An English ethnologist and evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins was born in Nairobi during the onset of World War II. Spending his formative years in a biologically diverse environment of Africa, the young Dawkins probably cultivated his naturalistic perspectives in East Africa until his family returned to England in 1949. After what can be considered as being a traditional English education, Dawkins continued his education at Oxford, whereby he graduated in 1962. After graduating from Oxford, Dawkins remained and received his doctorate in ethnology under the eminent ethnologist Dr. Niko Tinbergen. Pursuing a career in teaching, Dawkins was appointed to an assistant professorship of zoology at the University of California at Berkeley in 1967. Upon completion of this appointment, he returned to Oxford in 1969 as lecturer in zoology and was elected a fellow of the New College in 1970. Dawkins holds the Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science (1995).
Richard Dawkins is noted for his ability to relate highly scientific knowledge, such as genetics, to the general public. His most noted books include The Selfish Gene (1979), The Extended Phenotype (1982), The Blind Watchmaker (1986), River out of Eden (1995), and Climbing Mount Improbable (1996). He has also published multitude of articles, coauthored books, and book reviews. Dawkins has lectured internationally and has received multiple awards and honors. He also received honorary doctorates in both science and literature.
Contributions and Perspectives
In the area of science, particularly concerning the processes of biological evolution, the general public has been given an array of theoretical interpretations concerning the biological mechanisms that explain the diversity of life on this planet. Acknowledging the cultural influence on these interpretations (e.g., religious or vitalistic beliefs), Richard Dawkins continues to provide the public with an understandable materialistic explanation of complex scientific knowledge that was attained during the last century. Although he is not considered a philosopher of science, his materialistic interpretation of biological processes has caused severe criticisms, essentially labeling him either a biological determinist or an extreme reductionist. Being a defender of Darwinian evolution, Dawkins poses a plausible relationship between biological processes and expressed behavior within an evolutionary framework.
Taking a purely materialistic view of concerning the processes of evolution, the process of adaptive radiation and speciation has accounted for both the diversity and complexity of organic life found on this planet. Although Dawkins himself supports a Darwinian gradualist’s view of the evolutionary process, he does hold that a momentary punctuation in evolution could be supported by several factors, among them being mutations, extinctions, and exponential growth of more suitable organisms within an ecological niche. Though in this manner, life may seem to possess a creative teleology stemming from a complex design, the implications from the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) molecule dissolves any remote theological plausibility. The four base units, adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine (A, T, C, G) is the first cause and only cause from the outgrowth of the symbiotic relationship among the various cells and/or tissues within an organism. Essentially, we are replicators (vessels) for our genes. Within the processes of life, the DNA is beyond the scope of good or evil; their existence drives us to action and replication.
With the concept of the Selfish Gene (1976), Dawkins illustrates the extensive and influential role that biology has on behavior. The strategy is simple; establish a productive cost-benefit analysis that would increase the chances for both survival and reproduction. Since an organism has only a limited amount of energy, any expenditure of energy would ultimately dictate an organism’s behavior. Examples could be seen through out the diversity of life, including our species. For a “moral” species, the implications become evident; there are no metaphysical dimensions with altruistic intentions. This would certainly have great philosophical and theological implications. We do not act out from either natural law or some Kantian sense of duty, rather, our uncanny ability to recognize the genetic proximity of our genes and related acts of reciprocity that follow (cost-benefit analysis). The symbiosis between cells and the underlying genetic foundation within phenotypic expressions are critical within this process. Genes influence more than the organic material in which they inhabit and control.
Indirectly, genes influence the external world in which the organism exists. This directly opposes the traditional view of our species speculated by Aristotle (theologically by Thomas Aquinas) or by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). This mechanistic view, by which our species operates, along with a real united view of our species in relation to nature, redefines our onto-logical and teleological status, which is currently held as being philosophically or theologically infallible. It is the biologically based emotive/psychological properties (for example, desires for immortality) and cultural capabilities that create the reluctance for a philosophical shift. This fact withstanding, it is the driving intention that forces our species to be in control of any perception or perceptive qualities that becomes a point of our consciousness. Essentially, it is the individual’s psychological components that become an adaptive mechanism that accounts for the continuous “strategy” based on environmental interaction and modification. The adaptive response indicates an ongoing reciprocal relationship between the encapsulated genes and their extended environment.
Every organism has an impact on the ecology in which they live. Our species, by comparison of other species, has the greatest impact on the global environment. The reason for this global impact is due our species’ ability to adapt and survive in most environments found on this planet; all impart to the cultural capabilities of our species. In Dawkins’s theory on The Extended Phenotype (1982), he makes a clear point on how our genes have the ability to influence the environment around them. This is done through culture. Culture and cultural transmissions can be seen in terms of memes. Memes, units of imitation, are bits of information transmitted from brain to brain through human interaction. In this manner, memes are exposed to the same theoretical principles of evolution. The replication vessels of information, for example, both memes (resulting in complex thought) and their respective physical representations, are exposed to various selective forces. These selective processes can be either cultural (e.g., philosophically ritualistic) or random propagation of mutated memes. Although the implementation of the written word has reduced the possibility concerning the change in the original transmission, the creative ability and personal interpretation can itself become cultural adaptation (e.g., cultural transformation of mythology and various technologies). With the ability for greater ability for contemplation, the greatest implication resides in our species’ epistemology and resulting ontology and teleology.
The subtle underlying theme concerning the epistemology of our species becomes evident. Though there maybe behavior that is indicative of a biological nature as opposed to behaviorism, our species’ resulting behavior does not come into existence with either previous knowledge or knowledge separate from the biological components within the human brain. It is human consciousness that emerges from organic matter that allows for the ability for free acts of creativity and disposition for control. This position negates the claim of biological determinism that is often attributed to him by critics. The bases of the objections are not from critical analysis or the exploration of other possible suggestive scenarios; rather, the objections rendered are from the implications that severely question and nullify both the claims of spiritual dimension and the dualistic influences from René Descartes (1596-1650). Questions pertaining to mind and behavior can be explained in purely materialistic explanations. Cultural complexity, as seen with biological complexity, does not have any spiritual dimensions, even though it may have metaphysical connotations. The uncovering of motives or intensions within a biological framework (e.g., selfish memes), threatens the psychological stability of a sensitive creature within a dynamic and violent universe. This, in turn, somehow challenges the perception of our humanity in a qualitative manner, especially in terms of person-hood, aesthetics, and emotion. Erroneously, it is claimed that our species loses its humanity by accepting what science has already deemed as being highly probable. The philosophical implication for psychology, and to a greater extent theology, denies the mind/body dualism or the existence of the soul. It is in the human manipulation of these memes, especially in their propagation, that makes the natural selective process of evolution precarious (from the human standpoint), for overspecialization can lead to either personal or specieswide extinction.
Our species, which remains locked into an endless cycle of inquiry, seeks out answers that are more psychologically comforting than what is scientifically plausible. While acknowledging the impossible claims given by traditional religions and accepting the evidence given by science, some individuals seek untraditional answers that provide the same results given by traditional religions, an ontological and teleological design by an unknown, perhaps unknowable, designer. Their belief structures stem from the complex and creative processes, indicating complexity itself reflects a greater process that entails and encompasses the unknown. For these individuals, complexity is itself an indicator of something more grand and complex. Both design and designer have replaced Descartes’s mind and body and traditional theological answers concerning the philosophical implications for scientific discovery.
With the rise of human consciousness, the resulting cognitive processes have entailed our species to posses a greater degree of self-awareness. This greater self-reflective ability has resulted in the progressive concepts of the soul. Based on both metaphysics and human desire to transcend death, the resulting ontological and theological memes are resilient. As innovations and scientific discoveries are made, human imagination and creativity become apparent. For the theists and vitalist, the argument for design (ultimately, a designer, e.g., God) has become the answer to the materialistic interpretation of Darwinian evolution. In The Blind Watchmaker (1986) and Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), Dawkins gives an evolutionary account for complexity (e.g., the human eye), without any teleological sediment. Just as with organic evolution, the complexity found within nature is the expression of genetic information. Accumulative selection and intricate symbiotic relationships have resulted in the human eye, bodily development, and perhaps more important, consciousness rising from the human brain. All life on this planet owes its existence to the immortal coils of DNA.
In viewing Dawkins’s approach for our species, it is understandable why his critics erroneously label him a determinist or reductionist. The implications of his writings, as with Darwin, have far-reaching consequences for our species ontology and teleology. Challenging the traditional cosmologies, Dawkins gives a united materialistic account for life on this planet. His unique perspective concerning culture and behavior has brought our own species back to a naturalistic and evolutionary framework. When comparing our species’ behavior with other species, the traditional and sometimes spiritual position of our species within nature has greatly diminished. No longer can our species’ position be deemed separate and completely unique in nature. Our species, when compared, only differs in degree and not in kind. This implication can be seen stemming from Darwin’s scientific discovery of organic evolution. With the evolution of the human brain and memes, artificial intelligence has become more than a source of science fiction. This artificial intelligence may someday contribute or succeed our species for existence in this universe and beyond. As illustrated by Dawkins, no matter what will be involved, whether it is DNA or programmable microchips, the resulting product will always be subjected to the never-ending process of evolution.
- Dawkins, R. (1989). The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Dawkins, R. (1995). River out of Eden. New York: Basic Books.
- Dawkins, R. (1996). The blind watchmaker. New York: Norton.
- Dawkins, R. (1996). Climbing Mount Improbable. New York: Norton.
- Dawkins, R. (1998). Unweaving the rainbow. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
- Dawkins, R. (1999). The extended phenotype. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Dennett, D. C. (1991). Consciousness explained. New York: Back Bay Books.
- Dennett, D. C. (1995). Darwin’s dangerous idea. New York: Touchstone.
- Sterelny, Kim. (2001). Dawkins Vs. Gould: Survival of the fittest. Cambridge: Totem Books.