On this date in 1941, evolutionary biologist and freethought champion Richard Dawkins was born in Nairobi. His father had moved to Kenya from England during the Second World War to join the Allied Forces and the family returned to England in 1949.
Dawkins graduated from Oxford in 1962, earned his doctorate, became assistant professor of zoology at the University of California at Berkeley 1967-1969 and a fellow of New College in 1970.
The Selfish Gene, his first book, published in 1976, became an international bestseller. It and the award-winning Blind Watchmaker were translated into all major languages.
His other books include The Extended Phenotype (1982), River Out of Eden (1995), Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), Unweaving the Rainbow (1998) and A Devil’s Chaplain (2003). His 2006 iconoclastic book, The God Delusion, which he wrote with the public hope of turning believing readers into atheists, became a bestseller in both the UK and the U.S.
Dawkins has held the Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science since 1995, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1997. He is married to actress and artist Lalla Ward, who has illustrated several of his books and other works.
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 has coined the memorable term “faith-heads” to describe certain religionists. Since 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 . . .,” Dawkins is now affectionately known as “Darwin’s pit bull.”
Dawkins, a vice president of the British Humanist Association, was named Humanist of the Year in 1999. He is the 1997 winner of the International Cosmos Prize, and received an Emperor Has No Clothes Award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 2001. His column for The Observer (“Children Must Choose Their own Beliefs,” Dec. 30, 2001) pointed out: “We deliberately set up, and massively subsidise, segregated faith schools (Note: In the UK, where he lives). 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.”
Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he eloquently warned in a Guardian column, “Religion’s Misguided Missiles” (Sept. 15, 2001): “To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used.”
“My respect for the Abrahamic religions went up in the smoke and choking dust of September 11th. The last vestige of respect for the taboo disappeared as I watched the ‘Day of Prayer’ in Washington Cathedral, where people of mutually incompatible faiths united in homage to the very force that caused the problem in the first place: religion. It is time for people of intellect, as opposed to people of faith, to stand up and say ‘Enough!’ Let our tribute to the dead be a new resolve: to respect people for what they individually think, rather than respect groups for what they were collectively brought up to believe.”
—-“Time to Stand Up,” written for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Sept. 2001. See Dawkins’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award
Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor
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