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

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’.

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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