Dawkins, Richard 1941-
DAWKINS, Richard 1941-
(Clinton Richard Dawkins)
PERSONAL: Born March 26, 1941, in Nairobi, Kenya; immigrated to England, 1949; son of Clinton John (a farmer) and Jean Mary Vyvyan (Ladner) Dawkins; married Marian Stamp, August 19, 1967 (divorced, 1984); married Eve Barham, June 1, 1984 (marriage ended); married Lalla Ward (an actress and artist), 1992; children: Juliet Emma. Education: Balliol College, Oxford, B.A., 1962, M.A., 1966, D.Phil., 1966. Hobbies and other interests: Computer programming.
ADDRESSES: Home—4 Hawkswell Gardens, Oxford OX2 7JW, England. Office—Oxford University Museum, Oxford OX1 3PW, England.
CAREER: University of California—Berkeley, assistant professor of zoology, 1967–69; Oxford University, Oxford, England, lecturer in zoology and fellow of New College, 1970–90, reader in zoology, 1990–95, Charles Simonyi Professor in the Public Understanding of Science, 1995–.
MEMBER: Royal Society of London (fellow).
AWARDS, HONORS: Royal Society of Literature Prize, 1987, and Los Angeles Times Book Prize in current interest, 1987, both for The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design; Michael Faraday Award, Royal Society of London, 1990; Nakayama Prize for Human Sciences, 1994; International Cosmos Prize, 1997; Kistler Prize, 2001; Richard Dawkins Award established in his honor, 2003; ranked number one of top 100 British public intellectuals list, Prospect magazine, 2004; D.Litt., University of St. Andrews, 1995.
The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1976, revised edition, 1989.
The Extended Phenotype: The Gene as the Unit of Selection, W. H. Freeman (New York, NY), 1982, revised edition, 1999.
(Editor) Oxford Surveys in Evolutionary Biology 1984, two volumes, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1985.
The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design, illustrated by Liz Pyle, Norton (New York, NY), 1986, reprinted with new introduction, 1996.
The Blind Watchmaker: An Evolution Simulation (computer software), Norton (New York, NY), 1988.
(Coeditor) The Tinbergen Legacy, Chapman & Hall (New York, NY), 1991.
River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, illustrated by Lalla Ward, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Climbing Mount Improbable, with original drawings by Lalla Ward, Norton (New York, NY), 1996.
Unweaving The Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1998.
(Editor, with Robin Kerrod) The Young Oxford Library of Science, eleven volumes, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2002.
A Devil's Chaplain: Selected Essays, edited by Latha Menon, Weidenfeld and Nicolson (London, England), 2003, published as A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2003.
(Editor, with Tim Folger), Great American Science and Nature Writing, 2003, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2003.
The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2004, published as The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life, Orion (London, England), 2004.
Honorary editor of Animal Behaviour, 1974–; contributing blogger to Huffington Post, 2005–.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A new book, The God Delusion; The Root of All Evil, a documentary for British television about the negative aspects of religion.
SIDELIGHTS: Richard Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. A respected zoologist and ethologist, Dawkins has "established himself as a biological guru" with his books detailing and expanding upon Darwinian theory, according to Times Literary Supplement contributor Stephen R. L. Clark. Seeing a decline in the popular acceptance of Darwin's theories by the turn of the twenty-first century, Dawkins "has been concerned to convince the literate public that they must now take evolutionary theory seriously as the context within which to think about ourselves and the world," wrote Clark. Dawkins involved himself in internal debates with fellow proponents of evolutionary theory, and acted as a firebrand in the more public debate regarding atheism versus religion.
With his 1976 work, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins introduced the term "meme," indicating a unit of evolutionary imitation and transmission similar to a gene which he claims is the engine of evolution. He thus became a spokesperson for the sociobiological theory of evolution in contrast to more traditional Darwinians such as Stephen Jay Gould. Dawkins has extended his arguments in subsequent works, such as The Extended Phenotype: The Gene as the Unit of Selection, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design, Climbing Mount Improbable, and The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution.
Dawkins has also become the defender of atheism in what he sees as an increasingly religious world. As Gordy Black noted in Salon.com, "Dawkins is the world's most famous out-of-the-closet living atheist. He is also the world's most controversial evolutionary biologist." Black went on to note: "Given his outspoken defense of Darwin, and natural selection as the force of life, Dawkins has assumed a new role: the religious right's Public Enemy No. 1." Similarly, Jim Holt, writing for Slate.com, called Dawkins a "champion of Darwinism and scourge of religion," Although some critics consider his theoretical explanations technical and involved, Dawkins strives to bring his theories to an audience of lay readers through comprehensible analogies and clear writing.
In The Selfish Gene Dawkins "gently and expertly debunks some of the favourite illusions of social biology about altruism," wrote Peter Medawar in the Spectator. The critic also remarked that the work is "a most skilful reformulation of the central problems of social biology in terms of the genetical theory of natural selection." "Building on a beautifully chosen set of analogies," described Douglas R. Hofstadter in the Washington Post Book World, "Dawkins shows how, in the end, spectacularly complex organizations can have the properties we attribute to ourselves, all as a consequence of aimless chemical reactions." Hofstadter further noted, "This is one of the coldest, most inhuman and disorienting views of human beings I have ever heard, and yet I love it! It is so deep an insight, to bridge the gap between the lifeless and the living, the chemical and the biological, the random and the teleological, the physical and the spiritual."
In contrast, John Pfeiffer found the significance of Dawkins's evolutionary theories elusive: "Dawkins is somewhat ambiguous when it comes to considering how all this applies to human beings," Pfeiffer wrote in the New York Times Book Review, adding that the author is "perhaps swayed by his own eloquence." Conversely, New York Times critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt thought Dawkins's writing more than adequate to his task: "It is not the theory of The Selfish Gene that is so arresting as the marvelous lucidity with which Mr. Dawkins applies it to various behavior mechanisms that have hitherto been misunderstood." Pfeiffer also admitted that Dawkins "demonstrates a rare and welcome ability to make formidably technical findings come alive." A New Yorker reviewer expressed a similar opinion: "What makes [The Selfish Gene] accessible is the brilliance and wit of Mr. Dawkins' style. It is a splendid example of how difficult scientific ideas can be explained by someone who understands them and is willing to take the trouble." In 1989 Dawkins produced a second edition of The Selfish Gene, that includes extensive new endnotes as well as two new chapters.
Of The Extended Phenotype, Dawkins once told CA: "I suppose most authors have one piece of work of which they would say 'It doesn't matter if you never read anything else of mine, please at least read this.' For me, it is The Extended Phenotype. In particular, the last four chapters constitute the best candidate for the title 'innovative' that I have to offer. The rest of the book does some necessary sorting out on the way."
Dawkins once again investigates aspects of Darwinian theory in The Blind Watchmaker. Lee Dembart of the Los Angeles Times called the work "a clear, logical, rational book that is the antidote to silliness." Dawkins "cuts through the nonsense about the origin and development of life and leaves it for dead," continued Dembart. "He demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that evolution is the only possible explanation for the world we see around us." In this work, Dawkins rebuts the argument that the complexity of life cannot be random, thus implying a designer or creator. The author uses Darwin's idea of small mutational variation to "demonstrate that it (and it alone) is competent to explain the enormous diversity of living things in all their extremes of complexity and specialization," wrote David Jones in the London Times. Jones found that The Blind Watchmaker, like the author's previous work, "is brilliant exposition, tightly argued but kept readable by plentiful recourse to analogies and examples."
Because of its controversial topic and method of exposition, The Blind Watchmaker inevitably drew its share of criticism. Steven Rose, writing in the New Statesman, found the author's work self-contradictory: "There is much which is good and not merely clever about this book. But Dawkins's greatest problem is his continual tendency to allow himself to be dragged over the top by the very vigour of his own writing." While Dawkins "provides an excellent account of why and how reductionism fails," remarked Rose, "… he can't resist beginning a chapter … [with] beautiful and fallacious writing, not only profoundly reductionist, but, as he would himself put it, 'deeply superficial.'" Clark not only disputed Dawkins's methods, he argued against his theory as well, claiming that the work lacks "any argument for the claim that the god of hard metaphysical theism either is or ought to be conceived as something inordinately complex." The critic continued: "Dawkins cannot simply ignore theological and philosophical discussion of what it would mean to speak of God's design, or God's existence."
While Clark disagreed with many of Dawkins's theories and faulted the author for omitting what he believed were important considerations, he still concluded that the book works on a specific level. "What Dawkins does successfully is very good: The Blind Watchmaker is as clear, as enthralling, as convincing an account of neo-Darwinian theory as I have read…. His opposition to dogmatic vivisectionists and his appreciation of the marvellous diversity and ingenuity of the world are very welcome." Dembart summarized his own impression of the work: "The book is beautifully and superbly written. It is completely understandable, but it has the cadence of impassioned speech. Every page rings of truth." The same critic continued, "It is one of the best science books—one of the best any books—I have ever read." Explaining the origin of this "passion" for truth, Dawkins remarked to Sarah Duncan in the London Times that his "early interest in evolution was really as a sort of alternative to religion, and an explanation for the way things are." Dawkins further noted that while "other biologists start out as bird watchers or bug hunters, I started with a curiosity about why things exist."
In Climbing Mount Improbable, which grew out of a series of televised talks by Dawkins, the author seeks to explain how natural selection produces complicated organs, with a primary focus on the eye. Assuming that the eye could not have resulted from evolution, he says, is like believing that it is impossible to reach the summit of an enormous mountain. But just as climbers have scaled the world's highest peaks one step at a time, Dawkins argues, this organ has evolved gradually and through many intermediate stages. He finds examples of these stages in a variety of animals and also uses computer programs to simulate evolutionary steps.
New York Times Book Review critic Valerius Geist thought Climbing Mount Improbable worth reading, but voiced some reservations. While Geist considered Dawkins "a skilled writer and a spellbinding storyteller," he added that the book contains "some painful oversimplification and a number of irritants." For instance, he contended that Dawkins ignores "an organism's ability to alter its physiology to accommodate changes in its environment—which normally thwarts natural selection on genes. Thus a false impression is conveyed that genes (mutations) generally produce the same results. They rarely do." Audubon contributor Frank Graham, Jr., deemed the book a useful "supplement" to Dawkins's other works. "Much of the argument in Climbing Mount Improbable repeats what Dawkins said, and said more to the point, in The Blind Watchmaker," Graham remarked. "Even the parable referred to in the title Climbing Mount Improbable—evolution's taking the slow, sure paths up the rear of a mountain rather than trying to surmount in one bound the steep frontal cliffs—is not handled as deftly as that of his 'watchmaker.'"
Scientist Stephen Jay Gould, like Dawkins a proponent of Darwin's ideas, also had a problem with the symbolism of Climbing Mount Improbable. "Dawkins devises the metaphor of Mount Improbable for the worthy purpose of convincing skeptics that evolution can fashion complex designs one step at a time, with continuous adaptation maintained throughout," Gould wrote in the journal Evolution. "But since evolution is the most contingent and pluralistic, the most irreducibly historic, of all major processes known to science, such imagery based on separation, linear causal chains, and predictable outcomes seems especially misleading in this field above all others. Shall we be satisfied with a primary image of populations as passive lumps, pushed by an external force called natural selection up peaks of a fixed landscape built by a firm of biomechanical engineers?" Gould answered his own question by saying, "Surely, we can do better," and he felt that in the last third of the book, Dawkins indeed does better, using the metaphor of a shell to explore how organisms adapt from within as well as in response to outside influences. However, the combination of this with the earlier material "produces a volume that cannot cohere in its overall logic of sequential presentation" and may confuse general readers, Gould contended.
Michael Behe, who has a very different view of evolution—he asserts that he is not a creationist, but does believe that "intelligent design" is responsible for the universe—thought Dawkins's defense of evolution unconvincing. "Lively prose can't disguise the fact that science hasn't a clue as to what might explain the development of life," Behe maintained in a National Review piece on Climbing Mount Improbable. Dawkins, Behe noted, has a hard time finding evidence that the eye evolved in Darwinian fashion because "the interactive complexity of life's machinery fits poorly with a theory of gradual development." But, he added, Dawkins "doesn't want the public to understand science so much as to understand that science … is in charge." In contrast, New Statesman commentator Jon Turney was sympathetic to Dawkins's views but felt the author is largely "preaching to the converted." For those readers, he said, "the relentless emphasis on persuasion grows a little tiresome. The parade of people who reject Darwin, only to be debunked, get in the way of the story." Some other reviewers found Dawkins's arguments valuable, though. Geist doubted that Dawkins could "change the mind of creationists and hostile physicists," but believed he "might dispel from receptive minds ignorant criticism of evolution. If so, his book will be of service to science and society." Graham declared that Climbing Mount Improbable "constantly reminds us that Charles Darwin's solution to how life developed from primal simplicity to wonderful complexity remains not only an unprecedented achievement in the history of thought but also the greatest story ever told."
Dawkins's 2003 title, A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love, is, according to Michael Ruse writing in the American Scientist, "literary ephemera: not real articles, or chapters, but bits and pieces—reviews, introductions to the books of others, eulogies, items in the popular press, and so forth." Ruse went on to explain, "On another level, however, Dawkins's collection is really interesting and does raise absolutely crucial issues." For Ruse, the unifying theme of the entire collection is "the crusade of nonbelief." In the book's seven sections Dawkins casts a critical eye on topics from postmodernism to the Virgin Mary, noting the propensity of religion to be a vehicle for evil rather than good. Ruse, who holds many of the same opinions as Dawkins, nonetheless wrote, "I would like to see Dawkins take Christianity as seriously as he undoubtedly expects Christianity to take Darwinism." Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, felt this collection "serves as a primer to Dawkins' interests and keenly rationalistic point of view." A contributor for Publishers Weekly commented that while "Dawkins will antagonize some readers by his attacks on religion," still his "enthusiasm for the diversity of life on this planet should prove contagious." Reviewing the same work in the New Republic, Simon Blackburn observed, "Dawkins unashamedly and gloriously delights in science. If anything is sacred to him, it is truth and the patient road to it." Blackburn noted that many of the essays in the collection "concern the interpretation of science, and the relationship between science and culture." For Blackburn, Dawkins "is a superb writer, and a great advocate for sanity, and an endlessly informative resource. He should be compulsory reading for school boards everywhere." George Wedd, writing in Contemporary Review, had a similar assessment of Dawkins and his essays, finding the author to be "a writer with a clear mind and a vigorous style, who knows a great deal and how to express it. He also has a strong sense of humour, which is latent even when he isn't trying to be witty." A critic for Kirkus Reviews called A Devil's Chaplain "a pleasure-inducing voyage into scientific principles."
With his 2004 work, The Ancestors Tale, Dawkins takes a more comprehensive view of evolution. He uses, as an organizing principle, a Chaucerian journey or pilgrimage backward in time, finding numerous different instances when the developmental path of humans touched upon or diverged from other species, such as amphibians, mammals, and primates. Each of these intersections provides an opportunity for a minilesson in evolutionary theory. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly thought "this clever approach to our extended family tree should prove a natural hit with science readers." Similarly, a contributor for Kirkus Reviews thought The Ancestor's Tale was "one of Dawkins' best: a big, almost encyclopedic compendium bursting with information and ideas," and Bryce Christensen, writing in Booklist, wrote, "Dawkins charts an impressive body of biological theory and research, sometimes speculatively but never obscurely" in this "lively and daring" book. Clive Cookson, writing in London's Financial Times, called the same work "one of the richest accounts of evolution ever written," while Steve Jones, writing in the Lancet, concluded that The Ancestor's Tale, "achieves the almost impossible: it makes biology (not biochemistry, brain science, or bird-watching, but biology as a whole) interesting again."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Scientist, November-December, 2003, Michael Ruse, "Through a Glass Darkly," review of A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love, p. 554.
Audubon, January-February, 1997, Frank Graham, Jr., review of Climbing Mount Improbable, p. 108.
Booklist, September 15, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of A Devil's Chaplain, p. 189; October 15, 2003, Gilbert Taylor, review of Great American Science and Nature Writing, 2003, p. 365; October 1, 2004, Bryce Christensen, review of The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, p. 289.
Contemporary Review, October, 2003, George Wedd, "The Devil and Professor Dawkins," review of A Devil's Chaplain, p. 247.
Entertainment Weekly, October 29, 2004, Annie Barrett, "Big Fat Book in 60 Seconds Flat," p. 75.
Evolution, June, 1997, Stephen Jay Gould, review of Climbing Mount Improbable, p. 1020.
Financial Times, September 18, 2004, Clive Cookson, "Primates on Parade," review of The Ancestor's Tale, p. 30.
First Things, August-September, 2004, Stephen M. Barr, review of A Devil's Chaplain, p. 25.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2003, review of A Devil's Chaplain, p. 1000; September 1, 2004, review of The Ancestor's Tale, p. 846.
Lancet, September 25, 2004, Steve Jones, "A Pilgrimage from Pliny to Powell via Platytpus," review of The Ancestor's Tale, p. 1117.
Library Journal, September 15, 2003, Garrett Eastman, review of A Devil's Chaplain, p. 88; September 15, 2004, Gregg Sapp, review of The Ancestor's Tale, p. 80.
Los Angeles Times, November 25, 1986, Lee Dembart, review of The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design.
National Review, October 14, 1996, Michael Behe, review of Climbing Mount Improbable. p. 83.
New Republic, December 1, 2003, Simon Blackburn, "The Ethics of Belief," review of A Devil's Chaplain, p. 29.
New Statesman, November 14, 1986, Steven Rose, review of The Blind Watchmaker, p. 29; April 26, 1996, Jon Turney, review of Climbing Mount Improbable, p. 35.
New Yorker, April 11, 1977, review of The Selfish Gene; September 9, 1996, Ian Parker, "Richard Dawkins's Evolution," p. 41.
New York Times, March 17, 1977, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of The Selfish Gene.
New York Times Book Review, February 27, 1977, John Pfeiffer, review of The Selfish Gene, p. 2; September 29, 1996, Valerius Geist, review of Climbing Mount Improbable.
Popular Science, November 1, 2004, Jonathan Keats, "The Canterbury Tales of Evolution," review of The Ancestor's Tale, p. 114.
Publishers Weekly, July 29, 2003, review of A Devil's Chaplain, p. 90; August 25, 2003, review of Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2003, p. 46; August 23, 2004, review of The Ancestor's Tale, p. 45.
School Science and Mathematics, February, 2005, John Eichinger, review of The Young Oxford Library of Science, p. 107.
Science News, November 13, 2004,review of The Ancestor's Tale, p. 319.
Scientist, June 21, 2004, "Richard Dawkins," p. 15.
Skeptic (Altadena, CA), spring, 2004, William Harwood, review of A Devil's Chaplain, p. 78.
Skeptical Inquirer, March-April, 2004, Chris Mooney, "Not Too Bright," p. 53.
Spectator, January 15, 1977, Peter Medawar, review of The Selfish Gene, p. 20; September 25, 2004, Mark Ridley, "The Pilgrim's Progress," review of The Ancestor's Tale, p. 58.
Times (London, England), October 3, 1986, David Jones, review of The Blind Watchmaker; December 11, 1986, Sarah Duncan, interview with Richard Dawkins.
Times Literary Supplement, February 4, 1977, C. D. Darlington, review of The Selfish Gene, p. 126; July 20, 1984, Davis Papineau, review of The Extended Phenotype: The Gene as the Unit of Selection, p. 799; September 26, 1986, Stephen R. L. Clark, review of The Blind Watchmaker, p. 1047.
Washington Post Book World, December 2, 1979, Douglas R. Hofstadter, review of The Selfish Gene.
BBC News Online, http://news.bbc.co.uk/ (August 18, 2005), "Q and A: Richard Dawkins."
Guardian Online, http://books.guardian.co.uk/ (June 21, 2003), Richard Dawkins, "The Future Looks Bright."
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (April 28, 2005), Gordy Black, "The Atheist."
Slate.com, http://www.slate.com/ (December 1, 2004), Jim Holt, "The Man behind the Meme: An Interview with Richard Dawkins."
World of Richard Dawkins Web site, http://www.simonyi.ox.ac.uk/dawkins (August 18, 2005).