It looks like a scene in a mad-scientist movie, but Oxford’s Dr. Richard Dawkins is studying the response of female crickets to the computer-simulated mating calls of the male. Dawkins is a sociobiologist, one of a new breed of scientists who specialize in the biological causes of animal behavior. “I love to solve the intellectual problems of my specialty,” he says. “It’s the kind of game people like me play.”
Based on his studies, Dawkins, 36, has developed a theory about the survival of species. It is described in his book The Selfish Gene, which recently was published in the U.S. He says the seemingly “altruistic” acts of many species are the result of genes trying to perpetuate themselves. “Even man,” says Dawkins, “is a gene machine, a robot vehicle blindly programmed to preserve its selfish genes. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism. Let us understand what our selfish genes are up to because we may then have the chance to upset their designs—something no other species has ever aspired to.”
Born in Nairobi (his father was a civil servant), Dawkins was packed off at 8 to an English boarding school, where he embraced zoology, refused to kneel in chapel and, at 16, discovered Charles Darwin. After graduating at 21 from Oxford—where his father had read botany and his grandfather forestry—he stayed on and became a don.
Dawkins’ zoologist wife, Marian, an Oxford Ph.D. whom he tutored in 1964 when she was an undergraduate, has an office four doors from his. She is doing behavioral research on hens. They hope to collaborate on a sequel to The Selfish Gene, examining nervous systems and their effect on behavior. At the moment their own genes seem destined not to be passed on. Marian doesn’t want children and Richard goes along. “It’s not irrevocable,” says Richard. “It’s not something that appeals to me,” ripostes Marian.