Useful Notes: Richard Dawkins
"There's real poetry, in the real world. Science is the Poetry of Reality."Clinton Richard Dawkins (born March 26, 1941 in Nairobi, Kenya) 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. 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 any more. 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. 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'. Easily his more controversial move has been to post tweets giving his controversial views, given how many of them read, most notably the case involving blogger Rebecca Watson, an Uncomfortable Elevator Moment she details in a video, and Dawkins' not-so-charitable answer. Apart from this, there's also 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. He has also been coming under fire from allies because his use of Twitter leaves a great deal to be desired, such that even people who agree with the point he's trying to make tend to facepalm and try to dissuade him from repeating the mistake. 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 tallest 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 English accent. He's briefly mentioned in Ghost in the Shell: 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 Enemies of Reason
- 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 editions also include two new 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 of a creature's 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 antitheistic position 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 behaviors. 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 criticized), and encourages closeted atheists to come out, likening their plight to that of 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), bio-geographical 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.
- An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist (2013) - A remarkably honest and revealing autobiography which covers Dawkins' life up until the publication of The Selfish Gene.
- Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science (2015) - Another autobiography, this time covering Dawkins' career post Selfish Gene.
- 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 a quote from The Enemies of Reason.
The Trope Namer for:
The Trope Delusion:
- Anti Nihilist: Particularly in the beginning of Unweaving the Rainbow, in which he recounts the reactions many people had to his first book.
- First World Problems: Invoked in "Dear Muslima", as Dawkins' response to "Elevatorgate" in which feminist "Skepchick" Rebecca Watson said that an isolated elevator is not an appropriate context for asking someone out, and that doing so regardless made her uncomfortable.
- 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".
- 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.
- Nature Is Not Nice: In River Out of Eden, he famously wrote: "The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation."
- Magnum Opus Dissonance: While The God Delusion is Dawkins' best known work among the general public and The Selfish Gene secured him his place in the popular imagination, he considers The Extended Phenotype his most important contribution to scientific literature. The fact that it is much more scholarly compared to the rest of his works has made The Extended Phenotype his least-read book and its ideas haven't had the widespread recognition that things like "memes", religion being a "mind virus" and the idea of "the selfish gene" have.
- Measuring the Marigolds: Discussed in the ironically named Unweaving the Rainbow, which 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 he sees the world as full of wonders and a source of pleasure because he's a scientist.
- Mind Virus: His view of religion. Dawkins defines theism as a "delusion".
- Neologism: "Meme" was pretty successful. "Petwhac" was somewhat less so.
- Rape as Backstory: He revealed that he had been molested while a school boy by one of his teachers, but then angered other victims and their advocates by dismissing it as "mild." Still, he did say this was only his experience after criticism. Some later Twitter comments were not viewed favorably either (see the Quotes page).
- Voodoo Shark: He believes theism to be this, at least as far as explaining the origins of universe. He asserts that the existence of a creator is not a satisfactory scientific answer to the question of how the universe originated, as rather than simplifying and expanding our understanding of the universe, such an explanation simply raises more questions (who was the creator, what exactly is he/she/it like, how did they create the universe, etc.). The Other Wiki even has an article on this argument, which it calls the Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit.
- Quote Mine: Discussed in the introduction of The God Delusion, where Dawkins 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.