Book review: An Appetite For Wonder, By Richard Dawkins

An insight beyond the caricature

The reason Richard Dawkins’s books are so successful is that they are both intellectually rigorous and refreshingly easy to read. This first volume of autobiography, beginning with his early life as a child in colonial East Africa, is no exception. One might assume that growing up surrounded by spectacular wildlife was what first interested Dawkins in zoology, but apparently not. Taken on a trip to see a pride of lions eat their kill, the boy Dawkins ignored them and played with a toy car instead.

Dawkins writes of his boyhood with affectionate nostalgia, and his scientific curiosity informs almost everything he recounts. Quoting his mother’s diary entry about birds picking the teeth of crocodiles, he notes that this parallels the symbiotic cleaning habits of coral reef fish and that the underlying evolutionary theory is best expressed in the language of mathematical game theory. The book simply bubbles with ideas – such as his theory (occasioned by his mother’s Cornish roots) that two divergent dialects have become separate languages when, if a native speaker of one attempts to speak the other, it is taken as a compliment rather than an insult.

Later chapters describe his family’s return to England and his education at Oundle School, where he joined the beekeeping society, got touched up by a teacher, fell in love with the music of Elvis and, for a short time, was a devout Christian. Doubts soon set in, partly because of the incompatibility of rival religions (why should the one Dawkins was brought up in just happen to be the right one?) and partly because of a growing awareness that Darwinism fatally holed the argument from design. This part reminded me of Orwell’s essay about his schooldays, “Such, such were the joys” – but without the bitterness.

Dawkins studied zoology at Balliol College, Oxford, and he beautifully conveys the tweedy, pipe-smoking atmosphere of intellectual camaraderie. He conveys equally well the political radicalism at Berkeley, where he was an assistant professor and marched against the war in Vietnam.

He describes his post-graduate research on the pecking movements of chicks and cricket stridulations and the self-grooming habits of flies. Although the principles are clear, the nitty-gritty – the charts, the graphs, the equations – made my head spin. Dawkins claims not to be especially gifted as a mathematician, but I think sets the bar higher than most of us would.

This is primarily an intellectual autobiography, but Dawkins writes well about friendships, and the mentors who influenced him, such as Niko Tinbergen and Peter Medawar. He also writes, rather touchingly, of losing his virginity, as well as of his first marriage to his fellow biologist Marianne Stamp. The volume ends with the publication of The Selfish Gene – a book which made me feel as if somebody had turned all the lights on when I first read it. Interestingly it was very nearly called The Immortal Gene – a title which might have averted a great deal of (often malicious) misunderstanding. The Richard Dawkins that emerges here is a far cry from the strident, abrasive caricature beloved of lazy journalists with an op-ed piece to file. There is no score-settling, but a generous appreciation and admiration of the qualities of others, as well as a transparent love of life, literature – and science. A new volume is due out in two years. Good. Can’t wait.