There may be no other academic figure alive today who can match the celebrity of Richard Dawkins. That certainly seemed to be the case at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Wednesday, where Dawkins lectured to a packed crowd on what he called “Darwin’s Five Bridges.”
The “bridges,” a metaphor for the historic inception and development of the theory of evolution, illustrate the incremental theoretical achievements of Charles Darwin and his contemporaries. For example, while some of his fellow biologists managed to cross the first and second bridge—grasping the insight that natural selection’s force was not only to weed out unfit individuals but also to drive morphological change—Darwin, seeing further, crossed the third and fourth bridges, recognizing not only that natural selection explained the workings of all organic life but also that such a grand story ought to receive the treatment only a full-length book could provide.
In 1859, that book turned into Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a book that, in Dawkins’s words, “struck the Victorian solar plexus like a steam hammer.”
Formerly the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, Dawkins has published numerous books on evolutionary theory, with the aim of making digestible its arresting complexity and abstraction. Arguably the most influential of those books, The Selfish Gene fundamentally altered biologists’ conception of the relation between DNA and the engine of evolution: natural selection.
Renowned as he is for his contributions to science, Dawkins is almost certainly more famous (or infamous, depending on whom you talk to) for his foray into the denunciation of religion and the championing of atheism. Encapsulating his feud with religious faith, The God Delusion, published in 2006, caused an outpouring of both praise and outrage, making the soft- and eloquently spoken professor a dual icon of wisdom and contempt.
Dawkins’s institute, The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, makes its mission to support scientific literacy and appreciation, critical thinking, and a fact-based understanding of the natural world in order “to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance, and suffering.”