The late Derek Ratcliffe, arguably Britain’s greatest naturalist since Charles Darwin, once explained how he cultivated a technique for finding golden plovers’ nests. As he walked across the featureless moor, ‘the gaze’, he wrote, had to be ‘concentrated as far ahead as possible, not in one place, but scanning continuously over a wide arc from one side to the other and back’. Should you look down at your feet, or allow yourself to be distracted for a second, chances were that this elusive wader would slip off its eggs and you would never work out whenceit came.
Reading Richard Dawkins strikes me as requiring a similar kind of disciplined attention. Look up from his book at the weather outside, or drift off briefly in some internal reflection, and you invariably find that you have lost your place on the page and the thread of his argument.
It is not because Dawkins is difficult, although often the biological concepts he likes to explore are both challenging and complex. It is primarily because he strives at all times for formidable clarity. Often you are made aware of an almost mathematical precision to his syntax. He seems to be aiming for the simplest, shortest way to capture exactly what he intends to say and wishes you to grasp.
Small wonder that he was the first holder of the Simonyi Professorship Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Or that he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature as well as the Royal Society. He is a gifted stylist, but one in the manner of his own hero, Darwin. In their respective works, the writing is always subordinate to the mission of clear communication. Yet, for Dawkins, that transparency entails supreme economy — hence the reader’s challenge in the matter of undivided attention.
Mercifully the structure of this new book, published to celebrate the author’s 80th birthday, lends itself to those who are less intellectually gifted and perhaps susceptible to distraction. It is a collection of essays, with transcripts of Dawkins’s interviews, occasional pieces, newspaper reviews, private blasts on his website and the forewords and afterwords that he has contributed over the years to the works of fellow scientists. There are 58 pieces in all, each short enough for the reader to grapple with and digest before moving on.
The whole book, which is split into six parts, could be further separated into two key Dawkinesque domains. The first entails his career-long celebration of life on Earth, including the story of our own species, as explained by life scientists working on the basis of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. The second includes the author’s vocal opposition to all kinds of obfuscatory pseudo-science (he has a particular dislike for what he calls ‘franco-phoneyism’ — postmodern French philosophy) or to belief systems that attempt to explain this same life, but are based on faith instead of openly verifiable, double-blind, peer-reviewed research.
It may be a collection of shorter parts, but the book is in no sense Dawkins made simple. It amounts to a substantive whole which offers a unitary panoramic view across his entire intellectual life. And if each piece is readily encompassed, be warned: you may have to follow through online or in the library to better understand those parts. As I read, I bought four additional books, all of them beautifully summarised and celebrated in one of the essays.
The title Books Do Furnish a Life makes one want to know which writers have helped shape the emotional world of the private man. But there is none of that. At times Dawkins also seems to delight in his own invective: here, as he explains, are his most negative and sarcastic reviews. Yet there is no avoiding his unflinching honesty.
There are also deeply touching contributions — especially the foreword he wrote for the 14-year-old Bailey Harris, whose book about prehistoric creatures, My Name is Stardust, was written as a riposte to the bullies in her Utah school who had insisted she would go to hell if she rejected the Book of Mormon.
Dawkins is at his best when he defends intellectual inquiry as an essential source of light for all humanity, ‘that banishes the debilitating and time-wasting fear of the dark’. His ideas also have an indisputable grandeur that entails a vision of our planet unbounded in its variety, precious beyond reason, and each part united to the whole — bacteria, baleen whale and British scientist — by 3.8 billion years of living heritage.