Friday, 3 December 2010

Heroes - Richard Dawkins

The latest article in my Heroes series is going to focus on Richard Dawkins. He was born on March 26th 1941 and started his academic life as an ethologist and evolutionary biologist. He came to mainstream prominence (some might say notoriety) with the publication of his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. The book is a detailed discussion of the gene centred view of evolution.

Although the idea was not unique, the book must surely take the credit for popularising the idea and bringing it to mainstream attention. Up to that point, the popular view of evolution was at the level of the organism, or to use the term used by Dawkins in his book - the vehicle. Dawkins makes a clear distinction in his book between genes, and the organisms (or vehicles) which carry them. Bodies that carry genes (including humans) only do so to help genes propagate themselves. At the level of the gene, a body's only purpose is to transmit the gene into future vehicles. Therefore the gene must act selfishly to do so.

"Dawkins coined the term "selfish gene" as a way of expressing the gene-centred view of evolution as opposed to the view focused on the organism. From the gene-centred view follows that the more two individuals are genetically related, the more sense (at the level of the genes) it makes for them to behave selflessly. Therefore the concept is especially good at explaining many forms of altruism, regardless of a common misuse of the term along the lines of a selfishness gene." The Selfish Gene

Many critics of the book took the phrase literally, and accused Dawkins of condoning selfish behaviour at the level of the individual organism, including selfish behaviour at the level of a human being. This is a popular criticism, but it is entirely without basis or merit.

"Selfish", when applied to genes, doesn't mean "selfish" at all. It means, instead, an extremely important quality for which there is no good word in the English language: "the quality of being copied by a Darwinian selection process." This is a complicated mouthful. There ought to be a better, shorter word—but "selfish" isn't it." The Science of Selfishness

The first book by Richard Dawkins that I read was The Blind Watchmaker. Two books ignited my passion for science. One was The Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan. I mentioned this in my Heroes article on him previously. When reading The Blind Watchmaker, I was fascinated by the ideas it contained. The title of the book comes from a reference made by William Paley in his book Natural Theology. Paley argues in his book that the complexity of living organisms is proof of the existence of a divine creator. He uses the watchmaker analogy to substantiate this claim.

The watchmaker analogy is a teleological argument for the existence of God. The argument states that the complexity of life, and of living organisms is analogous to the complexity of the internal workings of a watch. A watch is a complex piece of equipment containing many moving parts which must work together in intricate detail to serve its purpose of accurately telling the time. More importantly, a watch is designed by a watchmaker. Likewise, the complexity of living organisms must also have a designer. In this case the designer will be God.

In the book, Dawkins makes extensive reference to a computer model of artificial selection (which he originally developed himself on his Apple Mac). The program uses the concept of a "biomorph". This is a mathematical organism whose shape is defined by its "genome". The genome in this case is a vector of numerical values (don't be put off by the mathematics). The "genes" that define the "genome" are allowed to change over time within certain predefined boundaries. This process is akin to the way that evolution works in real life, and so gives a fascinating insight into the workings of evolution. In the book are depictions of how the biomorphs change (evolve) over time. Starting out with a fairly rudimentary biomorph, Dawkins supplies screen shots of the biomorph over time as it gradually evolves. It amply and very clearly demonstrates how complexity can arise from simplicity.

Dawkins goes on to give many explanations for living complexity, such as the evolution of sonar in bats. His explanations are so clear, so well constructed and written, that the arguments can be easily absorbed and understood. This is something I have admired throughout all of his books. He never assumes the reader is a scientist, nor does he assume the reader is a dolt. He assumes the reader is intelligent with a keenness to learn about the topic he is writing about. He never patronises the reader for not understanding some of the basics that a scientist may already know. He will devote pages, sometimes chapters, to describing and explaining any underpinning theory on which a later chapter may rely. It is a great skill to be able to disseminate and describe so ably to the lay reader some of the complex ideas in his books. He does so without ever losing track of the discussion, or losing the reader.

You cannot possibly write about Richard Dawkins without mentioning his atheism. He is well known for his criticism of creationism and intelligent design. He was one of the founders of the Bright movement (of which I am a proud member). In his 2006 book The God Delusion, Dawkins contends that "a supernatural creator almost certainly does not exist and that religious faith is a delusion—a fixed false belief." As of January 2010, the English language version has sold more than two million copies and has been translated into 31 languages, making it his most popular book to date.

I read this book not long after it came out. It is the most comprehensive dismantling of religion I have ever come across. He uses his skill for well constructed debate and argument to powerful effect. Dawkins contends that a supernatural creator almost certainly does not exist and that belief in a personal god qualifies as a delusion, which he defines as a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence. He is sympathetic to Robert Pirsig's statement in Lila that "when one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion."

Richard Dawkins is a great supporter of critical thinking, of rational based decision making where evidence is fundamental. This comes through strongly in his writing. He is not afraid to tackle a subject, even supposedly sacred ones or taboo ones such as religion. He argues from fact, from science, from evidence. So when Richard Dawkins sets his sights on his intended target, you know with certainly that his arguments will be robust and based on hard evidence and science.

I admire Dawkins's writing skills, the fact that he can make complex ideas understandable to the lay reader who is sufficiently motivated to make the effort to learn about the topic. I admire his tenacity and heretical values. He is a fierce opponent who is not afraid of polemic. He does not shy away from debate or challenging long established doctrines and beliefs. His weapons of choice when debating are evidence, critical thinking and rationalism. These are traits we should all employ when discussing and debating ideas and theories.


  1. Good post. I share your enthusiasm for Dawkins.

  2. Thanks Peter. You may also enjoy my Heroes article about Lance Armstrong: