Dawkins was born in Nairobi, Kenya. His father, Clinton John Dawkins (1915–2010), was an agricultural civil servant in the British colonial service in Nyasaland (now Malawi). Dawkins has a younger sister. His father was called up into the King's African Rifles during World War II; he returned to England in 1949, when Dawkins was eight. His father had inherited a country estate, Over Norton Park, which he turned into a commercial farm. Both his parents were interested in natural sciences; they answered Dawkins's questions in scientific terms.
Dawkins describes his childhood as "a normal Anglican upbringing". He was confirmed, and embraced Christianity until his mid-teens, at which point he concluded that the theory of evolution was a better explanation for life's complexity, and ceased believing in a god. Dawkins states: "the main residual reason why I was religious was from being so impressed with the complexity of life and feeling that it had to have a designer, and I think it was when I realised that Darwinism was a far superior explanation that pulled the rug out from under the argument of design. And that left me with nothing."
He attended Oundle School, an English public school with a distinct Church of England flavour, from 1954 to 1959, where he was in Laundimer house. He studied zoology at Balliol College, Oxford, graduating in 1962; while there, he was tutored by Nobel Prize-winning ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen. He continued as a research student under Tinbergen's supervision, receiving his M.A. and D.Phil. degrees by 1966, and remained a research assistant for another year. Tinbergen was a pioneer in the study of animal behaviour, particularly in the areas of instinct, learning and choice; Dawkins's research in this period concerned models of animal decision-making.
From 1967 to 1969, he was an assistant professor of zoology at the University of California, Berkeley. During this period, the students and faculty at UC Berkeley were largely opposed to the ongoing Vietnam War, and Dawkins became heavily involved in the anti-war demonstrations and activities. He returned to the University of Oxford in 1970, taking a position as a lecturer. In 1990, he became a reader in zoology. In 1995, he was appointed Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, a position that had been endowed by Charles Simonyi with the express intention that the holder "be expected to make important contributions to the public understanding of some scientific field", and that its first holder should be Richard Dawkins.
Since 1970, he has been a fellow of New College, Oxford. He has delivered a number of inaugural and other lectures, including the Henry Sidgwick Memorial Lecture (1989), the first Erasmus Darwin Memorial Lecture (1990), the Michael Faraday Lecture (1991), the T. H. Huxley Memorial Lecture (1992), the Irvine Memorial Lecture (1997), the Sheldon Doyle Lecture (1999), the Tinbergen Lecture (2004) and the Tanner Lectures (2003). In 1991, he gave the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures for Children on Growing Up in the Universe. He has also served as editor of a number of journals, and has acted as editorial advisor to the Encarta Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Evolution. He is a senior editor of the Council for Secular Humanism's Free Inquiry magazine, for which he also writes a column. He has been a member of the editorial board of Skeptic magazine since its foundation.
He has sat on judging panels for awards as diverse as the Royal Society's Faraday Award and the British Academy Television Awards, and has been president of the Biological Sciences section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2004, Balliol College, Oxford instituted the Dawkins Prize, awarded for "outstanding research into the ecology and behaviour of animals whose welfare and survival may be endangered by human activities". In September 2008, he retired from his professorship, announcing plans to "write a book aimed at youngsters in which he will warn them against believing in 'anti-scientific' fairytales."
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