Richard Dawkins

(1941- )

Compiled by Patricia Dickerson (December 1999)

Dawkins Biography
Time Line

Richard Dawkins, an ardent Darwinist, has made significant contributions to the field of evolutionary biology by clarifying past concepts and by educating the general public. Combining the principles of Natural Selection with knowledge of genetics, he developed a new discipline-genetic ethology. His ability to write of scientific principles in an engaging manner has enabled him to publish a total of six books and as a result, his ideas have influenced the general public as well as a generation of students of biology.

Dawkins was born in Nairobi in 1941 and he spent the first eight years of his life surrounded by a vast array of wildlife. Before returning to England with his family in 1949, he developed a fascination with animal behavior that would shape the rest of his life (Catalano, 1999). Later, as an undergraduate at Oxford, he had the great fortune to study under the Nobel Prize winner, ethologist Niko Tinbergen. The two developed a close student/mentor relationship and Dawkins credits Tinbergen with showing him the importance of using an interdisciplinary approach (Catalon, 1999). It was this approach that led to Dawkins' rise in the scientific community.

After becoming a fellow at New College, Dawkins took his mentor's advice and combined several disciplines. The result was a new way of viewing evolution. Natural Selection was used to explain how genes compete, cooperate, survive and ultimately shape the development of a species. By focusing on genes, he "explained" phenomena such as altruism, traits that previously were not readily understood with the traditional models of evolution. His first book, The Selfish Gene, was published in 1976, became an international bestseller and was published in 13 languages.

Since then, Dawkins has been the recipient of several honors. In 1995 he became the holder of the newly endowed Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science and in 1997 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Currently he is a lecturer in Zoology at Oxford University and a Fellow of New College. His most recent book, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder, was published in 1998.


Dawkins developed a unique view of how species evolve without straying from the basic principles of Darwins' theory of Natural Selection. Three distinct themes are the hallmark of his approach: the evolution of the gene, the "life/dinner" principle and design vs. designoid origins of species.

His focus on the gene rather than on the individual has led to Dawkins' prominence. In his book, The Selfish Gene (1976), Dawkins proposed that animals exist solely for the preservation and propagation of the gene. Using a machine analogy throughout the book, animals are viewed as the "throwaway survival machines" of genes that are engaged in a "savage, ruthless, exploitive and deceitful" competition for survival. The genes themselves code for the body design of their hosts. Therefore, it behooves the gene to build a body with adaptations that will enable the organism to survive and reproduce. It is during reproduction that the gene gains its own survival. As to how genes behave selfishly, Dawkins begins by explaining that genes must compete with their own alleles for survival for a place on the chromosomes of future generations. A gene that can produce an advantageous adaptation, is assured of its' own survival. Thus the gene the basic unit of selfishness. Extending Darwin, he states that "Natural Selection favours genes that control their survival machines in such a way that they make the best use of their environment" (Dawkins, 1976). Dawkins' has a gift for using illustrations that make the complex understandable. In The Selfish Gene (1976), the competition between a lion and an antelope is used to make clear the concept of the role of genes. The lion's gene codes for behavior to cause the lion to view the antelope's meat as food. The antelope's genes code for behavior to cause the antelope to view its meat as working muscle and organs for it's own survival. Both behaviors are adaptive for each animal and each animal's genes are engaged in a competition, one against the other.

There is no true altruism. Behavior is coded by genes strictly for their own selfish benefit. For example, many apparently altruistic behaviors benefit related individuals who carry like genes. This insures the replication of that gene. On the surface it appears that individuals are selflessly helping one another, but in reality it is the gene that is ensuring it's own continuation in the gene pool. Further, an animal is less likely to engage in a behavior that will ensure the survival of a relative that is older. The gene is more interested in ensuring the survival of a relative that is still reproductively active, thereby increasing its' chances of survival. While Hamilton proposed that maternal behavior is selfish, Dawkins (1976), added that the gene specifically codes for maternal behavior because to do so insures the gene of its' own propagation.

If this is how genes remain in a population, what then causes the emergence of a new gene? According to Dawkins, competition is the driving force behind the emergence of genes and new adaptations. While both interspecific competition and intraspecific competition bring about new adaptations, Dawkins places greater emphasis on interspecific competition, focusing most specifically on the competition between predator and prey. He maintains that this unequal form of selective pressure brings about the greatest amount of adaptation.

Using the analogy of the "evolutionary arms race", Dawkins argues that as a predator develops offensive adaptations, prey will counter with defensive adaptations. This results in a selection pressure that is unequal, because as Dawkins puts it "if the predator loses the race, he simply loses a meal. If the prey loses the race, he loses his life" (Dawkins & Krebs, 1979). Dawkins termed this the life-dinner principle. The pressure then, is greater on the prey to evolve new adaptations. Thus, there is a built-in imbalance between predator and prey with respect to the penalty of failure. "Mutations that make foxes lose races against rabbits might therefore survive in the fox gene pool longer than mutations that cause rabbits to lose races" (Dawkins & Krebs, 1979). More recently Dawkins has turned his attention to the question of purpose or design in evolution in River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995), and again in Climbing Mount Improbable (1996). Many who view the exquisite perfection present in organisms that results in a balance of life that seems so perfect conclude that it must have been planned. Dawkins believes that humans have the idea of purpose wired into their brains. We are always looking for the "utility function" in things (Dawkins, 1995). For example, the cheetah is an animal that is superbly adapted to its' environment and it is easy to infer that the cheetah is therefor designed by a purposeful designer and that it has some utility function. Dawkins maintains that the cheetah is impartially designed by the processes of Natural Selection according to Darwin (Dawkins, 1995). It is Natural Selection that endows the cheetah with its teeth, claws, muscles, brain and speed. The utility function of the cheetah is replication of the cheetah's genome. Again the concept of the selfish gene offers a better explanation. Without planning or intention, genetic sequences make use of the cheetah body in order to get themselves replicated-and that is the cheetahs function.

In Climbing Mount Improbable, (1996), Dawkins once again deals with the idea of implicit design in organisms. He distinguishes between objects made by humans that are actually designed and organisms that are "designoid" and arise as a result of Natural Selection. The miraculous design of the elephants' trunk did not come about by special creation or by mere chance, but rather came as a result of the slow, gradual process of evolution. Examples of mimicry abound in nature. Labidus praedator, the beetle mimics Mimeciton antennatum, the ant. It's resemblence is so perfect that it can live among ants in ant's nest without being detected by the ant. image
Because the perfection of this design is so astounding, one cannot believe that it arose by pure chance. The body plan of both the model and the mimic arise from the same source-the forces of Natural Selection act on both in such a way that the result is so perfect as to give the appearance of design.
Richard Dawkins has managed to develop his own theories regarding the evolution of species, incorporating new ideas, while never veering from the theories of Charles Darwin. He never wavered from those principles originally taught him by his mentor, Niko Tinbergen. Those principles, along with his own unique way with words, has enabled him to reach and educate many lay people who otherwise would remain ignorant of the principles of Natural Selection. And this, is perhaps, his greatest contribution.

Time Line
1941 Born in Nairobi
1949 Returned to England with his family
1962 Graduated from Oxford University
1966 Studied under Niko Tinbergen and received his doctorate from Oxford University
1967 Assistant Professor of Zoology at the University of California at Berkley
1970 Lecturer at Oxford University and Fellow of New College
1976 Published The Selfish Gene
1982 Published The Extended Phenotype
1986 Published The Blind Watchmaker
1995 Published River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life
1995 Endowed as the holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science
1996 Published Climbing Mount Improbable
1997 Elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
1998 Published Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder

Catalino, John. The World of Richard Dawkins. Online. Internet. Oct. 1999. Available:
Dawkins, R. & Krebs, J. R. (1979). Arms races between and within species. Proceedings of the Royal Society, London Biological Society. 205(1161), 489-511.
Dawkins, R. (1996). Climbing Mount Improbable. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dawkins, R. (1995). River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. New York: Harper Collins.

[History Home Page] [Psychology Department Home Page]