Richard Dawkins gives us an interesting look back on his life to date. Midway through it does become a trifle heavy with description of the experiments he carried out in his earlier scientific work, but overall an interesting read from one of our very best intellects.
I am a great admirer of Dawkins, although I read his atheist and humanist works before dipping my toe in 'The Selfish Gene' pool. As such, I was predisposed to be charmed by 'An Appetite For Wonder', and in many ways it didn't disappoint. The early part of the book, with its loving descriptions of talented ancestors and stories of African childhood, had me gently chuckling, particularly the anecdote about the lions and the "vroom vroom".
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.
I must say I really enjoyed this book. I don't know very much about Dawkins, other than the fact that he's a prominent scientist and has outspoken views on religion but this first half of his autobiography was very interesting, much more so than the 'celebrity' autobiographies that clutter up our high street book stores.
The book takes you through a bit of family history, then from his early years living in colonial Africa, then to his later childhood in England, and up to the point where he published The Selfish Gene. The second part of the autobiography is yet to be published and is hopefully forthcoming.
Private Eye did a hatchet job on this book and they were being completely unfair. It's not a masterpiece but it's still a good read.
They criticised Dawkins for being arrogant but I don't see it: he strikes me as the opposite here, often expressing sentiments like `I didn't deserve it', or `I should have worked harder'. OF COURSE there's going to be a few `boasts' that some (particularly the jealous and antagonistic) will object to - Dawkins IS one of the world's greatest scientists and thinkers; there's only so humble a man like this can be.
The Eye, in its hyper-critical, hyper-cynical way, also complained about Dawkins expressing his scepticism of religious beliefs while he discussed his formative years. But these comments are very occasional. And I wished there was more of them - one of the slight disappointments of the book is that there isn't more criticism of religion.
They were right to say the book is essentially in two halves, the first Dawkins' childhood and `non-scientific' reminiscences, the second sometimes very technical descriptions of his work at Oxford. I too would have liked a little more about the person and other subjects besides the ones he dwells on. But it's a solid book, and sometimes a highly amusing one, and I look forward to part two in two years time, which I suspect will be better.
Some of the people who have criticized this book are not actually criticizing it but are expressing their distaste for the man. Or perhaps their ideas of the man, as others have represented him. They should read this book and think again.
For one thing, the memoir is free of arrogance; in fact, he is surprisingly self-deprecating in many places, is capable of sensitive reflection, and is aware of the role of good fortune and chance as handmaidens in helping achieve the status and accomplishment he has enjoyed. Although there is the occasional side-swipe against religion, the last thing you could say coming away from this book is that Dawkins is a man obsessed with overthrowing organised religion. He shows he is capable of being gracious to individual believers that he has known, even if he has little time for religion intellectually. The book is positive. He talks about what has inspired him: his parents, the people and ideas that have inspired him. His sources of inspiration are not limited to science – the wellsprings of his inspirations have included poetry and literature. This is not the bilious fulminations of an embittered hater.
It is a conventional autobiography in its structure – it starts from his earliest memories, ends when he just published ‘The Selfish Gene’, when he was in his mid-thirties. It is not a masterpiece of autobiography but it offers a sense of Dawkins formative influences, and what makes him tick. There is nothing flashy in this. He does not give much away about his personal life – ‘it is not that sort of biography’, he writes. But that doesn’t bother me. I am more interested in what he thinks rather than endless navel-gazing about why he has turned out the way he has. There are stimulating observations about the nature of memory, especially one’s earliest memories, and the impossibility of knowing for sure why we turn out the way we do.
There are occasional passages where Dawkins digresses, and the details of the technical sections of his early research are not the most engaging passages that Dawkins has written – he comes across of something of a nerd in some parts. But the chapter on the intellectual journey that inspired him to write The Selfish Gene is an extremely good. Natural selection works on individuals not groups. Evolution does not care about the good of the group. This is a position some leftish writers like Steven Rose deplore but they overlook it also undermines the pretensions of right-wing social Darwinism, which itself a perverted form of group selection theory. If evolution only cares about individual survival, then it could not by definition care about a group that calls itself the ‘master race.’ Nonetheless, Dawkins wishes that he had called his book ‘The Immortal Gene’ – that would surely have led to fewer misunderstandings and conveyed the essence of the theory better.
So overall, I agree with the reviewer ‘Charles’ that it is no masterpiece but still worth reading. Unlike him, I give it four, not three stars and I look forward to the second volume.
This is an interesting and enjoyable book - mainly autobigraphical in content, but with a fair amount of scientific explanation along the way. Taking the reader through a brief history of his family and his early life, Dawkins covers his childhood in Africa and England, his time at boarding school, and his formative experiences at Balliol College, Oxford, before concluding with the publication of his first book, the Selfish Gene, in 1976 when the author was thirty-five.
For the most part this makes for light and entertaining reading. There is little in the way of disclosure about the author's personal life here- instead this is, as advertised, the story of the making of a scientist - it is more about the author's cerebral life and intellectual development than it is a conventional autobiography. I found one or two of the chapters, particularly the chapter entitled ' a computer fix' in which Dawkins goes into some detail about his development of computer programming as part of his researches, very technical and rather hard to follow.
However, the fascinating concluding chapter in which Dawkins muses on whether life follows a path, or is the result of random events like a sneeze, more than makes up for the few pages which i found hard to follow, and I shall look forward to the publication of the second volume of these memoirs in due course.
Oh dear, just as I expected. The Great Dawkins came from a Christian family. This explains his evangelical obsession with religion. He has yet to learn that shopping centres open on Sunday are far more of a threat to religious belief than his denunciations. Ignore religion and it fizzles out. Condemn it or even persecute it and it thrives. Elementary one might think. But too subtle for this zealot. The trouble with this book is that the author depicts himself as a such a bumptious prig that it may prove a recruiting drive for religion. If such a man as this is opposed to it perhaps there is some truth in it after all.
I do not think that the vituperation of a mediocre scientist (as he was once described to me by an Oxford professor of science - though not a Balliol man so probably not relevant)is likely to bring about the collapse of Christianity let alone of any other faith. He too can be guilty of bad faith, sloppy research and intellectual dishonesty the sort of criticisms he so often levels at the religious. A few years ago on a documentary around the premise of non religious altruism he visited the 999 club for the homeless and needy of Deptford as an example. When a friend of mine wrote to him pointing out that the 999 Club was founded by two members of St Paul's Church (one of whom he interviewed in the program!) in honour and imitation of the work of the late Father Diamond the celebrated local priest, that two clergymen were among it trustees, and the Archbishop of Canterbury was its patron) he of course got no reply. Need I say more. It does not seem to have occurred to Prof Dawkins that one can speak of one's good works in the community without even mentioning God and yet being motivated at least I part by religious faith. This is a nuance and subtlety beyond the ken of this author. This autobiography shows why. Don't waste your money. Even the Bible is a better buy. At least it is a classic, and in the authorised version, a great work of English Literature.