on 11 January 2014
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.
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.
on 24 August 2014
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.
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.
on 5 October 2013
I really like Richard Dawkins, his insight and argument on many topics are delightful to read and watch. I wanted this autobiography to tell me more about the man and his life and the first half of the book did this. The second half of the book, whilst a good scientific read, was not autobiographical until you got to the last 20% of it; it was a description of his research, methodology and lists of largely unknown people he had studied under/with etc. This content may be interesting to a very narrow band of readers and for those of us who have already read his scientific papers and books, it is going over the same ground. Richard stops halfway through his life, so presumably there's a 2nd book on the way. I wanted to learn all ebout the interactions and relationships he developed with other public figures; I wanted the personal stuff too, his marriages, family etc, so presumably I'll have to wait for the sequel? Some good reading in the first half but overall, disappointed.
A straightforward account of Dawkins' early life and his studies and work up to the time of The Selfish Gene.
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.
on 12 September 2013
I've had the chance to read most of Richard Dawkins' books. This one is among my favourites of those, and with it being a memoir, easier to read than the sometimes more challenging pieces describing the mechanics of biological evolution, of which I started out as just a layman trying to understand more on the subject.
One of my favourite parts is when Richard's musing about the way his character as a person and student has developed over time since his childhood. The way it's often considered that 'the child is the father of the man' - put into a way I've never heard expressed before. I had intended to read it over several days, but once I started reading it was difficult to stop.
Definitely a book I'd recommend - especially so for fans of Richard's work, both on his religious thoughts, and how his interest in evolution by natural selection came to fruition. Also for those just curious about the man himself and how he came to be who he is today - well up to his mid 30s. This book follows him from infancy to the publication of 'The Selfish Gene'. The second part of the memoir is due to come out in 2015, and I look forward to owning a copy.
on 20 September 2013
I have read all of Richard Dawkins's books and have found them a revelation. Each one has been carefully thought through and empirical proof set out in such a way as to allow anyone to check his findings. Many have tried to undermine the facts portrayed, yet this is always an irrational attack ignoring reality and tending to attack the man, who remains and easy yet impregnable target. The facts stand regardless of authoritarian rhetoric and hyperbole.
'An Appetite for Wonder' is a Memoir and will allow small minded religious non-entities to attack his personal upbringing (I have yet to see any sigs of kindness from religeous types) such is the way with these silly people, but it gave me a chance to see how a great mind evolves. And evolve it did. Do not expect prose coloured by artistic licence - Dawkins is a man with a logical mind. Instead expect an echo of Empire in his early days and a very honest explanation of how he felt as a child, a very difficult thing to write openly about, giving a brief glimpse into the maturing of a mind from infancy to adulthood. He gives a child's explanation of his religious beliefs when young (religious belief always remains childlike) and the growing realisation that it made little sense to what is real. Answers were sought to questions which faith ignored.
Yet this is not just a book about the development of the greatest thinking mind of the present century yet. It is interwoven amongst farms, schools, an unabashedly happy childhood and an adolescence which is looked back on with slight embarrasment. This is the thing with Dawkins - his perceived arrogence is not real; his logic may make him seem that way, but there are times when a huge intellect finds it hard to appreciate the rate of perception of slighly slower minds. It struck me through the final chapters of this first volume that he is a gentle man. His own intellect surprises him at times yet he uses it to make, or break, hypothosies regardless of the outcome. The fire in his belly is obvous as these last few chapters are full of science, set out simply enough, but still tough for a chap like me with a more industrial intellect.
Richard Dawkins did not dismiss belief in gods of any type without thought and seeking proof outside of the human brain and wishful thinking. He checked and looked at the evidence. He did not baulk from that. But that was not the driving force - showing the inanity of faith-based belief was not the agenda. Understanding was. 'The Selfish Gene' proved he has a beautiful mind - it is sublime in its explanation of Darwin. Darwin was a genius. Richard Dawkins is close, but must be well on the way as he upsets the same primitive people that the writer of the 'Origin of Species ..' managed so long agao.
This is a very honest book though not one to reveal any scandals ('not that sort of book'). Dawkins has left himself open to his critics, but only they will be horrible about it - it is all they have. For those who read Dawkins, weighed up the facts presented and learned to respect and admire him, this is a book for you. I enjoyed every page and thank him for this glimpse into his development, personal life and thought processes. He will know the guns will be out and be mildly surprised at the vitriol, but will shrug that off. Dawkins by natural selection will become a fixture in the libraries of all who think. Excellent!
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.
on 1 January 2014
Big fan of Dawkins but this book does no more than walk through his life, with little personal insight or humour. worth reading, but don't expect too much.