Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science by Richard Dawkins, book review

This is not vintage Dawkins: it is a loosely organised ramble through his years of fame

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Richard Dawkins is the most lucid science writer of our era. Others of that trade, if they are honest, very much envy his extraordinary gift for explicating difficult subjects. But, while grappling with this new book – a follow-up to the autobiography An Appetite for Wonder, which ended with Dawkins at 35 and newly famous thanks to The Selfish Gene – I had to remind myself of this by re-reading his The Greatest Show on Earth. For this is not vintage Dawkins: it is a loosely organised ramble through his years of fame.

This is a shame because the earlier autobiography is, for the most part, a fine account of the growth of a mind and personality, revealing and honest about his strengths and weaknesses. The final section of An Appetite for Wonder, though, dealing with the reception of The Selfish Gene, already pointed the way to Brief Candle.

The book begins with a rather parochial account of life as a Fellow of New College, Oxford: “Most daunting of the Sub-Warden's duties was making speeches…” At one point he is reduced to quoting from a Junior Common Room suggestions book from the 1920s. For someone so scornful of the illogical fantastications of religion, he is surprisingly indulgent towards Oxford's whimsical absurdities.

More seriously, he writes here of his tussles with creationists and religion in general, but passes over his recent obsession with Islam almost entirely, except to compare the rich haul of Jewish Nobel prize winners with the “derisorily low success rate of the world's Muslims”.

The personal reminiscences stop abruptly just over two-thirds of the way through with his farewell speech on leaving the Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science, in 2008. The final section (124 pages) is mostly a reprise and justification of his scientific work, written at more or less the same technical level as those early books.

In this final section, he is at pains to maintain that his ideas have in no way been overtaken or disproved by the genomics revolution. At one point he asserts that if he were to write a book called The Cooperative Gene it “would be identical, word for word, with The Selfish Gene”. Most people will draw the conclusion that if it is that elastic “the selfish gene” is an unhelpful concept although a great selling title (pace Tom Maschler at Cape, who almost published the book and wanted it called The Immortal Gene).

In the last few pages – reflections on the book he is now most famous for, The God Delusion – he takes a calmer line than in some of his recent social media excursions. The man of reason must keep his cool, and here he rehearses some of his arguments with devastating wit, including a pitch-perfect pastiche of P G Wodehouse in the service of pointing out some of the contradictions in the various forms of organised Christianity. Strangely, at times he sounds more reasonable talking about religion than about biology. I take it that, for him, the neo-Darwinian adaptationism he imbibed at Oxford in the early 1960s is the one true religion; to this subject he brings his most ardent evangelising zeal.