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Silver-level articleRichard Dawkins

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Richard Dawkins (b. 1941 as Clinton Richard Dawkins) is an evolutionary biologist, ethologist and author. As a consequence of his passionate defense of the theory of evolution, and his attacks on religion and superstition in general, he is known as "Darwin's Rottweiler". He held the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford from 1995 to 2008 (he was replaced by Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy).

He initially became known to the general public following the publication of his first book The Selfish Gene (1976). This popularized a gene-centric view of evolution which subsequently went on to become the mainstream view. This book also introduced the world to the idea of memes - a concept which went on to become a meme itself. Among his other best-selling books are The Extended Phenotype (1982), which talked about the way that phenotypic effects can extend beyond an organism's body and affect the surrounding environment, and The Blind Watchmaker (1986) which explains how natural selection works by small, incremental and cumulative steps, keeping what "works" (in terms of the usefulness for survival and reproduction of the genes comprising an organism) and discarding what does not. The title, The Blind Watchmaker is an obvious play on unguided evolution and William Paley's "watch" argument from design (Paley also receives extended attention in Dawkin's later book The God Delusion).

Since 1992 he has been married to the former actress Lalla Ward, with whom he has collaborated on several books. She has contributed artwork, and has also read audiobook versions of Dawkins' work. He has one daughter from a previous marriage.

According to the Brights movement website, Dawkins is also an enthusiastic Bright, and he expounded his reasons for this in an article in the British newspaper The Guardian.[1]

Contents

Career and qualifications - highlights

Professor Richard Dawkins

Dawkins was an Assistant Professor of Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley from 1967 to 1969. In 1970 he was appointed a Lecturer, and ten years later he was appointed a Reader in Zoology at Oxford University. (For readers from the USA a "Reader" in a British university is approximately equivalent to an "Associate Professor" or "Full Professor" in the US.)

In 1995, he was appointed Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. This position was 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. (A fellow is part of the governing body of the university.)

Education, positions and degrees

For completeness his full academic career is shown below.

  • 1954-1959 Oundle School
  • 1959-1962 Balliol College, Oxford University
  • 1962-1966 Research Student, Oxford University (D.Phil., 1966)
  • 1965-1967 Research Assistant to Professor N.Tinbergen FRS
  • 1967-1969 Assistant Professor of Zoology, University of California, Berkeley
  • 1969-1970 Senior Research Officer, Department of Zoology, Oxford
  • 1970-1990 University Lecturer (US: Adjunct Professor) in Zoology, and Fellow of New College, Oxford
  • 1989 D.Sc. (Oxford)
  • 1990-1995 Reader in Zoology (US: "Associate Professor" or "Full Professor"), Oxford University
  • 1995-2008 Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science,University of Oxford, and Professorial Fellow of New College[2]

Dawkins and religion

Dawkins' treatment of evolution has frequently been the target of less literate Christian fundamentalists. In his book The God Delusion, (2006) he outraged the religious establishment by counterattacking in their own back yard.

Dawkins takes extreme exception to Stephen Jay Gould's ideas of Non-Overlapping Magisteria. He points out that God either exists or he does not and that statements about his existence or non-existence can be tested by the scientific method in the same way as any other statement.

He also went out of his way to suggest that religious teaching could be considered as a form of child abuse.

While many have praised the book, some theological academics have criticized the book because they feel that he has not mastered their terms of art. Dawkins has responded by saying: "Most of us happily disavow fairies, astrology, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster without first immersing ourselves in books of Pastafarian theology etc. "[3]

Perhaps surprisingly for some, Dawkins does not explicitly state that God does not exist. Instead he uses the example of Russell's Teapot to highlight the extreme improbability of the existence of God. As he points out, absolutely proving the non-existence of anything is very difficult and consequently we should assume that God has the same probability of existence as fairies at the bottom of the garden. That is, they are something not completely and utterly impossible, but so wildly improbable that we can operate under the working assumption that they do not exist.

The God Delusion: support and criticism

See the main article on this topic: The God Delusion

There has been quite a bit of controversy surrounding The God Delusion. Most criticism has come from religious fundamentalists and does not warrant repeating - most of it is fairly unimaginative to the point where Dawkins addresses such critics in the preface paperback edition of the book. More cogent criticism has involved two particular issues: The form of the message, and the content of the message.

In form, Dawkins' message on atheism is quite abrasive to many - despite insistence by both him and his supporters that he's actually quite mild mannered ("shrill" gets mentioned a lot, but no video evidence of Dawkins making odd noises has yet been uncovered). This aggression is not necessarily a bad thing as it does no more than echo the passion of religious fundamentalists that most people take in stride, but his direct and uncompromising approach has alienated many others who fight unreason; especially those who are not atheists, and those who approve of the concept of Non-Overlapping Magisteria. In content, many have argued that he is not the finest philosopher of atheism, and that his work contains many inconsistencies and poor examples. Specifically, he's repeatedly accused of over-simplifying The Troubles in Northern Ireland, which he reduces to a simple religious feud between Roman Catholics and Protestants. However, the book in general is accessible to the public at large, which cannot be said of many of the great philosophical atheist works (or most philosophy in general).

Dawkins' critics were brilliantly parodied in an article which pretended to criticize the non-existent book The Fascism Delusion.[4]

The Pope

Dawkins spoke at the Protest the Pope Rally in London during the visit of Benedict in 2010:

He is an enemy of truth, promoting barefaced lies about condoms not protecting against AIDS, especially in Africa. He is an enemy of the poorest people on the planet, condemning them to inflated families that they cannot feed, and so keeping them in the bondage of perpetual poverty. A poverty that sits ill with the obscene riches of the Vatican.
Richard Dawkins' speech at Protest the Pope march transcribed here.

Dawkins and pseudoscience

Dawkins is no less critical of pseudoscience than he is of religion. He recently made his views known about faith healers, psychic mediums, angel therapists, "aura photographers", astrologers, tarot card readers and water diviners, and claimed that Britain is gripped by "an epidemic of superstitious thinking".[5]

Root of All Evil?

See the main article on this topic: Root of All Evil?

Root of All Evil? is a television documentary by Dawkins, and is essentially the film version of his book The God Delusion. The title was forced upon the show by its producers at Channel 4 and the question mark at the end was a concession to Dawkins.

The first part, titled "The God Delusion", explored the beliefs of religion and their conflicts with science, while in the second part, "The Virus Of Faith", he brought in the theory of the meme to explain religions, making them akin to viruses, and explored the moral implications of religious belief. The programme also included an interview with Ted Haggard where Haggard's wingnuttery is shown off quite nicely, threatening Dawkins for "calling his children animals", i.e., mentioning evolution.

The programme, naturally, received predictably mixed reviews. Religious proponents accusing Dawkins of everything from journalistic dishonesty to concentrating on the bad aspects of religion, whilst ignoring the potential good. On the other hand, Dawkin's fans and anyone happy to see potshots taken at the church on mainstream TV loved it.

Quotes

  • “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”
  • "If you are in possession of this revolutionary secret of science, why not prove it and be hailed as the new Newton? Of course, we know the answer. You can't do it. You are a fake."
  • "The universe is a strange and wondrous place. The truth is quite odd enough to need no help from pseudoscientific charlatans."
  • "Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence."
  • “We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”
  • “Nearly all peoples have developed their own creation myths, and the Genesis story is just the one that happened to have been adopted by one particular tribe of Middle Eastern herders. It has no more special status than the belief of a particular West African tribe that the world was created from the excrement of ants.”
  • "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."
  • "A mind like that of a Young Earth creationist, it seems to me, is a disgrace to the human species."

Criticism of Dawkins

Dawkins' outspoken views on religion have earned him many knee-jerk criticisms from religious apologists and non-religious persons alike. With the high regard in which religious belief is held,[6] openly and directly attacking religion has seen Dawkins break one of the greatest taboos still in existence in the western world. Most critics concentrate on his divisive approach to the subject: he is generally seen to reject all theistic views, even when they support his own on evolution or secularism, and his dismissal of all the claimed good aspects of religion, which Dawkins either believes are non-existent or completely irrelevant. In The God Delusion, Dawkins spends most of the introduction of the book addressing potential critics, predicting their arguments quite accurately and putting forward his own counter-arguments.

The criticism of Dawkins and general anti-Dawkins attitudes manifest in many ways, from homemade You-Tube videos to the completely ad hominem "article" on him found on Conservapedia. In September 2008, a Turkish court banned internet users from viewing the official Richard Dawkins website after Harun Yahya, a Muslim creationist, claimed its contents were defamatory and blasphemous.[7]

Dawkins and fellow evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson have also debated over The God Delusion and studying religion scientifically in the pages of Skeptic magazine.[8][9]

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach accuses Dawkins of comparing him to Hitler. Dawkins responds.

The "11 second pause"

One of the more famous incidents that Dawkins has been involved in was during an interview in 1997 where he paused for 11 seconds after being asked to answer the question "can you give one example of a mutation that increases information in the genome?" Creationists happily seized on the video as "smoking gun" proving evolution was a hoax; one of its key proponents stumped on a simple question![10] Dawkins has since gone on record explaining that this pause was because he suddenly realised he had been tricked into an interview with creationists - something he doesn't do as policy as such interviews can be used to give cranks credibility.

Most creationists take the pause to be genuine proof that Dawkins doesn't know what he is talking about and evolution is false and that his reasonings for not interviewing creationists are just any old excuses to dodge their question. CreationWiki claims that he still hasn't answered the initial question. Anyone familiar with information theory and the average creationist tactics and straw man based arguments should be able to figure out this answer, its certainly not the simple soundbite they were looking for. Of course Dawkins has answered, and the entire response can be found on Australian Skeptics.[11]

Gender politics

Richard Dawkins has always been a strong supporter of women's rights and a vocal opponent of the treatment of women by religion,[12] and thus was generally popular with feminists. However, in that position he emphasized the religion more than the women, which (coupled with the fact of his own gender) meant that he was fated at some point to tangle with the true feminists.

In July 2011, Rebecca Watson, the founder of Skepchick, who had been recently making the rounds at skeptic and atheist conferences arguing (based on some sexist e-mails) that misogyny was rampant in the atheist movement,[13] published a video blog in which she spoke of an awkward man who had hit on her as they made their drunken way back from a bar late at night, and how that had made her uncomfortable and "sexualized."[14] She quoted Mr. Awkward as saying: "Don't take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?"[15] Only Watson knows what this man's body language was like. Outsiders like Dawkins or the extreme feminists cannot judge whether she had reason to feel sexualised or uncomfortable when she was alone in an elevator with a man whose advances she did not want.

No one really cared immediately, except for two other female atheists who defended the male practice of propositioning women.[16][17] Even this did not cause anyone else to care. However, a week later at a Center for Inquiry conference attended by one of her critics, while on stage Watson mocked her and and accused her of "parroting misogynistic thought."

Some felt this was unfair,[18] but PZ Myers, a friend of Watson's, would later write a blog post on the subject in which he would defend Watson and argued that Watson's experience was definitely proof of great sexism in the atheist movement.[19] The post's comment thread was full of trolling and hysterics; when Richard Dawkins weighed in with a comment, it was a satirical letter headed "Dear Muslima," which tried to put Watson's experience in perspective by drawing a comparison with such extreme practices as female genital mutilation.[20]

Things generally devolved from there. Dawkins was repeatedly called a misogynist,[21][22][23] and Rebecca Watson called for a boycott of his books and lectures.[24] A lot of big names, attempting to show off their feminist credentials, came out in support of Watson. The opinion of the lowly peon commenters was mixed, and sometimes quite sexist. Everyone agreed it was an overreaction, but blamed the opposite side.

In the aftermath, Dawkins agreed to provide childcare at future atheist meetings just to get everyone to shut up, a move praised by some commenters.[25]

Gene-centered view of evolution

Dawkins has been an ardent defender of the gene-centered view of evolution. He has debated this issue with many other scientists and thinkers, perhaps most famously Stephen Jay Gould. Gould and Dawkins battled over a number of topics including the gene-centered view as well as punctuated equilibrium and approaches to cultural evolution such as evolutionary psychology. Gould penned a screed against Dawkins and a number of other thinkers accusing them of "Darwinian Fundamentalism."[26][27] Ernst Mayr has also argued in favor of the individual being the most important level of selection, calling the gene-centered view "non-Darwinian."[28] Philosopher of science Mary Midgley has criticized Dawkins' use of the "selfish gene" metaphor.[29]

Why the forum was closed

In October 2010 Dawkins claimed that Josh Timonen, the former moderator of RD Net had embezzled $375,000 from the online store he operated for Dawkins' charity. [30]

Books published

Richard Dawkins has published a vast range of material. His books are:

  • The Selfish Gene (1976)
  • The Extended Phenotype (1982)
  • The Blind Watchmaker (1986)
  • River Out of Eden (1995)
  • Climbing Mount Improbable (1996)
  • Unweaving the Rainbow (1997)
  • A Devil’s Chaplain (2003)
  • The Ancestor’s Tale (2004)
  • The God Delusion (2006)
  • The Greatest Show on Earth (2009)
  • The Magic of Reality (2011)

See also

External links

Footnotes

  1. http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,12084,981412,00.html
  2. 2007 version of CV
  3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBaAJcv7Vxg
  4. The Valve - Review of The Fascism Delusion
  5. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/08/05/newage105.xml
  6. And I respect that.
  7. Creationist Turkey savages Dawkins
  8. Beyond Demonic Memes: Why Dawkins is Wrong About Religion, David Sloan Wilson, eSkeptic
  9. Richard Dawkins Replies to David Sloan Wilson, Richard Dawkins, eSkeptic
  10. This video sums up the situation quite nicely.
  11. Richard Dawkins - The Information Challenge
  12. http://www.secularism.org.uk/dawkinssayswomenwilldefeatmilita.html
  13. Hemant Mehta. "A Fantastic Response to Elevatorgate".
  14. "Sexualized," you understand, being a synonym for "negative" and/or "dirty."
  15. Rebecca Watson's vlog
  16. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfA5AZutpCs&feature=player_embedded
  17. Stef McGraw
  18. http://malimar.livejournal.com/412658.html
  19. http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/07/always_name_names.php
  20. Pharyngula: [http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/07/always_name_names.php#comment-4295492 Dawkins' comment on the "Always name names" thread"
  21. http://twitter.com/#!/amygroark/status/88644513786114048
  22. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6WlkQeG7cw
  23. http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address=214x293746
  24. http://gawker.com/5818993/richard-dawkins-torn-limb-from-limbby-atheists
  25. "Dawkins coup de grâce in Vegas".
  26. Darwinian Fundamentalism, Gould's article in the New York Review of Books. See also replies to the original article in Darwinian Fundamentalism: An Exchange.
  27. See Kim Sterelny's Dawkins vs. Gould for a book-length account of their debates.
  28. Ernst Mayr: What Evolution Is, edge.org
  29. Midgley-Dawkins Debate, Wikipedia
  30. Courthouse news service
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