An Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins – review

Most geeks cannot write; this one can. Richard Fortey salutes a well-mannered memoir of 'the making of a scientist'

There are two types of biologist, and they can often be identified from early childhood: the naturalist and the experimentalist. The naturalist thirsts after the names of animals and plants, even according their Latin tags an almost religious significance as if "Ranunculus" or "Tyrannosaurus" were the entry key to a secret society. The naturalist revels in the complexity and abundance of nature, and soon learns a huge roster of species names: the young Charles Darwin could not get enough of beetles or barnacles. The experimentalist, on the other hand, strives to get below the surface of nature, to find how animals and plants really work beneath the frippery of their taxonomy. Biodiversity becomes almost a distraction, because the real business is to find the right experimental organism, and then perform the right experiment on it. That's real science.

Richard Dawkins is assuredly a biologist of the second type. But this memoir takes us only as far as the man who wrote The Selfish Gene; it does not lead us into his later life to discover how he took on God.

Dawkins's account of his early years is surprisingly intimate and moving. His was the kind of childhood we might all dream of. His father was a botanist, and certainly also a naturalist, like many Dawkins relatives, and the early years were spent in the best bits of Africa, wandering through the bush with animals, in the company of caring friends and a sprinkle of servants. Dawkins's mother is delightfully described – and both mother and father introduced young Richard to the poetry that remains his pleasure. But he freely admits he didn't catalogue and collect a thousand species – in that regard, he was a disappointment to the Dawkins family naturalist tradition. I wonder if happy childhoods produce scientists, while fraught families turn out novelists? I am sure that the mature Dawkins could devise a statistical test to prove it (or otherwise).

Angst of a manageable kind did appear during Dawkins's prep school years and later at Oundle School. It might seem odd that he did not shine incandescently at school – but then shining was confined to sporty types in that milieu. Peer pressure and even bullying tended to make mediocrity respectable: childhood cruelty is something Dawkins evidently abhors, though it is so widespread it presumably has some explanation under the banner of evolutionary psychology. But there was one inspiring teacher at Oundle who put the young scientist on the road to zoology and to Oxford, where he has spent more or less his whole life. Before he was 17, he had disavowed an earlier and evidently strong Christian faith, which a devotion to scepticism replaced in spades.

It is curious that at this point the trajectory of the scientist becomes more of an intellectual than an emotional history. There is no disclosure of indiscretions: "It isn't that kind of autobiography." In fact, Dawkins is nice about practically everybody (except bullies and priests), which is disappointing from one famed for not pulling his punches.

At the doctoral stage in Oxford, Dawkins became fascinated by early computers, which were in very short supply in the early 60s, and despite his modest claims, he was evidently a skilled programmer. His natural habitat seems to have been the laboratory, and he would probably have been happy to have been described as a "geek" if the word had existed then. Rigour of the kind promoted by Karl Popper became his standard, so the kind of intellectually tough stance with which he is associated was already in place. Not every reader will find the chick-pecking experiments with relevant programming details as interesting as did the young Dawkins, but there is no question that this was real research. His friendship with a legendary group studying animal behaviour – or ethology – around the charismatic Niko Tinbergen ensured he was in touch with brilliantly innovative scientists. Clearly, the group's members borrowed from one another. He is grateful for the selfless encouragement of Mike Cullen, one of those unsung heroes who are in the hinterland of many a scientific paper. They are rare commodities in today's publication-mad universities. Dawkins prospered in Oxford and received prestigious invitations abroad. He might have stayed, happily and obscurely, one of the dons among his privileged peers in New College.

But that was before The Selfish Gene appeared in 1976. It is still in print. Here it is worth paying attention to timing. It is accepted that the initial research on which the book was based was published as early as 1964 by WD Hamilton. Dawkins is at pains to prove that by 1966 he was already incorporating these ideas into his lecture notes – he even shows us the relevant page. In that same year, George C Williams published an academic work that further set out the gene agenda. So it could be claimed that Dawkins usurped the fame that belonged to Hamilton – a case of John the Baptist taking over from Jesus, to use an analogy Dawkins himself would hate. While it is true that Dawkins's name is probably 10 times better known than those of his intellectual forbears, this version fails to acknowledge the skilful writing that made The Selfish Gene such a success. Dawkins was never out to steal anyone's thunder, only to promulgate an idea whose time had come – and, of course, trounce some of the opposition. I do believe he acknowledges the genius of others – he could even be described as unselfishly genial. He is probably only being disingenuous when he says he wishes he had called the book The Immortal Gene. Somehow, it just doesn't have the same punch.

If the biologist Dawkins is, as I have claimed, of the experimentalist clan (a geek in chic clothing), then he is an exceptional variety of that particular species. Most geeks cannot write: it is a brutal fact of living symbiotically with machines. But then most geeks do not have a taste for poetry, which is where Dawkins's parents came in. He grew up with, and admired, the right choice of words. Most of the biologists whose works can be enjoyed as writing – Alfred Russel Wallace, Lewis Thomas, even Stephen Jay Gould – are of the naturalist persuasion. Darwin himself was the naturalist's naturalist. But equipped with the unwavering certainty of the Popperian experimentalist and an undoubted gift for expression, Dawkins the writer comes with a unique pedigree. This probably accounts for some of the enmity he stirs up, and no less for the certainty of his convictions.

Dawkins is on less secure ground when he claims that "science is the poetry of reality". Poets would no doubt claim that poetry is also a portrait – sometimes of a scientific sort – of reality, since it seeks to express in precise words emotions that otherwise defy categorisation. Mathematicians often assert that certain equations or solutions are beautiful, and I believe them, even though that beauty is understandable to perhaps one person in 10,000. That is a pretty esoteric kind of poetry. I suspect this neat phrase is what Dawkins's friend Daniel Dennett recently termed a "deepity" – sounds profound but fades under closer examination. I once spent an enjoyable evening with mystics in India swapping deepities such as: "The tree has many branches, but the trunk is one … "

All of which makes Dawkins's choice of title for this memoir a little odd. An "appetite for wonder" is a property of the naturalist, rather than the experimentalist. As Goethe (no mean naturalist) said: "Zum Erstaunen bin ich da" – I am here to wonder. Dawkins is there to break whatever-it-is into its component parts and get at the truth. I am sure I remember him writing that the unravelling of the genome gripped him with visceral pleasure – and so it should. But a cloud of species in the rainforest is just too messy. He is here to find out what makes us tick: to cut through the nonsense to the real stuff.


Richard Fortey

The GuardianTramp

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