Richard Dawkins: A Biography
May 1, 2009
Clinton Richard Dawkins (born March 26, 1941, in Nairobi, Kenya) is a bestselling atheist popularizer of Darwinian evolutionary theory and its counter-religious implications. His scientific field is ethology, the study of animal behavior.
The most readily recognizable figure in the Darwin debate, Dawkins retired in 2008 as Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, a position he held from 1995, by which time he had effectively discontinued his career as a publishing research scientist. His curriculum vitae gives no record of original, peer-reviewed scientific publications since 1994. His best known books include The Selfish Gene (1976), The Extended Phenotype (1982), The Blind Watchmaker (1986), and The God Delusion (2006). The last of these, widely influential and controversial, has sold 1.5 million copies in its English-language edition and been translated into 31 other languages.
He is currently married to the actress Lalla Ward and has a daughter, Juliet Emma Dawkins, from an earlier marriage.
Dawkins’ feelings about God are well summarized by a passage in The God Delusion in which he decries the Scriptural Divinity as “arguably the most unpleasant character in 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.”
Dawkins traces his atheistic beliefs to his childhood in England, where by his middle teenage years he was already convinced that the “argument from design” for God’s existence had been overthrown by Darwinian theory. His subsequent views on religion all follow from that realization and, according to critics, do not, in terms of sophistication, go very substantially beyond it. Dawkins is praised by friends and foes alike as a gifted science writer, a fact about him that may help explain his effectiveness as an ambassador for scientific atheism.
While functioning as Darwinism’s chief public spokesman, Dawkins takes what some regard as a paradoxical stance against public debate when there is a possibility that doubts about Darwinian theory may be aired. He personally refuses to debate the truth of Darwinian evolution, though Darwin’s defeat the design hypothesis is the premise of almost all Dawkins’ later activist writing on behalf of atheism. On one occasion, at almost the last moment, he backed out of a 2005 debate on National Public Radio with George Gilder upon being informed that Gilder, a Discovery Institute Senior Fellow, argues for intelligent design.
Politically, Dawkins has long been on the Left, going back to his teaching days as an assistant professor of zoology at U.C. Berkeley in 1967-69, when he joined in student anti-war demonstrations. He favors extending legal rights to Great Apes, saying that humanity’s failure to do so gives evidence of a “discontinuous, speciesist imperative.”
He has compared religious belief to the smallpox virus, regretting only that smallpox was much easier to eradicate.
In The Blind Watchmaker, his target was what he regards as the illusion of design in nature. The book includes his often quoted declaration that “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”
While arguing against what he regards as the massive improbability of God’s existence may appear to be the major conclusion of Dawkins’s writing and speaking, on closer inspection many critics believe he takes divine non-existence as something closer to a premise.
In The God Delusion, the argument turns on whether God if He exists would have to be “complex.” Dawkins says He would have to be, and therefore would require Something even more complex than He is to explain His existence, leading to a hopeless infinite regress of complex deities all required to explain each others’ existence. But as the philosopher Alvin Plantinga notes, attributing such complexity to God as Dawkins does (in contrast with traditional theism, which hold God to be supremely simple) makes sense only given a premise of materialism. But materialism itself entails the nonexistence of a nonmaterial being such as God. So the argument is circular.
Others have wondered to what degree a will to disbelieve in religion drives Dawkins’ scientific thought, as opposed to atheism’s being the product of scientific inquiry as he himself maintains. Thus he is willing to embrace improbable if not laughable beliefs— for example, in space aliens—if they will save him from having to admit the possibility of religion’s truth. In an interview with lawyer and entertainer Ben Stein in the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008), Dawkins granted that the first life could indeed have been intelligently designed—only, not by God:
“Well, it could come about in the following way. It could be that at some earlier time, somewhere in the universe, a civilization evolved, probably by some kind of Darwinian means, probably to a very high level of technology, and designed a form of life that they seeded onto perhaps this planet. Now, um, now that is a possibility, and an intriguing possibility. And I suppose it's possible that you might find evidence for that if you look at the details of biochemistry, molecular biology, you might find a signature of some sort of designer.”
At the same time, Dawkins differs from some other Darwinian advocates in frankly asserting that no reconciliation is possible between Darwinian theory and theistic belief. In Expelled, he criticizes other Darwinists for their lack of sincerity and honesty: “There’s a kind of science defense lobby or an evolution defense lobby, in particular. They are mostly atheists, but they are wanting to—desperately wanting—to be friendly to mainstream, sensible religious people. And the way you do that is to tell them that there’s no incompatibility between science and religion….If they called me as a witness, and a lawyer said, ‘Dr. Dawkins, has your belief in evolution, has your study of evolution turned you toward [atheism]?’ I would have to say yes. And that is the worst possible thing I could say for winning you that court case. So people like me are bad news for...the science lobby, the evolution lobby.”
Dawkins’ next book will be The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, appearing at the end of September 2009.
Resources for Further Information:WebsitesOfficial Richard Dawkins Website
Books David Berlinski, The Devil’s DelusionHahn and Wiker, Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins’ Case Against GodJohn Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?
ArticlesLogan Gage, “Deconstructing Dawkins”Logan Gage, “Dawkins Attacks Behe in New York Times, But Where’s the Science?”Logan Gage, “Who Wrote Richard Dawkins’ New Book?”Bruce Gordon, “The Divine Comedy: Dawkins’ Disco Inferno”Casey Luskin, “A Response to Dr. Dawkins’ ‘The Information Challenge’”Casey Luskin, “Richard Dawkins Misrepresents Position of Intelligent Design Proponents on the Identity of the Designer”John West, “Dawkins Flip-Flops on Link between Darwinism and Fascism”John West, “Richard Dawkins Compares Rabbi to Hitler, Then Refuses to Apologize”Jonathan Witt, “Dawkins Eye-Con of Evolution Unravels”
Audio and VideoVIDEO: Richard Dawkins and John Lennox Debate the God Delusion
VIDEO: Ben Stein vs. Richard Dawkins
VIDEO: The Dawkins Delusion
AUDIO: Richard Dawkins and the Death of Jesse Kilgore
AUDIO: Dawkins’ Anti-Religious Crusade
AUDIO: Deconstructing Dawkins
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