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An Appetite For Wonder: The Making of a Scientist Audio CD – Audiobook, CD, Unabridged
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"Most geeks cannot write; this one can... Equipped with an undoubted gift for expression, Dawkins the writer comes with a unique pedigree" (Richard Fortey Guardian)
"Lyrical... brilliant... Dawkins’ style [is] clear and elegant" (Financial Times)
"This eloquent, witty and instructive book reveals the true Richard Dawkins. It's a great read." (A.C. Grayling)
"Throughout and as usual, Dawkins's writing is graceful, sparkling with anecdotes and wit" (Eugenie Scott, Nature)
"Affirmative nostalgia suits [Dawkins], and so does the good humour that imbues his writing about home... The voice is familiar but the tone is new, and the result is some of his most pleasing prose... The clarity and passion with which he recalls his childhood is matched by the clarity, passion, concerns and imagery – fairness, bullying, kindness to animals – with which he expresses the values he has maintained since then... An Appetite for Wonder speaks eloquently about where his values and preoccupations came from... Warmly illuminating about the making of Dawkins the humanist." (Marek Kohn, Independent)
An early memoir from the world's most famous atheist, and scientist.See all Product description
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The second chapter leaves all this behind, and is altogether charming. Dawkins’ father was in the agricultural department of the Colonial Service, and had been posted to East Africa. Richard was born in Kenya in 1941 and spent his first two years there and the next six in Nyasaland. His mother wrote up those days in a diary, and very vividly, too: there are many excerpts from it. She also recorded Richard’s doings and funny sayings. Like all small children, he believed what he was told – e.g. that animals who have died go the Happy Hunting Ground – and the adult Dawkins comments on how wrong it is to tell children such falsehoods. He had a very happy childhood, and was miserable only when the family went to England on leave and during his two terms at a boarding school in Southern Rhodesia. Both his parents were interested in science, and at about the age of six, Richard, too, began to be fascinated by it.
In 1949 his father inherited a farming estate in Oxfordshire, and the family left Africa. Richard went to a boarding school in Salisbury, and from there he would go on to Oundle. (For his American readers he explains what the English mean by prep schools and public schools.) His account of his prep school days is very readable, but not very significant except for his reflections on how, as a child, he could cheerfully witness bullying, and of course on how readily he believed things he was told, not just terrifying stories told by another boy but, more importantly, about religion. The same goes for his chapter on his time at Oundle, with a lot of pleasant but not very important reminiscences, but ending, when he was sixteen or seventeen, with him becoming ostentatiously rejecting Christianity and all other particular religions, though for a time he “bamboozled” himself into believing in the “elementary fallacy” that there is a God who had designed the world. It was not long before he rejected that idea, too, in favour of Darwin and natural selection. But, considering Dawkins’ militant atheism, there is relatively little of it in this volume – perhaps it became more of an obsession for him in later life, and perhaps he will deal with it in the next volume of his autobiography, which will deal with the period in which he published “The God Delusion” (2006).
From Oundle he went to Balliol College, Oxford, to read Zoology. The chapter on his undergraduate days follows the same pattern: pleasant reminiscences, explanations of Oxford college and university life which will be familiar to any who have been there (but not to Americans – I always have the feeling that the author always remembers his American market); and then aspects of zoology, such as the interaction of genes with each other, which thrilled him but which are perhaps a little hard going for some readers. Here and later he is unstintingly generous in his tributes the academics who taught him, inspired him, or developed his ideas.
We are just over half-way through the book when Dawkins becomes a post-graduate research worker (and later a Fellow of New College) and describes some of his experiments, notably the pecking behaviour of chicken, in great detail, which unfortunately is beyond my understanding. Much of this work was statistical and involved the use of early computers of the 1960s – huge machines spewing out paper tapes. He also goes into details about the programmes he wrote for these early models and about what he managed to get these early models to do – all Greek to me. I am afraid it has put me off reading the second volume of his autobiography.
I understood better the central idea – though not all its implications - of the theory of the “Selfish Gene”: that it is the individual and not the species that is the vehicle for transmitting genes (some successful, others less so) to the next generation. The book (his first) also launched the concept of the meme (the replicator of ideas, as a gene is the replicator of physical attributes). The story of how he came to start on the book (during the miners’ strike in 1973, when frequent power cuts forced him to interrupt his computer-based research on crickets), how it came to be published (in 1976 when he was 35, and how it was so sensationally successful makes a fine ending to this volume.
For quality I am sure the book deserves five stars, even though at least a quarter of it was beyond my understanding. But what I did understand was beautifully written and very enjoyable.
I listened to the author narrating his book, and enjoyed his voice and style, it was easy to follow and a fascinating look at his young life - and also quite honest.
While some of the science is covered in more detail than I personally would delve myself, it's not overlong, and is important in his story.
Small snippets about the religious (or otherwise) ideas that will surely feature more strongly in the second part of his autobiography are there as well.
We see his childhood, schooldays, interest in biology growing, his days at university and his path into the adult world of academia and also glimpses into his private life.
This is not a long book, being only half the story, but does give useful background to a very well-known man, one that I found refreshing and illuminating. I will be looking out for part 2.
As Dawkins began to describe his schooling, I found myself puzzled. The prose seemed ever so slightly stilted, lacking the elegant styling and perfect expression of thought I was expecting. Perhaps this is the inevitable product of memories incompletely recalled? Perhaps Dawkins the writer-scientist has too much integrity to flesh out a reminiscence with words or details for which he has no evidence? And on one or two occasions I found myself noticing repetition of thought - perhaps some things are of such significance to the writer that he deliberately repeated them, or perhaps an indulgent editor let them pass.
The harshness of Dawkins' self-criticism took me aback - on just one spread he writes, of his schoolboy self: "What was the point of such boasting? I shall never know..."; "That attitude was so stupid it's pretty self-evident that I didn't deserve to do well in class anyway..."; "I was evidently very confused..."; "It ludicrously occurred to me..."; "Among many other things I got wrong here..." Why so hard on himself? He was just a boy at the time. Then again, as he points out, there is no physical part of Dawkins now that was also in the boy Dawkins, so in some ways he is writing of an Other to which he is linked only by the quasi-miraculous chance of memory.
Dawkins' humanism comes through strongly when he writes of his regret at the bullying he was witness to, and he is scrupulously even-handed when recalling the virtues and vices of all the characters he speaks of - even the paedophiles. There was no point in the book at which I thought Dawkins was being boastful or arrogant, even though in describing 'The Selfish Gene' and the genesis of meme theory he is speaking of his role as the author of life-changing ideas. He is entitled to sing his own praises if he wants to. But it doesn't feel as though he does.
'An Appetite for Wonder' takes flight in the last chapter, when Dawkins lights on a structure that allows him to praise Charles Darwin while ostensibly writing of himself, and I closed the book feeling that I had been in the presence of an author who is really rather ambivalent about autobiography. I can well imagine that he would rather treat of any subject other than his own history. He writes (beautifully) of "the contingent frailty of the event chain that led to our existence", and I could easily be persuaded that it is not what happened in his (or anyone's) life that matters to him, but why. So many of the smaller, more personal details are missing from the book that I don't feel I know much more about Dawkins the man than I did before; possibly a straight biography could be better written by another. For example, I longed to know how his success was received by his parents. By his own admission they made sacrifices to give him the kind of education he had - were they pleased with the result?
A final observation is that I was slightly surprised to find that this is only the first of a projected two-part work - I might have expected the publisher to advertise the `Part One' nature of the book a little more obviously. Then again, it is subtly hinted at in the subtitle - `The Making of a Scientist' - so presumably in Part Two we will join Dawkins the fully formed scientist on his journey to becoming the influential public figure he is today.
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