I greatly admire Richard Dawkins as a biologist and science writer. His wonderful 1986 classic The Blind Watchmaker is an eminently clear and readable explanation of the mechanism of evolution by natural selection, and in his 2004 book The Ancestor’s Tale – for my money, his best to date – he overlays this theory with layer after layer of rich and compelling hard evidence (and in such a way that any remaining doubts you might have had about the truth of evolution will, by the end, have been beaten out of you as surely as if Richard had been holding a cricket bat – with a breeze block nailed to the end – when you had dared make the suggestion).
I say this as a preamble because his latest book – volume one of his autobiography, called An Appetite for Wonder: The making of a Scientist – is a bit of a mess, which makes it a book for confirmed Dawkins fans only.
There’s no reason why it should have been – there is enough of interest in Richard’s life, from an early childhood in 1940s colonial Africa, through an adolescence in the heyday of the Whizz for Atomms, Nigel Molesworth world of English public school, and a spell at Berkeley University, California in the midst of the late 60s counterculture with students being fired on by the National Guard and Richard himself on the receiving end of tear-gas – there’s enough there that a different author would have been able to spell out a teriffic page turner for anyone to read. Richard however relates these events, and more, with, more often than not, the kind of remote analytical detatchment that he might bring to examining a flatworm in a microscope.
In a way, this tells you far more about Richard than the words on the page – this constant, intellectual curiosity is a measure of his character that not all will find easy to get on with, although it has the advantage of being true. An anecdote about how a distant ancestor of 1849 almost lost his manhood through an accidentally aimed cannonball – which in the hands of Bill Bryson would have you laughing up your own skull – is here used to launch a little lecture on how all of reality is accidental. An early childhood memory of playing hide and seek in Nyasaland is countered with an adult reflection that believing in invisible men is educationally harmful. Relating an anecdote of a storm in the Bay of Biscay brings Richard to speculating on the research of Harry Harlow on cloth-mother substitutes in Rhesus monkeys. There’s many more, but you get the point by now, he can’t stop himself. It’s part of who he is.
If you’re able to tolerate this scientific-analytical tic, it’s actually not a bad first half of the book. There’s a lot of local colour in the tales of Nyasaland and Kenya, and Richard’s move with his family to England in the 1950s to attend schools at Chafyn Grove and Oundle give, as I’ve said, room for a lot of great tales of masters with nicknames like Bufty and Bunjy. Richard’s recounting of his adolescent neo-religious fervour for Elvis is genuinely funny and warm.
The humour and poetry start to fall away with the coming of young adulthood and Balliol College, as Richard knuckles down to becoming a good scientist. Before we know it we’re into counting pecking chickens and the Drive-Threshold model, and if Stephen Hawking managed to produce A Brief History of Time with one single equation in it, Dawkins evens the score by printing pages of graphs. Yes, graphs. In an autobiography! I think a pie chart may be needed to explain it.
The final 100 pages of the book are quite an unrewarding slog unless you are truly interested in a precis of Richard’s scientific papers between 1969-75 on the grammar of behaviour, but we do at last approach the genesis of the work that made his name – the Selfish Gene theory, in which living organisms are merely vehicles to ensure the most effective propagation of the genes they contain. By this point, I am afraid I was ready for the book to end, although there is a promise of a volume 2 in 2015.
Sorry Richard, what is needed next time is a biography, not an autobiography.
An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist – Richard Dawkins
Bantam Press 310 pp Hardback