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.
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