained by the perpetuation of genes. We are merely vehicles for our genes, packages or “survival machines.” Dawkins explained that even seemingly altruistic (unselfish) acts fit his model. For example, since children share 50 percent of their genes with their mothers, if a mother were to sacrifice her life to protect her young, her genes would continue to survive. Thus her apparent act of altruism is really a strategy by which her genes ensure their own survival.
However, Dawkins is not a complete genetic determinist, someone who believes that all behavior is determined by genes. He believes that the evolution of the human brain has allowed humans to sometimes bypass their genes. For example, people have learned to use contraception. Since this allows them to have sex without reproducing, they have succeeded in blocking the process by which their genes reproduce.
Dawkins called such acts of cultural transmission “memes.” He proposed that memes, like genes, can replicate. They do this by passing from person to person, through generations. Memes can also mutate, or change. Dawkins considered the idea of God to be a meme with a high survival value, or longevity, because of its great psychological appeal.
Dawkins wrote The Extended Phenotype (1982) as a sequel after The Selfish Gene made a strong impact within the scientific community. In this second book, Dawkins further developed his ideas for a more academic audience—biologists, ecologists, philosophers, and others.
Dawkins's third book, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design (1986), addressed the problem of complex design, one of the arguments raised by critics of the theory of evolution. These critics assert that biological organisms are so complex that they cannot possibly have come about by evolution alone. The British theologian William Paley advanced this view in the 1700's. He wrote in an 1802 book that if he were to discover a watch on a walk in the countryside, the complexity of its design would naturally lead him to assume that a watchmaker created it. Similarly, complex biological organisms must have been designed by a “divine watchmaker,” or God. Dawkins said that nature has no eyes or mind, such as a watchmaker has, so he used the term “blind watchmaker.”
Dawkins sought to disprove Paley's thesis by showing how simple features can evolve into more complex organs through the accumulation of small changes. To illustrate this possibility, Dawkins described a program that he wrote for his computer that could mimic the process of evolution. The program made creatures he called “biomorphs,” which started out as treelike forms. Dawkins designed them to mutate and mimic natural organisms. He then selected their “offspring” and bred them. Dawkins found his program could create a continuous variety of forms.
The title of Dawkins's next book, River Out of Eden (1995), referred to a river of genes. In the book, Dawkins sought to answer provocative genetic questions, such as whether people inherit genes for fatal illnesses. Certain diseases that affect humans in old age, Dawkins said, were never eliminated because most people have produced children by that age. This means they have reproduced their genes already. Therefore, no genetic pressure exists to eliminate those diseases.
In Dawkins's 1996 book, Climbing Mount Improbable, he elaborates on how complex changes occur in life forms through slow but gradual evolutionary steps.
Dawkins often had to address the controversy generated by the theories of evolution he explored. Many readers disagreed with Dawkins's view on religion. Dawkins tried to address these concerns in his book, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder (1998). His title refers to the charge by English poet John Keats that English scientist Sir Isaac Newton did “unweave the rainbow” by describing the colors of the prism. Dawkins contests that the rainbow is still beautiful, despite being broken down into its component colors. In discussions of astronomy, genetics, and other scientific topics, Dawkins pleads that unraveling the mysteries of the universe is an endeavor filled with wonder and awe, not a cause for distress.
Dawkins challenges positions held by people who are anti-science.
Dawkins is adept in explaining scientific information to the public. Dawkins uses language that non-scientists can understand to express his love of the natural world and scientific truth. Dawkins collaborated with software programmers to create a CD-ROM entitled The Evolution of Life (1996), in which he guides users through interactive lessons that explain evolutionary processes. The CD-ROM also contained a program with which users can create and animate life forms through multiple generations.
In 1996, Dawkins became Oxford's first Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, a position funded by Charles Simonyi, a wealthy employee of Microsoft.
The American Humanist Association honored Dawkins as the 1996 Humanist of the Year. Humanism is a philosophy that believes humanity is responsible for its own destiny and is not created by a supernatural God. Dawkins also won the Silver Medal of the Zoological Society, 1989; Michael Faraday Award of the Royal Society, 1990; and the Nakayama Prize for Human Sciences, 1994. In 2001, he became a fellow of the Royal Society, the leading scientific organization in England.
Dawkins married three times, to Marian Stamp, Eve Barham (with whom he had one daughter), and Lalla Ward. An actress, Ward had previously starred on a popular British science-fiction series Doctor Who. She was also a skilled artist who helped illustrate two of Dawkins's books.