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Justin Fox

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Richard Dawkins: An Appetite for Wonder

The Making of a Scientist

An Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins

Reviewer: Justin Fox

As a young graduate student at Oxford, I lit upon the idea of writing my doctoral thesis on literature about islands. I wanted to examine how the theory of evolution had changed the way novelists wrote about islands. My supervisor, a lovable Yeats scholar of intemperate habits, suggested I steep myself first in Darwin and then ‘the chap over the wall at New College’.
Richard Dawkins was disparagingly referred to by many at Oxford as a ‘media don’, courting the limelight and appearing perhaps a little too often on the BBC. Not to be deterred, I started with The Selfish Gene and worked my way through his oeuvre. His work perfectly explained the mechanisms of Neo-Darwinism and confirmed my own atheism. During four years at Oxford, Dawkins provided perhaps the most influential material I read, but I never met the man.
So it was with no small degree of anticipation that I opened An Appetite for Wonder. At last I would meet him, albeit only in the candid flesh of autobiography.
The memoir concentrates on the first half of his life and doesn’t deal with the later fame and controversy (get ready for part two). He focuses on his ancestry, early life in Africa, intellectual awakenings at Oxford, and his journey to writing The Selfish Gene.
One of the most entertaining, and indeed original, aspects of this memoir is the way Dawkins interprets aspects of his past in scientific or ideological terms. It provides for some illuminating and amusing digressions. Talk of his ancestors leads him to analysing exactly what proportion of his genes comes from which forebear. When expounding on his circumcision, he laments the fact that preventing the practice today gets vetoed by religious sentimentality. What about the child’s rights, he argues. ‘Religion enjoys astonishing privileges in our societies, privileges denied to almost any other special interest group one can think of.’
His childhood reading is viewed in ecological terms: Doctor Dolittle books are redeemed of their racism by their more prominent anti-speciesism. When recounting the loss his virginity, he takes a moment to tell us why the nervous system has made sexual congress such a heightened experience. His wit is dry as a bone; the book could have done with more of it.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the memoir, especially for African readers, is his colonial childhood. Dawkins was born in Kenya in 1941 and spent his early years in Malawi. He paints a charming picture of an African childhood, rich with anecdotes and the peculiarities of a colonial existence. There are holidays on the Lake of Stars, endless tea parties, wild animals as pets and the like. The voice is one of nostalgia and the result is some of his most evocative prose.
The second half of the book follows Dawkins back to England and the cold environment of boarding school. Bullying and peer pressure were so widespread, so ‘tribal’, he thinks it must have some explanation in evolutionary psychological terms. However there was one inspirational teacher who put the young scientist on the road to Oxford.
In some respects, An Appetite for Wonder is a praise song for Oxford. Arriving there in 1959, Dawkins began studying zoology and was introduced to the tutorial system. It’s to this unique educational method that he credits his intellectual awakening, as it invites students to become scholars by encouraging them to pose rigorous questions and trawl libraries for the latest research.
A stellar student career led him to a post at New College, where he remains a fellow to this day. The book presents detailed descriptions of his early Popperian experiments in animal behaviour, such as an analysis of the pecking patterns of new-born chick. Perhaps too detailed. There’s only so much beak pecking, fly grooming and cricket song a lay reader can comfortably handle.
His career at Oxford took an unexpected turn when, in 1973, a general strike caused lengthy electricity cuts, and he was forced to pause his research. Provoked by the widespread misunderstanding of natural selection, he began writing The Selfish Gene, in which he set out to popularise an idea whose time he sensed had come.
Unlike most scientists, Dawkins is a fine wordsmith with a gift for analogy and quirky expression. However, this memoir does leave one a little short on satisfaction. He is strong an ancestry and childhood, but the later chapters are burdened with the detailed mechanics of his science and do not give us enough of the man.
In personal matters, he is candid about his youth but more circumspect about his adult life. There is no disclosure of indiscretions here. Dawkins writes in detail about the men who guided him, but glosses over one key collaborator, Marian Stamp, who was also his first wife. ‘It isn’t that kind of autobiography,’ he coyly asserts.
Well, fair enough, perhaps, but is surely not beyond his formidable literary talent to balance discretion with something of their personal and professional relationship, even if things went awry?
In fact, Dawkins is nice about almost everyone in this memoir. Let’s hope there’s less pulling of punches in part two.

 

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