Richard Dawkins was born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1941. His father, by profession a agricultural civil servant in British colonial Africa, had joined the King’s African Rifles during the Second World War. Dawkins spent the first part of his childhood in Nyasaland, then a British colony and now called Malawi. Aged eight his family returned to England where his father inherited a country estate near Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire. His father converted the estate into a commercial farm and home for the family.
Dawkins’ upbringing was typically Anglican, he was confirmed and believed in God until his mid-teens when, having read about Darwin’s theory of evolution, he realised that it offered a “superior explanation” for the existence of life. This discovery was to mark his life incalculably, becoming the focus of his scientific career.
Having attended Oundle School Dawkins studied Zoology at Balliol College, Oxford where he was tutored by Nikolaas Tinbergen. He graduated with a second-class degree in 1962. Continuing his studies he worked towards both an MA and D.Phil, focusing on the study of animal decision making. Whilst at Oxford he met Marian Stamp, an expert in animal behaviour who would become one of the leading world experts on animal welfare. They married in 1967.
Between 1967 and 1969 he was an assistant professor at Berkley, California where he continued his research in evolutionary biology, whilst at the same time becoming involved in the anti-Vietnam protest movement. He returned to Oxford University in 1970 to become a lecturer and work on a book based on his years of research.
The first book by Richard Dawkins was published in 1976 and was titled The Selfish Gene, something he had been working on for a number of years. The book would become one of the most important scientific texts of the 20th century, causing a revolution in the understanding of evolution. The book proposed that the primary engine for evolution was genetic, the genes themselves persuade organisms to evolve, not, as was previously assumed, group behaviour. The success of the book lead to Dawkins being heralded in the media as the successor to Darwin. The book’s success even went so far as to coin a new phrase to the English language – ‘meme’ (meaning a unit of cultural evolution, analogous to biological evolution).
With his new found celebrity and status Dawkins was able to become the world’s leading exponent of the theory of evolution. Books by Richard Dawkins and his stature as a renowned academic and passionate atheist have often led to controversy and criticism from religious leaders. His book The Blind Watchmaker (1986) expanded on his theory of gene-centred evolution whilst rationally examining the arguments for the ‘intelligent design’ theory of creation and caused considerable controversy on its release.
Having witnessed the 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, Dawkins came to the conclusion that religion was not 'harmless nonsense, [but] it can be lethally dangerous nonsense' and decided to write a book that would challenge all arguments for religious faith, not merely those related to evolutionary biology.
The most controversial of all the books by Richard Dawkins,The God Delusion, was published in 2006, and catapulted him to even greater fame as the figurehead for international atheism. The book collected together the arguments for a higher power and attacked each one rationally. It champions the message that atheists and society in general can be happy, balanced and moral without the need for belief in a higher power. It caused enormous controversy, suggesting that religion is not only false belief but a malevolent force. Since publication it has sold over 1.5 million copies. The book was dedicated to the late Douglas Adams, Dawkins’ friend. The preface includes Adams' quote 'Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?'.
Adams was also responsible for introducing Dawkins to his third wife Lalla Ward, an actress known for appearing in Doctor Who, a popular TV programme which Adams wrote for. They have been together since 1994. Now semi-retired, Dawkins recently published a book explaining secular arguments to children and young adults – The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True.