Note: Dawkins aaconf // Deschner Dawkins // Ariane Sherine and Richard Dawkins at the Atheist Bus Campaign launch
In his scientific work in evolutionary biology, Dawkins is best known for his popularisation of the gene as the principal unit of selection in evolution; this view is most clearly set out in his books:
- The Selfish Gene (1976), in which he notes that "all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities".
- The Extended Phenotype (1982), in which he describes natural selection as "the process whereby replicators out-propagate each other". He introduces to a wider audience the influential concept he presented in 1977 that the phenotypic effects of a gene are not necessarily limited to an organism's body, but can stretch far into the environment, including the bodies of other organisms. Dawkins regarded the extended phenotype as his single most important contribution to evolutionary biology and he considered niche construction to be a special case of extended phenotype. The concept of extended phenotype helps explain evolution, but it does not actually help predict specific outcomes.
Dawkins has consistently been sceptical about non-adaptive processes in evolution (such as spandrels, described by Gould and Lewontin) and about selection at levels "above" that of the gene. He is particularly sceptical about the practical possibility or importance of group selection as a basis for understanding altruism. This behaviour appears at first to be an evolutionary paradox, since helping others costs precious resources and decreases one's own fitness. Previously, many had interpreted this as an aspect of group selection: individuals are doing what is best for the survival of the population or species as a whole. British evolutionary biologist W. D. Hamilton used gene-frequency analysis in his inclusive fitness theory to show how hereditary altruistic traits can evolve if there is sufficient genetic similarity between actors and recipients of such altruism (including close relatives).Daniel Dennett; Dennett has promoted a gene-centred view of evolution and defended reductionism in biology. Despite their academic disagreements, Dawkins and Gould did not have a hostile personal relationship, and Dawkins dedicated a large portion of his 2003 book A Devil's Chaplain posthumously to Gould, who had died the previous year.
When asked if Darwinism informs his everyday apprehension of life, Dawkins says, "in one way it does. My eyes are constantly wide open to the extraordinary fact of existence. Not just human existence but the existence of life and how this breathtakingly powerful process, which is natural selection, has managed to take the very simple facts of physics and chemistry and build them up to redwood trees and humans. That's never far from my thoughts, that sense of amazement. On the other hand I certainly don't allow Darwinism to influence my feelings about human social life," implying that he feels that individual human beings can opt out of the survival machine of Darwinism since they are freed by the consciousness of self.
Fathering the meme
In his book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins coined the word meme (the behavioural equivalent of a gene) as a way to encourage readers to think about how Darwinian principles might be extended beyond the realm of genes. It was intended as an extension of his "replicators" argument, but it took on a life of its own in the hands of other authors such as Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore. These popularisations then led to the emergence of memetics, a field from which Dawkins has distanced himself.
Dawkins's meme refers to any cultural entity that an observer might consider a replicator of a certain idea or set of ideas. He hypothesised that people could view many cultural entities as capable of such replication, generally through communication and contact with humans, who have evolved as efficient (although not perfect) copiers of information and behaviour. Because memes are not always copied perfectly, they might become refined, combined, or otherwise modified with other ideas; this results in new memes, which may themselves prove more or less efficient replicators than their predecessors, thus providing a framework for a hypothesis of cultural evolution based on memes, a notion that is analogous to the theory of biological evolution based on genes.
Although Dawkins invented the term meme, he has not claimed that the idea was entirely novel, and there have been other expressions for similar ideas in the past. For instance, John Laurent has suggested that the term may have derived from the work of the little-known German biologist Richard Semon. In 1904, Semon published Die Mneme (which appeared in English in 1924 as The Mneme). This book discusses the cultural transmission of experiences, with insights parallel to those of Dawkins. Laurent also found the term mneme used in Maurice Maeterlinck's The Life of the White Ant (1926), and has highlighted the similarities to Dawkins's concept. James Gleick describes Dawkins's concept of the meme as "his most famous memorable invention, far more influential than his selfish genes or his later proselytising against religiosity".
In 2006, Dawkins founded the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS), a non-profit organisation. RDFRS financed research on the psychology of belief and religion, financed scientific education programs and materials, and publicised and supported charitable organisations that are secular in nature. In January 2016, it was announced that the foundation is merging with the Center for Inquiry with Dawkins becoming a member of the new organization’s board of directors.
Criticism of religion
Dawkins was confirmed into the Church of England at the age of 13, but began to grow sceptical of the beliefs. After learning about Darwinism and the scientific reason why living things look as though they have been designed, Dawkins lost the remainder of his religious faith. He said that his understanding of science and evolutionary processes led him to question how adults in positions of leadership in a civilized world could still be so uneducated in biology, and is puzzled by how belief in God could remain among individuals who are sophisticated in science. Dawkins notes that some physicists use 'God' as a metaphor for the general awe-inspiring mysteries of the universe, which causes confusion and misunderstanding among people who incorrectly think they are talking about a mystical being which forgives sins, transubstantiates wine, or makes people live after they die. He disagrees with Stephen Jay Gould's principle of nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) and suggests that the existence of God should be treated as a scientific hypothesis like any other. Dawkins became a prominent critic of religion and has stated his opposition to religion as twofold: religion is both a source of conflict and a justification for belief without evidence. He considers faith—belief that is not based on evidence—as "one of the world's great evils".
On his spectrum of theistic probability, which has seven levels between 1 (100% belief in a God) and 7 (100% belief that gods do not exist), Dawkins has said he's a 6.9, which represents a "de facto atheist" who thinks "I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there." When asked about his slight uncertainty, Dawkins quips, "I am agnostic to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden." In May 2014, at the Hay Festival in Wales, Dawkins explained that while he does not believe in the supernatural elements of the Christian faith, he still has nostalgia for the ceremonial side of religion. In addition to beliefs in deities, Dawkins has criticized other irrational religious beliefs such as Jesus turned water into wine, that an embryo starts as a blob, that magic underwear will protect you, that Jesus was resurrected, that semen comes from the spine, that Jesus walked on water, that the sun sets in a marsh, that the Garden of Eden existed in Missouri, that Jesus' mother was a virgin, that Muhammad split the moon, and that Lazarus was raised from the dead.
Dawkins rose to prominence in public debates relating science and religion since the publication of his most popular book The God Delusion in 2006, which became an international best seller. As of 2015, more than three million copies were sold and the book has been translated into over 30 languages. Its success has been seen by many as indicative of a change in the contemporary cultural zeitgeist and has also been identified with the rise of New Atheism. In the book, Dawkins contends that a supernatural creator almost certainly does not exist and that religious faith is a delusion—"a fixed false belief". In his February 2002 TED talk entitled "Militant atheism", Dawkins urged all atheists to openly state their position and to fight the incursion of the church into politics and science. On 30 September 2007, Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett met at Hitchens' residence for a private, unmoderated discussion that lasted two hours. The event was videotaped and titled "The Four Horsemen".
Dawkins sees education and consciousness-raising as the primary tools in opposing what he considers to be religious dogma and indoctrination. These tools include the fight against certain stereotypes, and he has adopted the term bright as a way of associating positive public connotations with those who possess a naturalistic worldview. He has given support to the idea of a free thinking school, which would not "indoctrinate children" but would instead teach children to ask for evidence, be skeptical, critical and open-minded. Such a school, says Dawkins, should "teach comparative religion, and teach it properly without any bias towards particular religions, and including historically important but dead religions, such as those of ancient Greece and the Norse gods, if only because these, like the Abrahamic scriptures, are important for understanding English literature and European history. Inspired by the consciousness-raising successes of feminists in arousing widespread embarrassment at the routine use of "he" instead of "she", Dawkins similarly suggests that phrases such as "Catholic child" and "Muslim child" should be considered as socially absurd as, for instance, "Marxist child", as he believes that children should not be classified based on their parents' ideological or religious beliefs.
While some critics, such as writer Christopher Hitchens, psychologist Steven Pinker and Nobel laureates Sir Harold Kroto, James D. Watson and Steven Weinberg have defended Dawkins's stance on religion and praised his work, others, including Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, astrophysicist Martin Rees, philosopher of science Michael Ruse, literary critic Terry Eagleton, and theologian Alister McGrath, have criticised Dawkins on various grounds, including the assertion that his work simply serves as an atheist counterpart to religious fundamentalism rather than a productive critique of it, and that he has fundamentally misapprehended the foundations of the theological positions he claims to refute. Rees and Higgs, in particular, have both rejected Dawkins's confrontational stance towards religion as narrow and "embarrassing", with Higgs going as far as to equate Dawkins with the religious fundamentalists he criticises. Atheist philosopher John Gray has denounced Dawkins as an "anti-religious missionary" whose assertions are "in no sense novel or original," suggesting that, "transfixed in wonderment at the workings of his own mind, Dawkins misses much that is of importance in human beings." Gray has also criticised Dawkins's perceived allegiance to Darwin, stating that if "science, for Darwin, was a method of inquiry that enabled him to edge tentatively and humbly toward the truth, for Dawkins, science is an unquestioned view of the world." In response to his critics, Dawkins maintains that theologians are no better than scientists in addressing deep cosmological questions and that he himself is not a fundamentalist as he is willing to change his mind in the face of new evidence.
Criticism of creationism
Dawkins is a prominent critic of creationism, a religious belief that humanity, life, and the universe were created by a deity without recourse to evolution. He has described the Young Earth creationist view that the Earth is only a few thousand years old as "a preposterous, mind-shrinking falsehood"; and his 1986 book, The Blind Watchmaker, contains a sustained critique of the argument from design, an important creationist argument. In the book, Dawkins argues against the watchmaker analogy made famous by the 18th-century English theologian William Paley via his book Natural Theology, in which Paley argues that just as a watch is too complicated and too functional to have sprung into existence merely by accident, so too must all living things—with their far greater complexity—be purposefully designed. Dawkins shares the view generally held by scientists that natural selection is sufficient to explain the apparent functionality and non-random complexity of the biological world, and can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, albeit as an automatic, unguided by any designer, nonintelligent, blind watchmaker.
In 1986, Dawkins and biologist John Maynard Smith participated in an Oxford Union debate against A. E. Wilder-Smith (a Young Earth creationist) and Edgar Andrews (president of the Biblical Creation Society).Peter Singer. In this essay, he criticises contemporary society's moral attitudes as being based on a "discontinuous, speciesist imperative".
Dawkins also regularly comments in newspapers and blogs on contemporary political questions and is a frequent contributor to the online science and culture digest 3 Quarks Daily. His opinions include opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the British nuclear deterrent, the actions of then-US President George W. Bush, and the ethics of designer babies. Several such articles were included in A Devil's Chaplain, an anthology of writings about science, religion, and politics. He is also a supporter of Republic's campaign to replace the British monarchy with a democratically elected president. Dawkins has described himself as a Labour voter in the 1970s and voter for the Liberal Democrats since the party's creation. In 2009, he spoke at the party's conference in opposition to blasphemy laws, alternative medicine, and faith schools. In the UK general election of 2010, Dawkins officially endorsed the Liberal Democrats, in support of their campaign for electoral reform and for their "refusal to pander to 'faith'". In the run up to the 2017 General Election, Dawkins once again endorsed the Liberal Democrats and urged voters to join the party.
In 1998, Dawkins expressed his appreciation for two books connected with the Sokal affair, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt and Intellectual Impostures by Sokal and Jean Bricmont. These books are famous for their criticism of postmodernism in US universities (namely in the departments of literary studies, anthropology, and other cultural studies). He identifies as a feminist.
Continuing a long-standing partnership with Channel 4, Dawkins participated in a five-part television series Genius of Britain, along with fellow scientists Stephen Hawking, James Dyson, Paul Nurse, and Jim Al-Khalili. The series was first broadcast in June 2010. The series focuses on major British scientific achievements throughout history.
In 2014 he joined the global awareness movement Asteroid Day as a "100x Signatory".