Richard Dawkins

Dawkins was educated at Oxford University where he worked for his doctorate under Niko Tinbergen. He initially taught at the University of California, Berkeley, before returning to Oxford in 1970 as lecturer in animal behavior. He was appointed reader in zoology in 1989 and professor of public understanding of science in 1995.

In The Selfish Gene (1976) Dawkins did much to introduce the work of such scholars as William Hamilton, Robert L. Trivers, and John Maynard Smith to a wider public. He tried to show that such apparently altruistic behavior as birds risking their lives to warn the flock of an approaching predator can be seen as the ‘selfish’ gene ensuring its own survival (by ensuring the survival of the descendants and relatives of the ‘heroic’ bird) – indeed that such behavior is as relentlessly under the control of the selfish gene as the compulsive rutting of the dominant stag. The work was immensely successful, being translated into eleven languages and selling 150,000 copies in English alone.

In 1986 Dawkins published another successful work, The Blind Watchmaker. The title refers to the image used by William Paley in his Natural Theology (1802). If anyone were to find a watch he would be able to infer from its mechanism that it had a maker; equally with nature, where the mechanisms of hand, eye, heart, and brain demand the existence of a designer just as strongly. Dawkins accepted the argument but insisted that the watchmaker was merely the operation of natural selection. In case after case he argued that the same effects could be produced by natural selection a good deal more plausibly than by a divine watchmaker.

One of the most original features of Dawkins's work was his demonstration that with few simple recursive rules, and some very simple starting points, various complex life forms or biomorphs were produced on his computer screen. And, he emphasized, the biomorphs were produced not by Dawkins as designer, he was as surprised as anyone else by the outcome, but by the application of simple rules to a large number of apparently random initial positions.

Dawkins has continued to write on evolutionary theory, most notably in his Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), where he shows how such unlikely candidates as a spider's web and the vertebrate eye can have evolved under the guiding power of natural selection.

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