By Richard Dawkins
This much-anticipated volume of memoir from biologist and militant unbeliever Richard Dawkins is a tad slender. Dawkins’s publishers have persuaded him to split his reminiscences in two, no doubt hoping to get the benefit of two separate Festivus shopping seasons. This first half takes us up to the major dividing line in Dawkins’s life: the 1976 publication of The Selfish Gene, a book most unusual in having been both a major popular success and an important landmark in the history of science.
The Selfish Gene wasn’t a report of a new discovery; rather, it provided a scheme for understanding evolution and influenced a (still ongoing) debate over its fundamental nature. In that sense the book is as much philosophy as science, and could be said to possess an artistic component. Biology still lingers in a historical phase analogous to that of physics in the time of Galileo, a phase in which notational choices and appropriate common metaphors are still being nailed down.
Dawkins’s place as a giant of the biology Renaissance’s last days is secure, and An Appetite For Wonder documents the old-fashioned early life and education you might expect such a figure to have. He was born on the imperial frontier of Africa, restored to the bosom of Blighty for a cold dose of public school and the Church of England, and packed off to Balliol College, Oxford, where an elderly bowler-hatted porter greeted him the first day with, “I remember your three brothers, very fine winger one of them was.” (You’ve seen this movie: the “brothers” were actually Dawkins’s father and two uncles.)
His nostalgic account of this lost world is full of amusing digressions and speculations. It’s probably much like a Dawkins scientific lecture, only with himself as the subject. Even the most hardened anglophile may tire a little of his name-dropping of no-longer-famous relatives, but the book is worth reading if only because they do not make men like this anymore. They literally cannot.
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