Books

An Appetite for Wonder, by Richard Dawkins - review

21 September 2013

9:00 AM

21 September 2013

9:00 AM

An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist Richard Dawkins

Bantam, pp.320, £20, ISBN: 9780593070895

It is peculiarly apt that the author of this autobiography should be the man who coined that now fashionable term ‘meme’ — so long as it is written ‘me me’. His name is shown so large on the cover that one might miss the title printed below it. On the opening page he tells us that his full name is Clinton Richard Dawkins, which ‘serendipitously’ gives him the same initials as those of his greatest hero, Charles Robert Darwin. The time has come, he has decided, to tell the story of his life up to that seminal moment in 1976 when he published the book which made him famous, The Selfish Gene.

He begins by describing where he has come from genetically, going back to the General Clinton who presided over the loss of the American colonies in 1783. More recently we learn about grandfathers, uncles and cousins, who all seem to have led worthy lives, several of them, including his father, in the colonial service. We learn how he was born in Kenya during the second world war, followed by details of his childhood, such as his toy lorry. One chapter is devoted to his first school in Rhodesia (names of masters, reflections on bullying); another to his prep school back in England (more names of masters and reflections on bullying).

Occasionally we are given glimpses of what he was later to become, such as his contempt for the gullibility of small children who believe in Father Christmas, rather oddly contrasting with his admission that he himself as a small boy went through an ‘intensely religious’ phase. But all this has taken up more than 100 pages. Admirable though it may be that people should put together an account of their lives for the interest of their family, one inevitably begins to wonder whether, if the author of this book had not been such a celebrated figure, anyone would have thought such a pedestrian recital worth publishing.

The most exciting bit of a chapter on his teenage years at Oundle (more names of masters, more reflections on bullying), apart from his being stung by a bee, is an account of his neo-Damascene conversion aged 17 from conventional Anglicanism to ‘militant atheism’, coupled with his new-found conviction — while he was still also ‘worshipping’ Elvis Presley — that ‘Darwinian evolution was a powerfully available alternative to any creator god’.

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The first half of the book ends with his getting into Oxford, ‘and insofar as anything was the making of me, it was Oxford’. A chapter on his undergraduate years describes sessions with various tutors in the zoology department, all of whom he says went on to become professors of zoology at other universities. He for the first time encounters the opposite sex, although we learn that it was not until he was 22 that he lost his virginity to ‘a sweet cellist in London’, about which he comments that ‘It isn’t difficult for a biologist to explain why nervous systems evolved in such a way as to make sexual congress one of the consistently greatest experiences life can offer.’ But he particularly describes how he fell under the spell of the animal behaviourist Niko Tinbergen, who specialised in studying animal responses to external stimuli (are they instinctive or learned?). This leads to him embarking on the next phase of his life as a research student,

I would defy anyone not a dedicated acolyte of Dawkins to find much of interest in the next 80 pages, describing how he used the primitive computers of 40 years ago to devise programmes in various long-forgotten computer languages, to model the patterns behind the pecking of chicks at grain and the self-grooming of flies. In the late 1960s he leaves Oxford with his first wife for a spell at Berkeley, California, where they get enthusiastically swept up in the student protest movement of the time. Back in Oxford he was modelling the song of European tree crickets (to the disgust of a leading entomologist who knew about cricket song from direct observation). Then with one mighty bound he is liberated from what another colleague dismissed as his ‘computer addiction’, to become possessed with the central idea of his life.

The real driver of the evolutionary process, he had come to believe, was not those minute genetic modifications which better allow individuals or species to survive; it was the genes themselves, which merely use all the different creatures they make up as hosts, to ensure their own survival. It is this alone, he concluded, which can account for all the myriad life forms which have covered the earth over billions of years.

This was such a beguilingly simple idea that Dawkins describes how publishers vied for the chance to publish his book, which he was calling ‘my bestseller’ even before it was finished. The rest was history (although he plans a sequel to cover his years since that life-changing event). He even speculates in an epilogue how strange it was that genetic variations could somehow have conspired to allow him to arrive at such a dazzlingly important insight. If Alois Schicklegruber had sneezed at the wrong moment, he asks, would young Adolf Hitler have been conceived — and might history not have been different?

But how did those unbelievably complex genetic mechanisms evolve in the first place when, like so many other developments in the history of evolution, they required so many different interdependent ingredients to appear simultaneously for them to work? How did the self-replicating molecules which were the origin of life itself come to be?

Shortly after the publication of The Selfish Gene, I wrote several articles here exploring how it is that Darwinians are so fervently sure that their theory is right, when there is so much about the story that it cannot really explain. I quoted eminent neo-Darwinians claiming that the evolutionary process had come about purely by chance (as Jacques Monod put it, ‘chance alone is the source of every innovation’). Dawkins wrote an irate letter pointing out that, if I read his new book, I would realise that chance had nothing to do with it. I replied by pointing to p.16 of his book, in which he asked how did certain chemicals  had combined to produce the first self-replicating molecules. The answer he gave was ‘by chance’.

The truth is that Dawkins believes what he wishes to believe. He relies just as much on a leap of faith as those religious believers he so keenly affects to despise. His theory also cannot explain how those selfish genes eventually came to evolve the one species on earth which is marked out by a unique capacity for self-obsessed egotism.


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Show comments
  • lizzy_tu

    Surely it is possible to think of molecules combining by chance in a process which is constrained by external factors? This is exactly the sort of process we use in Monte Carlo analysis which enables us to optimize designs using random number generators. Some recent research into the evolution of proteins suggests that they might even be evolving in a predictable fashion. We can think of evolution as a process which enables an organic element (protein, organism) to fully adapt to the ecological niche.

    Of course, this opens up the intriguing possibility that the ecological niche (the ‘design space’ if you like) is presented according to some greater organizing principles of life. Evolution is then merely a passive tool in the hands of some greater purpose.

    • davidrev17

      “Man is the result of a natural and purposeless process that did not have him in mind…he was not planned.”

      — George Gaylord Simpson (giant in neoDarwinian evolutionary thought)

      aaah…but my dear lizzy, your reference to “some greater purpose,” is precisely what neo-Darwinian evolution – that would be the Dawkins-kind, thus non-teleological evolution – simply cannot countenance; due to its metaphysical reliance on those rigorously unguided and/or purposeless materialistic processes, possessing absolutely NO forethought?, or planning! That’s a textbook definition of Darwinian and/or Dawkinsesque “Natural Selection” in perpetual action!

      Dawkins, as well as most of his ideologically-devoted disciples, continues to engage in these ‘Alice in Wonderland’ tales of metaphysical naturalistic wonder, of a strictly a priori, faith-based/scientistic nature, in their fancifully deluded attempts to account for the scientific? explanation which comprehensively accounts for the cosmic accident of “life” itself; not to mention we rational/moral conscious observers called Homo sapiens – the only animal on this biosphere capable of demonstrating consciousness & cognition – that’ve obviously emerged from those “purposelessness” (i.e., law/chance?) processes of chemistry and physics alone…in perpetual billiard-ball motion. Hmmm.

      Oh, and by the way lizzy: “Just HOW did nature go digital” anyway? (Distinguished astrobiologist & astrophysicist, Paul Davies)

      The “scientific,” or empirical jury, is still woefully silent on having provided ANY compelling rational conclusions to date, for that perennial metaphysical conundrum; however, the West’s ever-popular ideological “scientism,” as seen through scientistic “eyes” of Dawkins, Dennett, Krauss, Kroto, Atkins, Wilson, Darwin et al., continues unabated.

      Some “greater purpose” revealed through scientific research, taking place in a universe governed by strictly purposeless materialistic processes; accomplished by cosmic evolutionary accidents (that is, we Homo sapiens) that are, in the first place, the only known creature(s) capable of conducting scientific experiments – upon a planet moving through a universe that’s “exceedingly life prohibiting,” whose known laws are still nonetheless “finely tuned” – and whose purposeless/accidental? location in the spiral arms of the Milky Way Galaxy, curiously provides the optimally fortuitous? vantage point of discoverability & observability…indispensable to scientific investigation???

      “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist,” so fideistically devoted to such fanciful “naturalism of the gaps” musings! Sure sounds like Western “science” to me. Do tell, dear lizzy…

      • lizzy_tu

        I’m not quite sure that I catch your drift. There is clearly a distinction to be made between the scientific understanding of materials and their behaviours, and any purpose of the overall system of the universe and humanity. Just because the neo-Darwinian faitheists say there is no discernible purpose behind apparently random events does not mean there is none, only that they haven’t found one. This is plainly a rational observation. I don’t care what George Gaylord-Simpson says. He can’t prove it and he has no evidence for it. It’s just a plausible idea competing for belief like any others, except that it is also destructive of true humanist sensibilities.

        I reiterate. The fact that somebody has discovered a mechanism doesn’t necessarily say anything of purpose at a higher order.

        • davidrev17

          http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/bringing-mind-to-matter

          Thanks for the interesting reply lizzy, although your not being able to “catch my drift” comes as no surprise; even though the last paragraph of Mr. Booker’s laser-like insightful review nicely sums-up the gist of what I presented in my reply.

          Perhaps the above link by the UK’s renowned atheist/humanist/polymath, and now retired neuroscientist, Dr. Raymond Tallis, just might stimulate (or sharpen) your thinking in this particular area.

          As a Bible-believing, evangelical “Christian” follower of Israel’s Savior of the world, Messiah Yeshua/Jesus of Nazareth, I’ve engaged Dr. Tallis (through email correspondence) on a few occasions, on his own website, after having read his (2011) masterpiece, “Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.”

          The (2012) book he reviews above, “Mind & Cosmos, by distinguished New York University professor of philosophy, Thomas Nagel, also received, as did “Aping Mankind,” the distinction of “most hated science books” of 2011 & 2012 respectively? Hmmm.

  • Richard Sanderson

    “But how did those unbelievably complex genetic mechanisms evolve in the first place when, like so many other developments in the history of evolution, they required so many different interdependent ingredients to appear simultaneously for them to work? How did the self-replicating molecules which were the origin of life itself come to be?”

    An argument from incredulity. All these “why” questions are very interesting, but the only chance we will get of answering them is via science. Religious “guesses” DO NOT answer these “why” questions.

    “Shortly after the publication of The Selfish Gene, I wrote several articles here exploring how it is that Darwinians are so fervently sure that their theory is right, when there is so much about the story that it cannot really explain.”

    Oh dear. More God of the Gaps claptrap. Listen, the theory of evolution explains a LOT. Other “explanations” (or guesses) like those put forward by religionists, explain nothing.

    “The truth is that Dawkins believes what he wishes to believe. He relies just as much on a leap of faith as those religious believers he so keenly affects to despise.”

    Absolute bollocks.

  • http://forgetevolution.com Ralph David Westfall
  • Gar

    Yet more anti-science drivel from Booker. Here’s the big difference:? Dawkins doesn’t rely on faith because of the immense wealth of EVIDENCE for the evolutionary process. Faith relies on faith alone and is incestuous. The concept of evidence appears to have elude Booker his entire career. Which is why his bushings are essentially worthless.

    And by the way: the evolutionary process is not ‘by chance’ because it involves selection. Natural selection. Which acts on the gene pool provide by those chance molecular changes. If you can’t understand that then there’s no hope for you.

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