In his scientific works, Dawkins is best known for his popularisation of the gene-centred view of evolution. This view is most clearly set out in his books The Selfish Gene
(1976), where he notes that "all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities", and The Extended Phenotype
(1982), in which he describes natural selection as "the process whereby replicators out-propagate each other". In his role as an ethologist, interested in animal behaviour and its relation to natural selection, he advocates the idea that the gene is the principal unit of selection in evolution.
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 were doing what was best for the survival of the population or species as a whole, and not specifically for themselves. British evolutionary biologist W. D. Hamilton had used the gene-centred view to explain altruism in terms of inclusive fitness and kin selection ? that individuals behave altruistically toward their close relatives, who share many of their own genes. Similarly, Robert Trivers, thinking in terms of the gene-centred model, developed the theory of reciprocal altruism, whereby one organism provides a benefit to another in the expectation of future reciprocation. Dawkins popularised these ideas in The Selfish Gene
, and developed them in his own work.
Critics of Dawkins' approach suggest that taking the gene as the unit of selection
? of a single event in which an individual either succeeds or fails to reproduce ? is misleading, but that the gene could be better described as a unit of evolution
? of the long-term changes in allele frequencies in a population. In The Selfish Gene
, Dawkins explains that he is using George C. Williams' definition of the gene as "that which segregates and recombines with appreciable frequency." Another common objection is that genes cannot survive alone, but must cooperate to build an individual, and therefore cannot be an independent "unit". In The Extended Phenotype
, Dawkins suggests that because of genetic recombination and sexual reproduction, from an individual gene's viewpoint all other genes are part of the environment to which it is adapted.
Advocates for higher levels of selection such as Richard Lewontin, David Sloan Wilson, and Elliot Sober suggest that there are many phenomena (including altruism) that gene-based selection cannot satisfactorily explain. The philosopher Mary Midgley, with whom Dawkins clashed in print concerning The Selfish Gene
, has criticised gene selection, memetics and sociobiology as being excessively reductionist.
In a set of controversies over the mechanisms and interpretation of evolution (the so-called 'Darwin Wars'), one faction was often named after Dawkins and its rival after the American paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, reflecting the pre-eminence of each as a populariser of pertinent ideas. In particular, Dawkins and Gould have been prominent commentators in the controversy over sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, with Dawkins generally approving and Gould generally being critical. A typical example of Dawkins' position was his scathing review of Not in Our Genes
by Steven Rose, Leon J. Kamin and Richard C. Lewontin. Two other thinkers on the subject often considered to be allied to Dawkins are Steven Pinker and 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.
Dawkins' book The Evidence for Evolution
expounds the evidence for biological evolution. It was released on 3 September 2009, published in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth nations by Transworld. In the United States it was released on 22 September 2009, where it was published by Free Press. All of his previous works dealing with evolution had assumed its truth, and not explicitly provided the evidence to this effect. Dawkins felt that this represented a gap in his oeuvre, and decided to write the book to coincide with Darwin's bicentennial year.
Dawkins coined the word meme
(the cultural equivalent of a gene) to describe how Darwinian principles might be extended to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. This has spawned the field of memetics. Dawkins' memes
refer to any cultural entity that an observer might consider a replicator. He hypothesised that people could view many cultural entities as capable of such replication, generally through exposure to humans, who have evolved as efficient (although not perfect) copiers of information and behaviour. Memes are not always copied perfectly, and might indeed become refined, combined or otherwise modified with other ideas, resulting 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, analogous to the theory of biological evolution based on genes. Since originally outlining the idea in his book The Selfish Gene
, Dawkins has largely left the task of expanding upon it to other authors such as Susan Blackmore.
Although Dawkins invented the specific term meme
independently, he has not claimed that the idea itself 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 discussed 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' concept.
Criticism of creationism
Dawkins is a prominent critic of creationism (the 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 argued against the watchmaker analogy made famous by the 18th-century English theologian William Paley in his book Natural Theology
. Paley argued 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. According to Dawkins, however, 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, nonintelligent, blind
1986, Dawkins participated in a Oxford Union debate, in which he and English biologist John Maynard Smith debated Young Earth creationist A. E. Wilder-Smith and Edgar Andrews, president of the Biblical Creation Society. In general, however, Dawkins has followed the advice of his late colleague Stephen Jay Gould and refused to participate in formal debates with creationists because "what they seek is the oxygen of respectability", and doing so would "give them this oxygen by the mere act of engaging
with them at all." He suggests that creationists "don't mind being beaten in an argument. What matters is that we give them recognition by bothering to argue with them in public."
In a December 2004 interview with American journalist Bill Moyers, Dawkins said that "among the things that science does know, evolution is about as certain as anything we know". When Moyers questioned him on the use of the word theory
, Dawkins stated that "evolution has been observed. It's just that it hasn't been observed while it's happening." He added that "it is rather like a detective coming on a murder after the scene... the detective hasn't actually seen the murder take place, of course. But what you do see is a massive clue... Huge quantities of circumstantial evidence. It might as well be spelled out in words of English."
Dawkins has ardently opposed the inclusion of intelligent design in science education, describing it as "not a scientific argument at all, but a religious one". He has been a strong critic of the British organisation Truth in Science, which promotes the teaching of creationism in state schools, and he plans...through the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science...to subsidise the delivering of books, DVDs and pamphlets to schools, in order to counteract what he has described as an "educational scandal".
Atheism and rationalism
Dawkins is an outspoken atheist and a prominent critic of religion. He has been described as a vocal, militant rationalist, and as "the UK's Chief Atheist". In an interview with Thomas Bass for a book published in 1994 he described himself as a 'fairly militant atheist'. In 1996, when asked if he'd prefer to be known as a scientist or a militant atheist, he replied, "Bertrand Russell called himself the Passionate Sceptic. It's aiming high, but I'll shoot for that." He is an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society, a vice-president of the British Humanist Association (since 1996), a Distinguished Supporter of the Humanist Society of Scotland, a member of the Secular Coalition for America advisory board, a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism, and a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. In 2003, he became a signatory of the humanist manifesto Humanism and Its Aspirations
, published by the American Humanist Association.
Dawkins believes that his own atheism is the logical extension of his understanding of evolution and that religion is incompatible with science. In his 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker
, Dawkins wrote:
In his 1991 essay "Viruses of the Mind" (from which the term faith-sufferer
originated), he suggested that memetic theory might analyse and explain the phenomenon of religious belief and some of the common characteristics of religions, such as the belief that punishment awaits non-believers. According to Dawkins, faith ? belief that is not based on evidence ? is one of the world's great evils. He claims it to be analogous to the smallpox virus, though more difficult to eradicate. Dawkins is well-known for his contempt for religious extremism, from Islamist terrorism to Christian fundamentalism; but he has also argued with liberal believers and religious scientists, from biologists Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins to theologians Alister McGrath and Richard Harries. Dawkins has stated that his opposition to religion is twofold, claiming it to be both a source of conflict and a justification for belief without evidence. However, he describes himself as a "cultural Christian", and proposed the slogan "Atheists for Jesus".
Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, when asked how the world might have changed, Dawkins responded:
Dawkins has especially risen to prominence in contemporary public debates relating rationalism, science and religion since the publication of his 2006 book The God Delusion
, which has achieved greater sales figures worldwide than any of his other works to date. Its success has been seen by many as indicative of a change in the contemporary cultural zeitgeist, central to a recent rise in the popularity of atheistic literature. The God Delusion
was praised by among others the Nobel laureate chemist Sir Harold Kroto, psychologist Steven Pinker and the Nobel laureate biologist James D. Watson. In the book, Dawkins argued that atheists should be proud, not apologetic, because atheism is evidence of a healthy, independent mind. He 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. Dawkins notes that feminists have succeeded in arousing widespread embarrassment at the routine use of "he" instead of "she". Similarly, he suggests, a phrase such as "Catholic child" or "Muslim child" should be considered just as socially absurd as, for instance, "Marxist child": children should not be classified based on their parents' ideological beliefs. According to Dawkins, there is no such thing as a Christian child or a Muslim child, as children have about as much capacity to make the decision to become Christians or Muslims as they do to become Marxists.
In January 2006, Dawkins presented a two-part television documentary The Root of All Evil?
, addressing what he sees as the malignant influence of religion on society. The title itself is one with which Dawkins has repeatedly expressed his dissatisfaction. Critics have said that the programme gave too much time to marginal figures and extremists, and that Dawkins' confrontational style did not help his cause; Dawkins rejected these claims, citing the number of moderate religious broadcasts in everyday media as providing a suitable balance to the extremists in the programmes. He further remarked that someone who is deemed an "extremist" in a religiously moderate country may well be considered "mainstream" in a religiously conservative one. The unedited recordings of Dawkins' conversations with Alister McGrath and Richard Harries, including material unused in the broadcast version, have been made available online by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.
Oxford theologian Alister McGrath (author of The Dawkins Delusion
and Dawkins' God
) maintains that Dawkins is ignorant of Christian theology, and therefore unable to engage religion and faith intelligently. In reply, Dawkins asks "do you have to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?", and ? in the paperback edition of The God Delusion
? he refers to the American biologist PZ Myers, who has satirised this line of argument as "The Courtier's Reply". Dawkins had an extended debate with McGrath at the 2007 Sunday Times
Another Christian philosopher Keith Ward explores similar themes in his 2006 book Is Religion Dangerous?
, arguing against the view of Dawkins and others that religion is socially dangerous. Criticism of The God Delusion
has come from philosophers such as Professor John Cottingham of the University of Reading. Other commentators, including ethicist Margaret Somerville, have suggested that Dawkins "overstates the case against religion", particularly its role in human conflict. Many of Dawkins' defenders claim that critics generally misunderstand his real point. During a debate on Radio 3 Hong Kong, David Nicholls, writer and president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, reiterated Dawkins' sentiments that religion is an "unnecessary" aspect of global problems.
Dawkins argues that "the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other". He disagrees with Stephen Jay Gould's principle of nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA). In an interview with Time
magazine, Dawkins said:
I think that Gould's separate compartments was a purely political ploy to win middle-of-the-road religious people to the science camp. But it's a very empty idea. There are plenty of places where religion does not keep off the scientific turf. Any belief in miracles is flat contradictory not just to the facts of science but to the spirit of science.
Astrophysicist Martin Rees has suggested that Dawkins' attack on mainstream religion is unhelpful. Regarding Rees' claim in his book Our Cosmic Habitat
that "such questions lie beyond science", Dawkins asks "what expertise can theologians bring to deep cosmological questions that scientists cannot?" Elsewhere, Dawkins has written that "there's all the difference in the world between a belief that one is prepared to defend by quoting evidence and logic, and a belief that is supported by nothing more than tradition, authority or revelation."As examples of "good scientists who are sincerely religious", Dawkins names Arthur Peacocke, Russell Stannard, John Polkinghorne and Francis Collins, but says "I remain baffled ... by their belief in the details of the Christian religion." He has said that the publication of The God Delusion
is "probably the culmination" of his campaign against religion.
In 2007, Dawkins founded the Out Campaign to encourage atheists worldwide to declare their stance publicly and proudly. Inspired by the gay rights movement, Dawkins hopes that atheists' identifying of themselves as such, and thereby increasing public awareness of how many people hold these views, will reduce the negative opinion of atheism among the religious majority.
In September 2008, following a complaint by Islamic creationist Adnan Oktar, a court in Turkey blocked access to Dawkins' website richarddawkins.net
. The court decision was made due to "insult to personality".During the 2010 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, Australia Dawkins was criticised for his use of the phrase "Pope Nazi" in reference to wartime Pope Pius XII, whose actions during the Holocaust have been a matter of controversy.
In October 2008, Dawkins officially supported the UK's first atheist advertising initiative, the Atheist Bus Campaign. Created by Guardian journalist Ariane Sherine, the campaign aimed to raise funds to place atheist adverts on buses in the London area, and Dawkins pledged to match the amount raised by atheists, up to a maximum of £5,500. However, the campaign was an unprecedented success, raising over £100,000 in its first four days, and generating global press coverage. The campaign, started in January 2009, features adverts across the UK with the slogan: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.
" Dawkins said that "this campaign to put alternative slogans on London buses will make people think ... and thinking is anathema to religion."
In 2010, Dawkins supported legal efforts to charge Pope Benedict XVI with crimes against humanity. Dawkins and fellow anti-religion campaigner Christopher Hitchens were believed to be exploring the option of having the Pope arrested under the same legal principle that saw Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet arrested during a visit to Britain in 1998.
Dawkins has given support to the idea of an atheists' "free thinking" school, that would teach children to "ask for evidence, to be sceptical, critical, open-minded".
On 15 September 2010, Dawkins, along with 54 other public figures, signed an open letter published in The Guardian
, stating their opposition to Pope Benedict XVI making a State
visit to the United Kingdom.
Richard Dawkins Foundation
In 2006, Dawkins founded the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS), a non-profit organisation. The foundation is in developmental phase. It has been granted charitable status in the United Kingdom and the United States. RDFRS plans to finance research on the psychology of belief and religion, finance scientific education programs and materials, and publicise and support secular charitable organisations. The foundation also offers humanist, rationalist and scientific materials and information through its website.
In his role as professor for public understanding of science, Dawkins has been a critic of pseudoscience and alternative medicine. His 1998 book Unweaving the Rainbow
takes John Keats' accusation that, by explaining the rainbow, Isaac Newton had diminished its beauty, and argues for the opposite conclusion. He suggests that deep space, the billions of years of life's evolution, and the microscopic workings of biology and heredity contain more beauty and wonder than do "myths" and "pseudoscience". Dawkins wrote a foreword to John Diamond's posthumously published Snake Oil
, a book devoted to debunking alternative medicine, in which he asserted that alternative medicine was harmful, if only because it distracted patients from more successful conventional treatments, and gave people false hopes. Dawkins states that "there is no alternative medicine. There is only medicine that works and medicine that doesn't work."
Dawkins has expressed concern about the growth of the planet's human population, and about the matter of overpopulation. In The Selfish Gene
, he briefly mentions population growth, giving the example of Latin America, whose population, at the time the book was written, was doubling every 40 years. He is critical of Roman Catholic attitudes to family planning and population control, stating that leaders who forbid contraception and "express a preference for 'natural' methods of population limitation" will get just such a method in the form of starvation.
As a supporter of the Great Ape Project
— a movement to extend certain moral and legal rights to all great apes — Dawkins contributed the article "Gaps in the Mind" to the Great Ape Project
book edited by Paola Cavalieri and 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 weblogs on contemporary political questions; his opinions include opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the British nuclear deterrent and the actions of U.S. President George W. Bush. 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 the Republic 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. 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 2007 TV documentary The Enemies of Reason
, Dawkins discusses what he sees as the dangers of abandoning critical thought and rationale based upon scientific evidence. He specifically cites astrology, spiritualism, dowsing, alternative faiths, alternative medicine and homeopathy. He also discusses how the Internet can be used to spread religious hatred and conspiracy theories with scant attention to evidence-based reasoning.
Continuing a long-standing partnership with Channel 4, Dawkins participated in a five-part television series The Genius of Britain
, along with fellow scientists Stephen Hawking, James Dyson, Paul Nurse, and Jim Al-Khalili. The five-episode series was broadcast in June 2010. The programme will focus on major British scientific achievements throughout history.
Dawkins presented a More4 documentary entitled 'Faith School Menace' in which he argued for "us to reconsider the consequences of faith education, which... bamboozles parents and indoctrinates and divides children."
Dawkins wrote a positive review on the book Intellectual Impostures, written by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont.