Richard Dawkins is, give or take a Stephen Hawking, our most famous scientist. He is also, give or take a Christopher Hitchens, our most famous atheist.
In An Appetite for Wonder, the first of a planned two-volume memoir, it is the scientist – budding and bloomed – who dominates.
The book takes him to 1976 and the publication of The Selfish Gene, a science-shaking sensation that made his fortune and turned him into the admired, and reviled, public intellectual he has become. His indifference to “correct” opinion regularly inflames Twitterworld. In the past few months alone, his trespasses – may they be forgiven – include: a tweet (he has more than 800,000 followers) that “all the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though”; an account of a pedophile schoolmaster who, er, interfered with Dawkins’s shorts, an incident he says did him no lasting harm; expressing the view that Shakespeare, though admittedly sublime in his works, might have improved had he had the foresight to be educated at Oxford or Cambridge.
And it is to Oxford that Dawkins returns again and again in this often charming, but oddly divided work. His catalogue of distinguished ancestors – scientists, academics, administrators of empire, even a general who helped lead the British to defeat in the American War of Independence – were largely Oxford men, or, rather, Balliol men. (Dawkins claims that he himself barely scraped in to Balliol, but I’m not sure I quite believe him.) And he is at Oxford still, a fellow of New College, though he’s rarely there, what with book tours, debates, lectures, media interviews (The Daily Show this week) and being named Prospect Magazine’s No. 1 World Thinker – which I hope came with a t-shirt.
After disposing of his ancestors, Dawkins gives us a vivid and envy-provoking account of an Edenic childhood in Africa. Born in Nairobi before it had malls to shoot up, he lived barefoot and bronzed in Nyasaland (now Malawi) with his adored and adoring parents. Indeed, he quotes liberally from his mother’s journals and reproduces among a fine gathering of photographs her delightful tableau painting with scenes from their African life, including pet chameleon and pet bushbaby. More than other accounts of white childhoods in Africa (Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight; J.M. Coetzee’s illusionless Youth), it conveys the enchanted nostalgia of lost time recaptured.
Given this, we might have expected Dawkins to be shocked by England. Expectations are met: A first glimpse of cold and dreary Liverpool chills and depresses him.
From there, it’s on to Richard Dawkins’s school days, a bit of Tom Brown, a bit of Mr. Chips. The arc of prep school/private school/Oxbridge finds the things we associate with that progression: casual cruelties, bullying, pointless regulation, girl-deprived homoeroticism, all mitigated by some open-minded, curiosity-inspiring teachers and eccentric headmasters.
Dawkins confesses to a youthful enthusiasm for religion (and for Elvis, not then necessarily such different things), which he gave up when he understood that the contrary claims of competing religions could not possibly all be true. By 16, “I became strongly and militantly atheist,” he writes.
Though there is no bitterness or score-settling, there lingers over this otherwise grateful memoir a slight air of resentment and that is the sense that childhood is violated by adult mendacity (he has compared early religious discipline to child abuse), the lies that, for instance, Santa Claus (never mind God) exists or that wishing – or praying – fervently enough will make something so.
That in mind, he returns frequently to the value of teaching children “the plausibility of things,” the development of a critical intelligence, a skill he notably lacked early on and the source of some amusing anecdotes, such as his humiliated failure to understand that the treats for school birthday celebrations must be provided by the families of the boys themselves, which ended in there being no cake when his turn came around.
I have said that this memoir is somewhat divided. That is because when Dawkins arrives at Oxford, it takes a sharp turn and becomes entirely about science. Once Dawkins sets upon a career as a zoologist, we are immersed in his researches, in considerable, and technical, detail. Readers who think themselves unlikely to be absorbed by learning of the pecking preferences of newborn chicks or the responses of female crickets to various male songs may choose to skim these parts, but do read the evocative sketches of some giants of biology with whom Dawkins worked: Niko Tinbergen, W.D. Hamilton, Mike Cullen.
And do not miss Dawkins’s account of the writing of The Selfish Gene, in which he provides a very good precis of what he was about there, the elevation of the gene to Master of Creation, a potentially immortal entity using a perishable living organism as a survival machine to propagate itself.
Finally, after a nod to the contingency of existence (sneezes of dinosaurs, flaps of butterfly wings), Dawkins, in emulation of his hero, Darwin, offers a short accounting of his strengths and shortcomings, one of which might characterize the entire book. He owns that he is far better at research then observation, which is why this book is externally driven, why there is no attempt to probe character, and why he is more alive in the laboratory than in the forest, quite the opposite of the view most of his readers will take.
Toronto writer and editor Martin Levin has followed the fascinating careers of Richard Dawkins for many years.