Richard Dawkins was once asked by fellow evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith how he, as a trained scientist, was able to “think in prose”. An Appetite for Wonder, the first of two volumes of autobiography, goes some way towards answering that question. For those wishing to gain an insight into Dawkins’ development as a scientist and intellectual, it is a book that will fascinate and frustrate in equal measure.
Raised in Kenya and Nyasaland before moving to England at the age of eight, Dawkins’ account of his eventful early years would be worth reading even if he had not gone on to achieve fame in later life. He provides all the tropes of an English schoolboy memoir, from enduring eccentric teachers to discovering inspirational books, and tales of his extended family are peppered with examples of English eccentricity of the kind that will delight Anglophiles (and leave many actual English people mildly embarrassed).
But he also returns time and again to a more pensive and self-critical mode of recollection: chance, contingency, and the extent to which the paths of our lives are determined by factors and circumstances beyond our control are all themes that recur throughout the book.
Dawkins presents himself as a shy, bookish boy, with a love of nature instilled by his parents. An ear for poetry becomes evident, and goes some way to explain his ability to straddle the “two cultures” in his writing. He’s keen to stress he was disorganised, underperformed in many subjects, and regrets squandering the opportunity to develop an expertise in natural history that his early years in Africa offered him.
Such honesty about his own shortcomings is at first touching, but as the book progresses, the relentless self-examination begins to grate: is it really so “tragic” that, as a teenager, Dawkins preferred listening to Elvis Presley to intense study?
Noticeably missing from the first half of the book is anything substantial on the topic of faith. Dawkins has a great talent for seguing from personal anecdote to scientific insight, but similar forays into religion come as jarring and ill-tempered intrusions. He mentions no encounter with a particular priest or theologian, but during the latter part of his schooldays we begin to pick up the background noise of cultural Anglicanism: school services in picturesque country churches, patriotic hymns, occasional efforts at a particularly naïve form of petitionary prayer.
Eventually a full explanation of how Dawkins became, in his words, “militantly anti-religious” arrives. “Earlier doubts,” planted at the age of nine when he learnt that Christianity was one of many religions, begin to be entertained. “They couldn’t all be right, so why believe the one in which, by sheer accident of birth, I happened to be brought up?” (The idea that some might be less historically and philosophically plausible than others, and should be assessed on their own merits, appeared to pass him by.)
His love of nature sustained a nebulous deism, however, and he “bamboozled” himself into believing in intelligent design before finally accepting the Darwinian account of evolution by natural selection as “a powerfully available alternative to my creator god”.
It would be unfair to critique Dawkins’ atheism on the basis of these few paragraphs if they were not themselves a very compact précis of his arguments in The God Delusion. Dawkins once more takes as axiomatic the existence of a conflict between science and faith, retains his obsession with Paley’s watchmaker argument – seeming to take this particular form of intelligent design as synonymous with teleology per se – and shows little willingness to engage with Christian doctrine on its own terms, rather than his caricature of it.
It’s an ultimately unsatisfying passage, marked by a glib finality at odds with the tone of intellectual curiosity that characterises the rest of the book. While it is undoubtedly good that Dawkins saw through the shortcomings of his adolescent faith, there is no acknowledgement that it was very much an adolescent faith — a view of religion singularly lacking in depth and maturity.
Dawkins is far more engaging on the subject of his education and academic research, and it is once he goes up to Oxford to read Zoology, years he describes as “the making of me”, that the book comes into its own. Even after several decades, his respect for his teachers and love of his studies remains clear and undimmed.
He credits the weekly tutorial system with developing his ability to write, and his graduate supervisor, the ethologist Niko Tinbergen, for honing his research abilities and cultivating his interest in philosophy. “We were being educated,” he states at one point, with simple gratitude.
This latter section of the book is a timely reminder of just why Dawkins is so celebrated as a science writer. Earlier he pays credit to a schoolteacher who inspired him to present science “as the poetry of reality”, and while he has thankfully outgrown the overbearing descriptive prose that weighed down some parts of The Selfish Gene, he brings excitement and, appropriately enough, wonder to his description of his scientific research.
Markov chains, the ontogeny of bird behaviour, Chomskyan linguistics – non-scientists need not skip over these chapters with glazed eyes, for Dawkins recounts his research years with infectious enthusiasm and edifying but never patronising simplicity. The final chapter chronicles the development and writing of The Selfish Gene, and is a fine description of the creation of a seminal book — far more insightful than his earlier whirlwind tour of the fallacies of The God Delusion.
The fact that Dawkins only had time to write The Selfish Gene because of the limits the three-day week put on his doctoral research brings him back, at the very end of the book, to the theme of chance. What if his parents had not been able to nurture his interest in the natural world? What if he had never been to Oxford and met Tinbergen?
But perhaps life is not as random as it appears – perhaps, he writes, “life has a tendency to converge on a pathway, something like a magnetic pull that draws it back despite temporary deviations”. When unfettered by anti-religious animus, Dawkins’ musings on the purpose and value of life are measured and thoughtful – with a suggestion that there will be more in the next volume.
An Appetite for Wonder is a well-written and insightful memoir, but its account of the influences and experiences that contributed to Dawkins’ rise to the status of public intellectual still leave many questions unanswered. It is fans of Dawkins the science populariser, rather than Dawkins the atheist polemicist, who will benefit the most from it.
Megan Hodder writes from London. Her blog can be found at Whistling Sentinel.