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|Also Known As:||Died:||February 1, 1991|
|Born:||December 8, 1901||Cause of Death:|
|Birth Place:||Duluth, Minnesota||Profession:||Cast ...|
An evolutionary scientist who became a vocal critic of religious belief, Richard Dawkins sparked praise and controversy after publishing his best-selling novel, The God Delusion (2006), where he argued from a scientific perspective that there was likely no supernatural creator and that believing in a personal god was tantamount to delusion. Because of his staunch advocacy of science and treating fundamentalist believers with barely contained disdain, Dawkins became a lightning rod for critics and a hero for all manner of atheists, agnostics and non-believers who previously had no one in the public eye airing their particular views. In fact, Dawkins was part of a new coterie of skeptics that included Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens that took to the airwaves in defense of non-belief while attacking religion head-on. Prior to The God Delusion, Dawkins first broke onto the evolutionary biology scene with The Selfish Gene (1976) and first tackled religious fundamentalists with The Blind Watchmaker (1986). Due to the popularity of his books and lecture series, Dawkins began writing and hosting documentaries for British television, including "Nice Guys Finish First" (BBC, 1986), "Growing Up in the Universe" (BBC, 1991), "Break the Science Barrier" (Channel 4, 1996), and the award-winning "The Genius of Charles Darwin" (Channel 4, 2008). Whether teaching to a small class at Oxford University or reaching millions through his books and documentaries, Dawkins fearlessly took on religious superstition with his passion for science and knowledge.
Born on March 26, 1941 in Nairobi, Kenya, his father worked in the agricultural department of England's Colonial Civil Service, and his mother shared her husband's knowledge and enthusiasm for plants. After his father was called into wartime service with the King's African Rifles, his family returned to England in 1949 and settled into the family-owned country estate of Over Norton Park in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, which his father turned into a commercial farm. Raised in a standard Anglican home, Dawkins embraced the Christianity he later railed against until reading out the theory of evolution in his mid-teens and ceasing to believe in God. He attended Oundle School in Northamptonshire and went on to study zoology at Balliol College at the University of Oxford, graduating in 1962. During his time at Oxford, Dawkins was tutored by Nobel Prize-winning ethologist, Nikolaas Tinbergen, and eventually earned both his master's and doctorate degrees in 1966. After staying on as a research assistant for a year, he journeyed across the pond to become an assistant professor of zoology at the University of California, Berkeley.
In 1967, with antiwar demonstrations being waged all around him, Dawkins himself became involved in the late-1960s counterculture. But he soon returned to Oxford in 1970 and took up the position of lecturer while becoming a fellow at Oxford's New College. After spending years in the classroom, Dawkins was propelled into the limelight when he published his first book, The Selfish Gene (1976), which expanded upon Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by arguing that the gene was integral to natural selection. The book was a big hit upon its release and helped revolutionize modern biology while selling over a million copies and being translated into 25 languages. It was also notable for Dawkins' coining the word meme, which he used as a way to explain the spread of ideas and culture phenomena in relation to evolutionary biology, but over the years was expanded to relate to culture, religion, technology and social networking, which Dawkins himself declared was a misunderstanding of his original intention. Meanwhile, he wrote his second novel, The Extended Phenotype (1982), which argued that the phenotype - the composite of an organism's observable traits - should be extended beyond biological processes to included its genetic makeup.
In 1986, Dawkins published his third novel, The Blind Watchmaker, and with it stepped directly into the conflict between science and religion. Dawkins' novel used Darwin's theory of evolution to argue that it can and must be aided by natural selection, not a divine creator. He famously used the example of the eye - from crude perception of light and dark through the highly complex mammalian eye - to demonstrate intermediate levels of complexity that could only occur through natural selection. That same year, Dawkins hosted his first television documentary, "Nice Guys Finish First" (BBC, 1986), which was aired on the channel's long-running science series, "Horizon" (BBC, 1964- ). The film discussed the nature of selfishness and cooperation, and how evolution often favors cooperative behavior, while also refuting the common misunderstanding of The Selfish Gene as a justification for our cutthroat world. He also took to the stage to debate a young creationist at Oxford, but later declined the formality of such events in order to not elevate creationists to a level of respectability.
In 1991, the BBC broadcast a series of lectures Dawkins conducted on the evolution of life in the universe for the Royal Institution called "Growing Up in the Universe," which covered familiar themes of natural selection and genetics in the context of the larger universe. He went on to write another popular novel, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995), where he used a river as a metaphor for illustrating how genetic evolution flows through organisms across geological time. One of his shortest books, River ironically drew its title and main theme from a passage in Genesis of the King James Bible. An enthusiastic advocate for science education, Dawkins next wrote and presented "Break the Science Barrier" (Channel 4, 1996), a television documentary that promoted the intellectually stimulating nature of scientific endeavor. That same year, he clashed head-on with religious fundamentalists by writing Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), where he used the scientific concept of probability in relation to evolution in order to debunk the creationist view that life has an all-powerful creator. The novel grew out of his 1991 series of lectures that were broadcast in "Growing Up in the Universe."
Delving into the world of creativity with Unweaving the Rainbow (1998), Dawkins argued against the idea that science and art are inherently at odds and instead proposed that both explored the wonders of the world through immutable natural law. In the new millennium, he explored humanity's common ancestry with The Ancestor's Tale (2004), which attempted to trace modern animals - including humans - back to the origins of life. Dawkins followed up with his most famous and controversial novel, The God Delusion (2006), in which he argued that it was highly unlikely a supernatural creator existed and that belief in a personal god despite contrary evidence amounted to delusion. The book proved to be Dawkins' most popular to date, selling over two million copies and being translated into 31 languages. Naturally, its popularity spawned praise from non-believers and scorn from the faithful, the latter of whom Dawkins gladly engaged in occasionally uncivil debate. In fact, Dawkins - along with fellow atheists Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens - gave voice to a previously silent or ignored segment of the population that considered themselves atheist, agnostic or simply non-religious. With some estimates calculating such a group at around 20 percent, Dawkins gave rise to something he called militant atheism, where he openly and in some cases gleefully challenged religious conventions previously considered off-limits to criticism.
Meanwhile, after spending 13 years as a professor at Oxford, Dawkins retired in 2008 in order to focus on writing books for younger readers in order to counter the believe of what he called "anti-science fairytales." At the time, he was a fixture on various talk shows in the United States and abroad, largely in promotion of his book. Whether engaging in civil debate with his opposite numbers or descending into pointless verbal sparring matches with Bill O'Reilly on Fox News, Dawkins argued passionately for the need for a reasoned, science-based viewpoint while promoting the necessity of presenting evidence of human evolution to those clinging to a belief of a natural creator who may or may not have created all of life 10,000 years ago. More often than not, Dawkins tried in vain to convince the devout, but in the process he attracted a legion of likeminded fans. From there, he took part in a number of television documentaries, including "The Root of All Evil?" (Channel 4, 2006), where he argued that the world would be better off without God or religion. With "The Enemies of Reason" (Channel 4, 2007), Dawkins branched out beyond mainstream religion to tackle more fringe superstitions like telekinesis, psychics and other pseudoscientific beliefs. After writing and hosting the three-part documentary, "The Genius of Charles Darwin" (Channel 4, 2008), which won Best TV Documentary Series at the British Broadcast Awards, Dawkins published The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence of Evolution (2009) before releasing his first book targeted at a younger audience, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True (2011).
By Shawn Dwyer
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