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Book review: An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, By Richard Dawkins

The evolutionary thinker – and firm secularist – Richard Dawkins affirms his faith in values, and in people. Marek Kohn hails a warm and generous memoir

While working as a young assistant professor at Berkeley amid the acid and anarchy of the late 1960s, Richard Dawkins found himself tiring of an American campus novel populated by "twittering" sophomores. His spirits were lifted by the entrance of an English major.

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"Aha, I thought, my mind immediately filled with visions of riding breeches and moustaches, a real character at last." Similar visions are conjured by the lovingly polished family tree that prefaces his memoir, featuring a general, a colonel and Major Hereward Dawkins. Also perched on various branches are a "Cannonball", a "Bunny", a Yorick and seven generations of unnamed vicars: real characters of a kind that looks made up these days.

It was Hereward Dawkins who passed the family estate at Over Norton, Oxfordshire, to his third cousin, Richard's father, enabling the Dawkinses to remain "members of the Chipping Norton set", as they have been "since the early 18th century". Upon inheriting the property in 1949, John Dawkins abandoned his career as an agricultural officer in the Colonial Service to work the land as a farm. Richard had been born eight years previously, in Nairobi, and now he was "home" – for that was how the colonial boy thought of England before he had even visited it.

The move from Africa brought him close to his true home: not England as a whole, but Oxford University, within which he has spent his academic life apart from that spell at Berkeley. One college was an ancestral home, a squad of family members having been Balliol men before Richard became one. "Balliol made me, Balliol fed me…": The significance it holds for him is expressed in the lines of Hilaire Belloc that he quotes, and recited at his father's funeral, and spoke in his eulogy for Christopher Hitchens, a Balliol man too.

Affirmative nostalgia suits him, and so does the good humour that imbues his writing about home. Dawkins never misses an opportunity to exercise his polemical wit, but he never really seems to find it funny. Here, dwelling upon fond memories and family lore, he seems genuinely amused by their quirks and faint absurdities. The voice is familiar but the tone is new, and the result is some of his most pleasing prose. Although the tales of colonial Nyasaland and British private schools leave the inevitable horde of parodists little work to do, they are written honourably – above all, they uphold the commandment to "honour thy father and mother" – and with a warmth that spreads beyond this vanished caste. All that's missing is a photo of the author in a pair of authentic empire-building khaki shorts.

These early reminiscences are told at some length, but one is content to go along with them because Dawkins seems so at home with his stories. That might not seem surprising, since they are those of his life and family, but this is a subject on which he has been quite reticent. In 2000 I interviewed him about the development of his scientific thought and worldview. He spoke about his childhood and education for barely five minutes, and then cut himself off: "OK, that's probably about enough". I'd anticipated he might want to hold material back for a future autobiography, but hoped for more than a page's worth (and did get plenty more subsequently). It taught me that Dawkins is a reflexively private public figure, and that when he says he is shy, he is telling us a basic truth.

In personal matters his comfort zone has expanded, but it is still restricted to his early life. This leaves his memoir awkwardly balanced. At the front there are tales; at the back there are diagrams. The making of a scientist is above all the making of relationships with teachers and colleagues. Dawkins writes in appropriate detail about the men who guided and worked with him in the early stages of his career, but with one key collaborator, Marian Stamp, he runs into the difficulty that she was also his first wife. "It isn't that kind of autobiography," he coyly protests after a glimpse of how he lost his virginity to a "sweet cellist".

Well, fair enough and quite right too, but it shouldn't be beyond his literary capacities to balance discretion with some real flavour of the intellectual relationship between two young researchers who have since achieved scientific distinction. (Marian Stamp Dawkins is now Professor of Animal Behaviour at Oxford.) The graphs from their work on chicks drinking and flies grooming would be fine for a slideshow, but as narrative devices they fall sadly short.

Earlier on, reflecting remorsefully upon how he ran with the bullying pack at school, he asks how meaningful it is to say that a person stays the same throughout life. His memoir is an answer to the question as it applies in his own case. The boy has become the man, and the man still sees with the boy's eyes; the clarity and passion with which he recalls his childhood is matched by the clarity, passion, concerns and imagery – fairness, bullying, kindness to animals – with which he expresses the values he has maintained since then.

He is remorseful also about running with a radical pack at Berkeley, a phase he regards as a kind of bullying. But he soon returned home to a place more conducive to getting work done – and in which the limpid simplicities of his value-system can be maintained in a familiar environment. An Appetite for Wonder speaks eloquently about where his values and preoccupations came from. Although the latter part of the memoir doesn't tell us enough that we didn't know about the making of Dawkins the scientist, the first part is warmly illuminating about the making of Dawkins the humanist.

Marek Kohn's 'A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the English Imagination' is published by Faber & Faber

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