I read with great interest part one of Richard Dawkins’ autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist. He’s a smart, truth-telling rationalist, and thus a hero of mine, as he apparently is of many thoughtful atheists.
I always hope, when reading about the early years of people I’ve come to admire, that there will be clues—more than clues—to how they became themselves. Upon finishing An Appetite for Wonder and going over the many yellow stickies I’d placed in its pages, I wanted more than ever to ask Dawkins questions. His schedule (and writing the second volume) made that impossible for now, so what I’ve done is write up and share a few thoughts and reflections, personal connection points I noted.
1. Dawkins writes with the same unremitting rationality that I cherish in his talks, a type of rationality that seems to set another type of person aflame with hate. For example, he wrote that the Doctor Dolittle books were a favorite of his when he was a child, and added that he thought “their touch of racism” was redeemed by their anti-speciesism. He also wrote about how the inappropriate touches he received (I had to look up “cremasteric reflex”) didn’t scar him for life. In spite of those who call him names for such views, he responds quite calmly, at least in public. I’d love to know if and how he remains serene internally as well.
2. Dawkins feels like the same person he always was, he writes, except that he finds it hard to believe that this “him” would have done some of the things he actually did when he was younger. I suppose this is a form of learning from experience and the gaining of wisdom, that one can look back and eschew earlier poor choices. Haven’t we all been utter idiots at times in the past?
3. Dawkins was an ardent Elvis fan. He imitated him, I wanted to . . . well, I didn’t know what, as I was only at the cusp of puberty. Dawkins shared how he was influenced, for a brief time, by Elvis’s magnetism. That, to me, seems like an influence a stuffier person might not want to share. The revelation increased my respect for Dawkins’ credibility.
4. Gene survival is the be-all and end-all of natural selection, claims Dawkins. I wonder what he’d say about whether we should spend less time helping out our elderly parents and more time helping our grandkids. And then, sometimes annoyingly, all one really wants to do is one’s own chosen work, as though that will make one last longer or help the species advance somehow. (I suppose the answer has to do with how we are able to be influenced by strong social bonds and social values, none of which would negate the theory of gene survival.)
5. Dawkins words about his writing process were particularly fascinating to me. They reminded me of my own novel-writing (during the many revisions of which I came to believe that nearly every word could possibly be replaced by another word). Wrote Dawkins:
Pretty much every sentence I write is revised, fiddled with, reordered, crossed out and reworked. I reread my work obsessively, subjecting the text to a kind of Darwinian sieving which, I hope and believe, improves it with every pass. Even as I type a sentence for the first time, at least half the words are deleted and changed before the sentence ends.
If any of the foregoing leads you to read this refreshing memoir yourself, I suspect you’d be glad you did.
- By the way, check out this short list by writer Dan Arel of 2013’s top atheist books, in which (to my great delight) both An Appetite for Wonder and my own Kylie’s Heel are included.