"There's real poetry, in the real world. Science is the Poetry of Reality.
— The Enemies of Reason
Richard Dawkins (born in 1941 as Clinton Richard Dawkins) is an evolutionary biologist and an outspoken atheist
who, in addition to his work in biology, is also critical of religion and religious people, as well as of supernaturalism, superstition and alternative medicine. He has written and presented several documentaries on British television, has written a number of books, and gave the Royal Society Christmas Lectures in 1991.
Of his works to date, Richard Dawkins is best known for The Selfish Gene
, a book on evolutionary biology from a gene-centred perspective, the two-part documentary Root of all Evil?
, and his 2006 book The God Delusion
. In the latter, he presents a case against the idea of a theistic god and criticises the attitudes and behaviours of religious practitioners. The book was not the first criticising religion, and it was not the first time that Dawkins had done so in his works, but it has attracted much attention to the point where it tends to eclipse all his other work
, and is seen as a rallying cry and at least partially responsible for the recent atheist uprising.
In The Selfish Gene
, he coined the word "meme
" to discuss how culture is transmitted, by analogy with genes and with mimesis
. Interestingly enough, a rival coinage, culturogen, was coined at roughly the same time, but by a process of memetic competition
the word meme became more popular and the word culturogen is almost never used anymore. Although he often refers to it, he admits his initial coinage was not a serious cultural theory but was mostly used to make an illustrative point about his theory of replicators.
His style of presentation, both written and spoken, makes hearing what he has to say both easy to understand and easy on the ears. Despite being accused of being a militant atheist
, his modus operandi is to vocally criticise religious (and superstitious) ideas and practices. He relies primarily on public campaigns to raise awareness, most notably funding the atheist bus slogan campaign: buses were sent out in London bearing on their sides the slogan 'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life'. He has asked whether atheists should take the gloves off against religion
, but has since remained largely quiet.
This sort of thing is usually done alongside his work promoting scientific understanding among the general public, which was his role as Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University (a position that he held from 1995 to 2008, when the mandatory retirement age rules of the University forced him to retire,) Oxford also being the place where he studied. More recently, he campaigned during the Pope visit to Britain to have the Pope arrested on suspicion of conspiring with other levels of the Church to cover up child abuse scandals, and he supported the Singh side of the Singh vs. Chiropody controversy.
Needless to say, his passionate advocacy of atheism, his contempt of religion, particularly monotheism, as a "Virus of the Mind", and his tendency to host comments like "Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings" on his website ticks a lot of people off. Dawkins argues that he's just stating the truth as he sees it.
In July '11, he unexpectedly became the target of another group: When the blogger "skepchick" Rebecca Watson had an Uncomfortable Elevator Moment
at an atheist conference in Dublin. She made a video
about it, how uncomfortable she felt, and Dawkins' answer
in deep Sarcasm Mode
(oppressed muslimas shouldn't complain, western women are asked out in elevators
!) created trouble in the blogosphere.
He played himself in a news clip in the Doctor Who
story "The Stolen Earth". He's also married to Lalla Ward, who played the second Romana in that show. The two met via Douglas Adams
(who was writing the show at the same time Lalla Ward was starring in it), who Dawkins referred to as "possibly my only convert".South Park
made fun of him in the 2-Part Episode Go God Go
, and the only aspect of it he complained about was that they didn't give him a proper British accent
He's briefly mentioned in Stand Alone Complex
(as one of the writers which one of the Tachikoma has been reading up on, The Selfish Gene
is specifically mentioned).
- The Selfish Gene (1976) - Dawkins discusses the gene-centred evolutionary theory, using it to explain both competitive and cooperative behaviour between individual organisms. More recent additions also include two chapters: one is derived from the TV programme 'Nice Guys Finish First' (see below), the other develops the idea of the Extended Phenotype, which was expanded upon in the book of the same name.
- The Extended Phenotype (1982) - Dawkins discusses the idea that animal behavior and its impact on the environment is as much part an creatures phenotype as its physical body. Dawkins considers this his most significant and best scientific work.
- The Blind Watchmaker (1986) - Dawkins explores evolution and examines in significant scientific detail the various criticisms of neo-darwinian evolutionary theory. This book mostly addresses rival scientific theories to evolution such as Lamarkism and Mutationism, although religion is discussed in passing.
- River Out of Eden (1995) - Dawkins retreads the themes of the Blind Watchmaker, but this time aimed at a more general audience and dealing more explicitly with religious criticism of evolution.
- Climbing Mount Improbable (1996) - Dawkins attacks a specific criticism of evolution by explaining how complex structures can evolve in small steps, using the analogy of a mountain with a sheer cliff on one side and a gentle slope on the other.
- Unweaving the Rainbow (1998) - Dawkins challenges the notion that science is deadening and claims it can, and does, have poetic beauty. He also deconstructs and criticises claims for the supernatural, pointing out specific cases such as paranormalist TV shows and astrology, showing instead how more scientific explanations can be amazing, too.
- A Devil's Chaplain (2003) - A collection of essays written by Dawkins. The subjects range from the obvious topics of evolution and religion to more eclectic issues such as musings on the trial by jury system and two eulogies for Douglas Adams.
- The Ancestor's Tale (2004) - Dawkins summarizes all of human evolution in forty chapters. Starting with the most recent split between us various extinct humanoid "species" and ending with the beginning of life, each chapter details the "meeting" of humans and their increasingly large family with the organisms that split off at that approximate date. This includes a guess at the appearance of the most recent common ancestor ("Concestor") of these two groups and a tale about a particular aspect of evolution that has to do with the meeting somehow.
- The God Delusion (2006) - Easily his most controversial book, not least of all because of its anti-theistic stance and often informal tone. Dawkins deconstructs the concept of a supernatural creator expressed in his God hypothesis (his main target is monotheism) using rational arguments, while deconstructing rival arguments, before answering questions such as how religion might have originated, how it came to be so influential, whether we really derive our morality from it or not (also offering Alternate Character Interpretation to depict Yahweh as evil), and how it can lead to damaging behaviours. He also explicitly sets out to endorse the atheistic point of view, tackles the social roles of religion (and suggests alternatives), raises awareness of religious extremism (though mainstream religion is also heavily criticised), and encourages closet atheists to come out, likening their plight to that of the homosexuals in the late 20th century.
- The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing (2008) - Edited by Dawkins. A collection of 83 scientific essays written by a wide range of 20th and 21st century scientists and science writers.
- The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (2009) - Dawkins outlines the evidence for evolutionary theory, such as domestic breeding and agriculture, the arms race relationships between organisms, anatomical and molecular comparison, the fossil record (including that of humans), biogeographical distribution and longitudinal studies.
- The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True (2011) - A book aimed at a younger audience, with illustrations by Dave McKean. Each chapter covers a different question (e.g. "Why are there so many different kinds of animals?", "What is a rainbow?", "What are things made of?"), starting off by listing a selection of mythological answers to those questions before going on to give the scientific explanation.
- Nice Guys Finish First (1987) - A documentary that analysed how cooperative behaviours could not only come about but also benefit in the long term, using a combination of case studies and the Prisoner's Dilemma in game theory. The notes on this programme were later adapted for a new edition of The Selfish Gene.
- The Blind Watchmaker (1987)
- Growing Up in the Universe (1991)
- Break the Science Barrier (1996)
- The Root of All Evil? (2006)
- The Enemies of Reason (2007)
- The Genius of Charles Darwin (2008)
- Faith School Menace (2010)
- Symphony Of Science: Quotes from Dawkins' documentaries are common. The 5th song, "The Poetry of Reality" is named after the quote at the top of this page.
Tropes that apply to Dawkins. Tread lightly:
- Anti Nihilist: Particularly in the beginning of Unweaving the Rainbow, in which he recounts the reactions many people had to his first book.
- Agent Scully: Of course.
- Dawkins even criticized X-Files itself as an example of pop culture endorsing of superstitions and obscurantism. He argues that the show systematically presents a one-sided view of the world, making an anvilicious aesop "between a rational and a supernatural explanation of some mystery, it's supernatural which is always right". His analogue is a detective show where Agent Mulder is always biased towards the black suspects and Agent Scully biased towards the white. And week after week, the black suspect turns out to have done it.
- Create Your Own Villain: For the first two decades of his career as an author, Dawkins was basically a scientist writing about evolution for other scientists and knowledgeable laymen. 1996's River out of Eden was his first "coffee table" book intended for a more general audience, however he had already been singled out by creationist writers for vilification as an arch-atheist. It would be a further ten years before Dawkins picked up the gauntlet with the publication of The God Delusion.
- Deadpan Snarker: And HOW!
"[Pope John Paul II] suffered an assassination attempt in Rome, and attributed his survival to intervention by Our Lady of Fatima: 'A maternal hand guided the bullet'. One cannot help but wonder why she didn't guide it to miss him altogether.
Others might think the team of surgeons who operated on him for six hours deserved at least a share of the credit, but perhaps their hands too were maternally guided. The relevant point is that it wasn't just "Our Lady" who in the Pope's opinion guided the bullet, but specifically Our Lady of Fatima. Presumably Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Guadeloupe, Our Lady of Medjugorje, Our Lady of Akita, Our Lady of Zeitoun, Our Lady of Garabandal, and Our Lady of Knock, were busy on other errands at the time."
- Once in his book he quoted Aquinas about how the punishment of the damned should entertain saints in heaven and replied: "Nice man." This isn't much, but the audiobook recitation was especially comedic, where he used beat to great comedic effect.
- In response to the canard that evolution is "just a theory": "Gravity is a theory. It is also a fact. Anyone who disagrees is invited to jump out a tenth storey window."
- The Dreaded: Called "Darwin's Rottweiler" by detractors, joining "Darwin's Bulldog", Thomas Huxley. Ironically, he's generally soft-spoken and calm even in the middle of a debate with a religious opponent.
- First World Problems: "Dear Muslima", written in response to "Elevatorgate" in which Rebecca Watson complained that a man hit on her in an elevator.
- Fun with Acronyms: He calls strong agnosticism "Permanent Agnosticism in Practice" a page after quoting a priest condemning agnostics as "mushy-pap fence-sitters". Apparently it's "(almost) accidental".
- Hard On Soft Science: He doesn't think much of fields where repeatable tests are not possible, theology is one of his favorite targets.
- Literary Allusion Title: Unweaving the Rainbow from John Keats' Lamia; The Ancestor's Tale as a Shout Out to Chaucer. River Out of Eden might also count.
- Magnum Opus Dissonance: Dawkins considers The Extended Phenotype his most important contribution to scientific literature, but it's his least-read book and the concept itself hasn't had the widespread recognition that things like "memes", religion being a "mind virus" and the idea of "the selfish gene" have..
- The key words here is "scientific". Sure, God Delusion is his best known work among the general public, but the ideas from Selfish Gene, further developed in The Extended Phenotype have indeed revolutionized certain areas of biology and opened tons of ways for further exploration (while not necessarily being 100% right on their own).
- Measuring the Marigolds: The ironically named "Unweaving the Rainbow" addresses the idea that science and art are at odds. Dawkins was accused of this in response to some of his books, so he put this out there to explain that sees the world as full of wonders and a source of pleasure because he's a scientist.
- Mind Virus: His views on religion, and one of the main reasons he gets criticized.
- Neologism: "Meme" was pretty successful. "Petwhac" was somewhat less so.
- Precision F-Strike: Dawkins reads his hate (e)mail: http://youtube.com/watch?v=-ZuowNcuGsc
- Quote Mine: Dawkins is frequently the victim of this. In the introduction to The God Delusion, he goes to the trouble of pointing out when he himself does it - directly addressing the fact that others have quote-mined him with less honesty - and then explains the context more fully, with a Lampshade Hanging to boot.
- Shout Out: Guess which page number the first Douglas Adams quote in The God Delusion is on.
- Social Darwinist: Averted. While his original theory of Memetic Mutation is basically applying natural selection to society and culture as a whole (in this context, memes that are more adaptive, imitable and easily spread will pass on more from person to person, like how in original Darwinian selection those that have traits that are more adaptive to their environment will be more likely to reproduce), he's very likely to be one of the biologists who will get annoyed if you ever accuse them of being advocates of "survival of the fittest" in political circles.
- This Is for Emphasis, Bitch!: On the subject of science: It works...bitches