Dawkins 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 made a widely cited contribution to evolutionary biology with the theory, presented in his book The Extended Phenotype, that the phenotypic effects of a gene are not necessarily limited to an organism's body, but can stretch far into the environment, including the bodies of other organisms.
In addition to his biological work, Dawkins is well known for his views on atheism, evolution, creationism, and religion. He is a prominent critic of creationism and intelligent design. In his 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker, he argued against the watchmaker analogy, an argument for the existence of a supernatural creator based upon the observed complexity of living organisms, and instead described evolutionary processes as being analogous to a blind watchmaker. He has since written several popular science books, and has made regular appearances on television and radio programmes, predominantly discussing the aforementioned topics.
Dawkins is an atheist, secular humanist, sceptic, scientific rationalist, and supporter of the Brights movement. He has widely 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 natural selection. In his 2006 book The God Delusion, Dawkins contends that a supernatural creator almost certainly does not exist and that faith qualifies as a delusion − as a fixed false belief. As of November 2007, the English language version had sold more than 1.5 million copies and had been translated into 31 other languages, making it his most popular book to date.
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 later reconverted because 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, design or direction − or some combination of these − in nature. However, 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. Later, when he better understood the process of evolution, his religious position again changed, because he felt that natural selection could account for the complexity of life in purely material terms, rendering a supernatural designer unnecessary.
Dawkins attended Oundle School from 1954 to 1959. He studied zoology at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was tutored by Nobel Prize-winning ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen, graduating with a first class degree 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. Dawkins' research in this period concerned models of animal decision making.
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 Dawkins became heavily involved in the anti-war demonstrations and activities. He returned to the University of Oxford in 1970 taking a position as a lecturer, and − in 1990 − a reader, in zoology. In 1995, he was appointed Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at 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 the 1970s Dawkins turned to explaining the life sciences to a popular audience, beginning with his well-known and influential, 1976 book, The Selfish Gene.
Dawkins 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), T.H. Huxley Memorial Lecture (1992), Irvine Memorial Lecture (1997), Sheldon Doyle Lecture (1999), Tinbergen Lecture (2004) and Tanner Lectures (2003). In 1991, he gave the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures for Children (released on DVD in 2007 as Growing Up in the Universe). He has also served as editor of a number of prominent journals, and has acted as editorial advisor to Encarta Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Evolution. He is a senior editor of the Council for Secular Humanism's Free Inquiry magazine, for which he also writes a column. He has been a member of the editorial board of Skeptic magazine since its foundation.
He has sat on numerous judging panels for awards as diverse as the Royal Society's Faraday Award and the British Academy Television Awards, and has been president of the Biological Sciences section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2004, Balliol College, Oxford instituted the Dawkins Prize, awarded for "outstanding research into the ecology and behaviour of animals whose welfare and survival may be endangered by human activities".
In September 2008, Dawkins is due to retire from his post as Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, due to reaching the university's mandatory retirement age.
In 1967, Dawkins married fellow ethologist Marian Stamp, and they divorced in 1984. Later that year, Dawkins married Eve Barham − with whom he had a daughter, Juliet Emma Dawkins − but they too divorced, and Barham died of cancer in early 1999. In 1992, he married actress Lalla Ward. Dawkins had met her through their mutual friend Douglas Adams, who had previously worked with Ward on the BBC science-fiction television programme Doctor Who (in 2008 Dawkins made a cameo appearance as himself in the Doctor Who episode The Stolen Earth). Ward has illustrated over half of Dawkins' books and co-narrated the audio versions of two of his books, The Ancestor's Tale and The God Delusion.
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 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. 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. Dawkins popularised these ideas in The Selfish Gene, and developed them in his own work.
Critics of Dawkins' approach suggest that taking the gene as the unit of selection − of a single event in which an individual either succeeds or fails to reproduce − is misleading, but that the gene could be better described as a unit of evolution − of the long-term changes in allele frequencies in a population. 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". Another common objection is that genes cannot survive alone, but must cooperate to build an individual, and therefore cannot be an independent "unit". 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.
Advocates for higher levels of selection such as Richard Lewontin, David Sloan Wilson, and Elliot Sober suggest that there are many phenomena (including altruism) that gene-based selection cannot satisfactorily explain. The philosopher Mary Midgley, whom Dawkins has intermittently debated since the late 1970s, has criticised gene selection, memetics and sociobiology as being excessively reductionist.
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 American biologist Stephen Jay Gould, reflecting the pre-eminence of each as a populariser of pertinent ideas. In particular, Dawkins and Gould have been prominent commentators in the controversy over sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, with Dawkins generally approving and Gould generally critical. 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. Two other thinkers on the subject often considered to be in the same camp as Dawkins are Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett; Dennett has promoted a gene-centred view of evolution and defended reductionism in biology. 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.
Dawkins' next book, which will marshal empirical evidence supporting the theory of evolution, is scheduled to be published in the United States by Free Press on 24 November, 2009, the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's seminal On the Origin of Species.
Although Dawkins coined the term meme independently, he has never claimed that the idea itself was entirely a new one − there had been similar expressions for similar ideas in the past. John Laurent, in The Journal of Memetics, has suggested that the term may have derived from the work of the little-known German biologist Richard Semon. In 1904, Semon published Die Mneme (which appeared in English in 1924 as The Mneme). Semon's book discussed the cultural transmission of experiences, with insights parallel to Dawkins'. Laurent also found the term mneme used in Maurice Maeterlinck's The Life of the White Ant (1926), and highlighted the similarities to Dawkins' concept.
In 1986, Dawkins participated in the Oxford Union's Huxley Memorial Debate, in which he and English biologist John Maynard Smith debated Young Earth creationist A. E. Wilder-Smith and Edgar Andrews, president of the Biblical Creation Society. In general, however, Dawkins has followed the advice of his late colleague Stephen Jay Gould and refused to participate in formal debates with creationists because doing so would give them the "oxygen of respectability" they crave. He suggests 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 American journalist Bill Moyers, Dawkins said that "among the things that science does know, evolution is about as certain as anything we know". When Moyers questioned him on the use of the word theory, Dawkins stated that "evolution has been observed. It's just that it hasn't been observed while it's happening." He added that "it is rather like a detective coming on a murder after the scene... the detective hasn't actually seen the murder take place, of course. But what you do see is a massive clue ... Huge quantities of circumstantial evidence. It might as well be spelled out in words of English.
Dawkins has ardently opposed the inclusion of intelligent design in science education, describing it as "not a scientific argument at all, but a religious one". He has been a strong critic of the British organisation Truth in Science, which promotes the teaching of creationism in state schools, and he plans − through the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science − to subsidise the delivering of books, DVDs and pamphlets to schools, in order to counteract what he has described as an "educational scandal".
Dawkins is an outspoken atheist and a prominent critic of religion. He is an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society, a vice-president of the British Humanist Association (since 1996), a Distinguished Supporter of the Humanist Society of Scotland, a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism, and a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. In 2003, he signed Humanism and Its Aspirations, published by the American Humanist Association.
Dawkins believes that atheism is the logical extension of understanding evolution and that religion is incompatible with science. In his 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins wrote:
In his 1991 essay "Viruses of the Mind" (from which the term faith-sufferer originated), he suggested that memetic theory might analyse and explain the phenomenon of religious belief and some of the common characteristics of religions, such as the belief that punishment awaits non-believers. According to Dawkins, faith − belief that is not based on evidence − is one of the world's great evils. He claims it to be analogous to the smallpox virus, though more difficult to eradicate. 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 biologists Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins to theologians Alister McGrath and Richard Harries. Dawkins has stated that his opposition to religion is twofold, claiming it to be both a source of conflict and a justification for belief without evidence. However, he describes himself as a "cultural Christian", and proposed the slogan "Atheists for Jesus".
Following the 11 September, 2001 attacks, when asked how the world might have changed, Dawkins responded:
Dawkins has especially risen to prominence in contemporary public debates relating science and religion since the publication of his 2006 book The God Delusion, which has achieved greater sales figures worldwide than any of his other works to date. Its success has been seen by many as indicative of a change in the contemporary cultural zeitgeist, central to a recent rise in the popularity of atheistic literature. The God Delusion was praised by many intellectuals including the Nobel laureate chemist Sir Harold Kroto, psychologist Steven Pinker and the Nobel laureate biologist James D. Watson. In the book, Dawkins argued that atheists should be proud, not apologetic, because atheism is evidence of a healthy, independent mind. He sees education and consciousness-raising as the primary tools in opposing what he considers to be religious dogma and indoctrination. These tools include the fight against certain stereotypes, and he has adopted the term Bright as a way of associating positive public connotations with those who possess a naturalistic worldview. Dawkins notes that feminists have succeeded in arousing widespread embarrassment at the routine use of "he" instead of "she". Similarly, he suggests, a phrase such as "Catholic child" or "Muslim child" should be considered just as socially absurd as, for instance, "Marxist child": children should not be classified based on their parents' ideological beliefs. According to Dawkins, there is no such thing as a Christian child or a Muslim child.
In January 2006, Dawkins presented a two-part television documentary entitled The Root of All Evil?, addressing what he sees as the malignant influence of religion on society. The title itself is one with which Dawkins has repeatedly expressed his dissatisfaction. Critics have said that the programme 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 programmes. 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. The unedited recordings of Dawkins' conversations with Alister McGrath and Richard Harries, including material unused in the broadcast version, have been made available online by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.
Oxford theologian Alister McGrath maintains that Dawkins is "ignorant" of Christian theology, and therefore unable to engage religion and faith intelligently. In reply, Dawkins asks "do you have to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?", and − in the paperback edition of The God Delusion − he refers to the American biologist PZ Myers, who has satirized this line of argument as "The Courtier's Reply". Dawkins had an extended debate with McGrath at the 2007 Sunday Times Literary Festival.
Another Christian philosopher, Keith Ward, explores similar themes in his 2006 book Is Religion Dangerous?, arguing against the view of Dawkins and others that religion is socially dangerous. Criticism of The God Delusion has come from philosophers such as Professor John Cottingham of the University of Reading. Other commentators, including ethicist Margaret Somerville, have suggested that Dawkins "overstates the case against religion", particularly its role in human conflict. Many of Dawkins' defenders claim that critics generally misunderstand his real point. During a debate on Radio 3 Hong Kong, David Nicholls, writer and president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, reiterated Dawkins' sentiments that religion is an "unnecessary" aspect of global problems.
Dawkins argues that "the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other". He disagrees with Stephen Jay Gould's principle of nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA). In an interview with Time magazine, Dawkins said:
I think that Gould's separate compartments was a purely political ploy to win middle-of-the-road religious people to the science camp. But it's a very empty idea. There are plenty of places where religion does not keep off the scientific turf. Any belief in miracles is flat contradictory not just to the facts of science but to the spirit of science.
Astrophysicist Martin Rees has suggested that Dawkins' attack on mainstream religion is unhelpful. Regarding Rees' claim in his book Our Cosmic Habitat that "such questions lie beyond science", Dawkins asks "what expertise can theologians bring to deep cosmological questions that scientists cannot? Elsewhere, Dawkins has written that "there's all the difference in the world between a belief that one is prepared to defend by quoting evidence and logic, and a belief that is supported by nothing more than tradition, authority or revelation." As examples 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. He has said that the publication of The God Delusion is "probably the culmination" of his campaign against religion.
In 2007, Dawkins founded the Out Campaign to encourage atheists worldwide to declare their stance publicly and proudly. Inspired by the gay rights movement, Dawkins hopes that atheists' identifying of themselves as such, and thereby increasing public awareness of how many people hold these views, will reduce the negative opinion of atheism among the religious majority.
In September 2008, following a complaint by Islamic creationist Adnan Oktar, a court in Turkey blocked access to Dawkins' website richarddawkins.net, the content of which Oktar describes as "blasphemous" and "insulting religion.
In 2006, Dawkins founded the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS), a non-profit organization. The foundation is in developmental phase. It has been 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 organizations. The foundation also offers humanist, rationalist and scientific materials and information through its website.
In his role as professor for public understanding of science, 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 states that "there is no alternative medicine. There is only medicine that works and medicine that doesn't work.
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 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, he criticises contemporary society's moral attitudes as being based on a "discontinuous, speciesist imperative".
Dawkins also regularly comments in newspapers and weblogs on contemporary political questions; his opinions include opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the British nuclear deterrent and 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.
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 also discusses how the Internet can be used to spread religious hatred and conspiracy theories with scant attention to evidence-based reasoning.
Dawkins was awarded a Doctor of Science by the University of Oxford in 1989. He holds honorary doctorates in science from the University of Huddersfield, University of Westminster, Durham University and the University of Hull, and honorary doctorates from the Open University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. He also holds honorary doctorates of letters from the University of St Andrews and the Australian National University, and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1997 and the Royal Society in 2001.
In 1987, Dawkins received a Royal Society of Literature award and a Los Angeles Times Literary Prize for his book, The Blind Watchmaker. In the same year, he received a Sci. Tech Prize for Best Television Documentary Science Programme of the Year, for the BBC Horizon episode entitled The Blind Watchmaker.
His other awards have included the Zoological Society of London Silver Medal (1989), the Michael Faraday Award (1990), the Nakayama Prize (1994), the Humanist of the Year Award (1996), the fifth International Cosmos Prize (1997), the Kistler Prize (2001), the 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. He has been short-listed as a candidate in their 2008 follow-up poll. In 2005, the Hamburg-based Alfred Toepfer Foundation awarded him its Shakespeare Prize in recognition of his "concise and accessible presentation of scientific knowledge". He won the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science for 2006 and the Galaxy British Book Awards Author of the Year Award for 2007. In the same year, he was listed by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2007, and was awarded the Deschner Award, named after Karlheinz Deschner.
Since 2003, the Atheist Alliance International has awarded a prize during its annual conference, 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.
b. The debate ended with the motion "That the doctrine of creation is more valid than the theory of evolution" being defeated by 198 votes to 15, according to a report reproduced on the American Association for the Advancement of Science site. However, the voice of the teller of the vote on the video is not clear enough to discern the exact number of persons in support of the motion.