Richard Dawkins, revered biologist, geneticist, and evolutionary theorist, is widely credited for introducing the concepts of evolutionary theory to a popular audience. He is best known for his book The Selfish Gene, where he theorized that the genes, rather than the individual, were the unit of selection in evolution. Dawkins wraps complex science into an easily understandable format, inspiring those around him while changing the way many perceive and understand biology.
Early Life and Education
Richard Dawkins was born on March 26th, 1941 in Nairobi, Kenya. His father was a farmer and his mother was an active churchgoer, setting in motion Dawkins’s early fascination with science and faith. When Dawkins was 8 years old, his family moved to England, setting the stage for his future educational path. He later attended Oxford University, receiving an undergraduate degree in zoology in 1962 and a doctorate in ethology in 1966. Ethology is the scientific study of behavior in animals, specifically the behavior that is influenced by the animal’s internal and external environments.
In 1970, Dawkins accepted an assistant professorship in zoology at the University of California Berkeley, leading to his landmark book, The Selfish Gene, which was published in 1976. From then on, Dawkins was widely considered one of the world’s foremost experts in evolutionary theory. Following his time at Berkeley, Dawkins held various positions, including reader for zoology at the University of Oxford, and professor for zoology at the University of Oxford. He was also a research fellow at the University of Oxford, a visiting professor at the University of California and Harvard University, and a professor of zoology at the University of Oxford.
The Selfish Gene
In the 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins introduced the idea of “selfish gene” theory. His argument proposed that genes are the primary unit of selection in any reproductive processes, and that all organisms are merely “survival machines” for their genes. Through complex reasoning, Dawkins concluded that adaptation and behavior could be explained using the concepts of kin selection and gene selection. In other words, organisms advance in the evolutionary process if the behavior of their genes is beneficial for the survival and reproduction of other genes within the group. This concept revolutionized evolutionary thinking, as suddenly evolutionary events could no longer solely be explained by the survival of the fittest individuals.
The Extended Phenotype
In 1982, Dawkins released The Extended Phenotype, wherein he wrote about his idea of the extended phenotypic perpetuation. The extended phenotype is a concept which describes the genetic process wherein an individual’s phenotype, or physical characteristics, can be influenced by genetic variants beyond the gene being expressed. For example, a bird’s nest is a phenotype, but is not itself included in the bird’s genetic makeup, even though its construction is largely influenced by it.
Throughout his career, Dawkins became increasingly outspoken with his atheistic leanings, believing that science and religion should remain separate entities. He wrote several books with this theme, including The God Delusion (2006) and The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (2009). Dawkins’s other books include River out of Eden (1995) and Unweaving the Rainbow (1998).
He penned pieces for scientific journals and newspapers alike, and won many awards for his research, including the Royal Society’s Darwin Medal in 2003, the U.S. Science Service Award in 2001 and the Humanist of the Year Award in 1996. Richard Dawkins was also awarded an honorary degree by Harvard University, given an honorary fellowship from Balliol College and became a fellow of the Royal Society in 2001.
In many ways, Richard Dawkins has been credited with popularizing evolutionary theory through his work. His books appear to be constantly on bestseller lists and remain influential decades after they first hit the market. His ability to take complex concepts in biology and make them digestible for a mass audience has inspired many to take a greater interest in natural sciences. He has also been praised for his unapologetic stance on atheism and its distinctions from organized religion.
Richard Dawkins is a renowned biologist and evolutionary theorist who changed the way many people perceive science by taking complex concepts and distilling them into easily understandable pieces of work. Through his books, most notably The Selfish Gene, Dawkins introduced ideas about gene selection and the extended phenotype, revolutionizing the field of evolutionary biology in the process. His life’s work is a tribute to the power of science and has sparked a fascination in biology and evolution that will last generations.