I knew very little about Richard Dawkins when I received my copy of the just-released An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist. I knew that he was a scientist and an atheist. I’ve seen him debate on YouTube and I’ve read about him on the internet, but I haven’t read The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion, or any of his other works. My hope, when I picked up An Appetite for Wonder, was that it would be a good introduction to Dawkins, that it would illuminate his life, and that it would fulfill the promise of its title.
The book is structured chronologically, starting with Dawkins’ parents and grandparents and a plethora of other relatives that I struggled to keep straight and quickly forgot. From there, it moves through his childhood in Africa, his time at Oxford and Berkeley, and finally his return to Oxford and the conception and writing of The Selfish Gene. Dawkins is a strong, fluid writer, and his voice here is personal, but restrained; reading the book gives the feeling of sitting with him in a comfortable chair in front of a fire, as he walks you through the details of his life. He mostly stays on track, but draws frequent comparisons between events past and present, and occasionally questions his own memory, which I found oddly appropriate for an evolutionary biologist. If the concluding, quick summary of The Selfish Gene made me curious about the full book, though, the number of graphs and descriptions of scientific experiments in the later part of An Appetite for Wonder (and the struggle I experienced not to just skim these sections) made me rethink that position.
Though Dawkins’ voice in An Appetite for Wonder may be warm, it is by no means intimate: there are many anecdotes, but they are rarely insightful, or overly personal. I have many stories I tell of my own life — the time spaghetti was spilled on me as a baby, how I imitated Mae West and Ronald Coleman — but few would be of interest to general readers unless they were woven into a larger thread of meaning.
In An Appetite for Wonder, we hear about Dawkins’ parents and friends, but with little emotion. He shares no intimate moments, good or bad, and no confidences are revealed. His first wife, Marian, is introduced as one of a circle of friends that he would later marry. We hear nothing of how they fell in love, or how it felt to make a home.
All of this would have been a non-issue if more of a sense of, well, wonder was conveyed, if I had felt that through the book I was witnessing a string of moments and realizations that had led to Dawkins becoming not just a scientist, but a passionate, focused one — a man in love with the natural world, who exalts in the scientific method.
I couldn’t shake the idea that Dawkins is a private man, who felt it was time for him to write a memoir, but wasn’t comfortable fully revealing himself in it. Throughout the book there are multiple threads that could have been elaborated on and drawn together, but aren’t. About a third of the way through, Dawkins admits to difficulty with reconciling the child he was to the adult that he would become. This passage jumped out at me and I highlighted it, hoping that I had hit on a major theme that would grow and develop, but he never returned to this line of thinking. Dawkins touches on how students learn, on the tribalism he experienced in the British house system, and on bullying, but none of these threads build to satisfying conclusions.
The most interesting parts of An Appetite for Wonder, to me, weren’t the details of his life — a good number of which I suspect are shared by many academics in Dawkins’ cohort who were born around the time of World War II and educated in the last century. As the book progressed, I found myself focusing more and more on the opinions I formed about Dawkins through the style and inflection of his writing: how he wrote about himself, the people around him, and his opinions.
Dawkins is a scientist: he’s more likely to talk about a phenomenon — including his life — intellectually than emotionally, to set it in context, and to look for parallels. This, I think, is partially behind the lack of intimate details and his failure to draw conclusions. I suspect that he hesitates to share his personal journey, and any reflections he might draw from it, seeing them as either uninteresting, or — lacking anything other than anecdote to back them up, inapplicable. I know that some within the atheist and skeptical communities see him as a polarizing figure, who has been involved in several imbroglios (at least that I know of), and I speculated while reading An Appetite for Wonder that this is the reason why.
Fairly early on in the book, Dawkins talks about his fondness for The Story of Dr. Doolittle. The book features a black prince who wants Dr. Doolittle to turn his face white so he won’t frighten any fairy princesses he might meet. Dawkins writes of that:
Well, it’s easy enough to see now why this book, unremarkable and uncontroversial in 1920 when it was published, fell foul of the shifting Zeitgeist of the late twentieth century. But if we must talk moral lessons, the splendidly imaginative Doctor Doolittle books, of which I think the best is Doctor Dolittle’s Post Office, are redeemed of their touch of racism by their much more prominent anti-speciesism.”
I included the entire passage to show Dawkins addressing a very emotional issue (racism) and intellectualizing it: he puts it in context and avoids personally condemning it, referring instead to the “shifting Zeitgiest.” He praises the book’s imaginative qualities and sets its potentially offensive content against an issue that he sees as more important. That the book is redeemed is his opinion — and he is entitled to it — but I suspect that this tendency to intellectualize emotional subjects, to then pair them with opinion and direct presentation (that could be perceived as minimizing the opinions and experiences of others) might lead to some of the issues people have had with him in the past, up to and including the recent blowback he has experienced over his description in An Appetite for Wonder of the molestation he experienced in school.
To some extent, I sympathize. Though not a scientist, I’m also an intellectual, inward thinker, who has a tendency to lose sight of other people’s emotional stakes, as well as think more in terms of context than of right and wrong. This is part of why I try to avoid having emotionally charged discussions online, where my style of discourse can be easily misinterpreted. Dawkins may or may not be aware of this tendency, but as a public figure, he has more minefields to navigate.
In as much as I can glean from An Appetite for Wonder, Dawkins is a humble man, who considers himself to be one scientist among many, whose ideas stand on the shoulders of and borrow heavily from friends and colleagues. Again and again, he gives credit to teachers and mentors who inspired and encouraged him and reflects on the sacrifices his parents made to give him the education and opportunities that he received. Rather than casting himself as a young genius and presenting a mythologized version of his life, he dwells on his fallibility: how poor his critical thinking skills were as child and teenager and how easily he was influenced by classmates and friends.
He touches on the idea of bullying repeatedly, regretting times when, in his youth, he wasn’t strong enough to resist peer pressure. The most striking example comes from his time in Berkeley, when as part of his own activism, he unfairly pressured colleagues to cancel lectures in solidarity, something he compares to “‘cyberbullying’ by radical activists powerful enough to act as a kind of thought police” today.
Dawkins’ writing is easy to read, and I believe that An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist delivers at least part of what a memoir should, in that a careful read will give you a feel for the man. At the same time, a lack of intimacy limits it, and for me, opportunities missed overshadow its strengths. I’d recommend the book to academics, scientists, and fans. Dawkins is clearly an intelligent, passionate, and thoughtful man. I just wish I’d been able to get to know him a little better.