Richard Dawkins

On this date in 1941, evolutionary biologist and freethought champion Clinton Richard Dawkins was born in Nairobi, Kenya. His father, Clinton John Dawkins, was an agricultural civil servant in the British Colonial Service and served with the King’s African Rifles in World War II. The family returned to England in 1949. Dawkins graduated from the University of Oxford in 1962, then earned a philosophy doctorate and became an assistant professor of zoology at the University of California-Berkeley in 1967-69 and a Fellow of New College-Oxford in 1970.

Dawkins served as Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University from 1995-2008. In 2011 he joined the professoriate of the New College of the Humanities, founded by A.C. Grayling in London. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1997 and a Fellow of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge in 2001.

The Selfish Gene, his first book, published in 1976, became an international best-seller. It was followed by The Extended Phenotype (1982), The Blind Watchmaker (1986), River Out of Eden (1995), Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), Unweaving the Rainbow (1998), A Devil’s Chaplain (2003) and The Ancestor’s Tale (2004). His iconoclastic book, The God Delusion, which he wrote with the public hope of turning believing readers into atheists, was published in 2006 to much acclaim.

He also produced several television documentaries decrying religion’s influence, including “Root of All Evil?” (2006) and “The Enemies of Reason” (2007). “The Genius of Charles Darwin” followed in 2008 and “The Meaning of Life” (2012) explored the implications of living without religious faith. In his memoir An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist (2013), Dawkins chronicled his life up to publication of The Selfish Gene. A second memoir, Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science, was published in 2015.

He founded the nonprofit Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science in 2006. It merged with the Center for Inquiry in 2016. The foundation finances research on the psychology of belief and religion, funds scientific education programs and supports secular charitable groups. Dawkins has advanced the concept of cultural inheritance or “memes,” also described as “viruses of the mind,” a category into which he places religious belief. He has also advanced the “replicator concept” of evolution.

A passionate atheist, Dawkins coined the memorable term “faith-heads” to describe certain religionists. His remarks in The Guardian (Feb, 6, 1999), “I’m like a pit bull terrier being released into the ring, as a spectator sport, to attack religious people” led to the nickname “Darwin’s pit bull.” His column for The Observer (Dec. 30, 2001) pointed out, “We deliberately set up, and massively subsidise, segregated faith schools. As if it were not enough that we fasten belief labels on babies at birth, those badges of mental apartheid are now reinforced and refreshed. In their separate schools, children are separately taught mutually incompatible beliefs.”

Dawkins was named the British Humanist Association’s 1999 Humanist of the Year in 1999 and received the International Cosmos Prize two years before that. In 2001 he was the recipient of an Emperor Has No Clothes Award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation but was unable to accept it in person because flights were grounded after 9/11. His written remarks accepting it are here. He accepted it in person in 2012 at the national convention in Portland, Ore.

He has been married three times and has a daughter, Juliet, born in 1984. Dawkins and Lalla Ward, who illustrated several of his books and other works, announced an “entirely amicable” separation in 2016 after 24 years of marriage. That same year he suffered a minor hemorrhagic stroke but reported later in the year that he had almost completely recovered.

PHOTO: By David Shinbone under CC 3.0.

Freedom From Religion Foundation