A few heart-sink moments reading Richard Dawkins‘s new book, An appetite for wonder: the making of a scientist: a memoir (Bantam, 2013). Ample anecdotage we want – do we not? – but does it really need to be heralded by “… I can’t resist an anecdote …” or, again, “It reminds me of an amusing anecdote …” ? Just bloody tell us, eh?
And here’s a real stinker, coming from one of the great minds of his generation, describing an instance of bullying (he’s against it) at one of the African colonial prep schools he attended:
He was a precociously brilliant scholar, large, clumsy and ungainly, with an unharmonious, prematurely breaking voice and few friends. I won’t mention his name in case he should happen to read this and the memory is still painful. He was an unfortunate misfit, an ugly duckling doubtless destined for swanhood, who should have aroused compassion, and would have done in any decent environment …
In case he should happen to read it? Unless he’s blanked it out completely anonymity isn’t going to help him, is it? Especially given the memory is still obviously painful to the memoirist himself. Protect his friends and family from having to know, maybe, those who might never have guessed about it (the swan thing) if he did not so wish, maybe, but … You really have to wonder what editors do to earn their money these days.
They say never meet your heroes, to which maybe we must now add, nor read their memoirs. In the final section he takes on board “the contingent frailty of the event chain” – always a good thing, I’d say – and admits “I cannot deny a measure of unearned privilege.” But then the latter he has rather rammed down our throats in some sentimental detail, though, as already mooted, he does point up the bullying and “the lamentable cruelty of children – a recurring theme of my schoolday recollections.” More than once he struggles “to reconcile the child with the adult he became“. Some of the early utterances he tells us about are not so much memories as entries from a log kept by his mother of his wit and wisdom at the time; no ordinary family background, this, but an interesting one.
They return to England and he goes to Oundle public school (like If “without the violence“), then it’s the making of him at Oxford – “I said that Oxford was the making of me, but really it was the tutorial system“. Then to Berkeley in revolt; he went with it, though now expresses regret at the bullying tactics and cynical exploitation of ‘the people’ employed by some of the radicals in the famous agitation around the People’s Park. And back to Oxford and the publication of The selfish gene in 1976, where this volume ends, with him comparing himself, seemingly modestly, with Charles Darwin. It’s the details, both intellectual and social, of his scientific research, along with his early tinkerings in those new-fangled computers in that work, that are the best and most engaging parts of An appetite for wonder. For all I’ve said, I’ll probably read the sequel.
Three things I found interesting:
- he worries about his gullibility as a child. So when telling of his youthful exploits he can’t resist drawing a jarring moral – or should I say, release his inner prig – from them. He recalls playing hide-and-seek with a friendly African who tricks him into believing he was invisible. Richard, aged about 6, never talked about it to his parents but “… I can’t help feeling that I’d have been rather pleased if they had talked me through a version of Hume on miracles.” Yeah, right. His wider conclusion and bid for martyrdom:
I can’t help wondering whether a diet of fairy stories filled with magic spells and miracles, including invisible men, is educationally harmful. But whenever I suggest such a thing today I get kicked around the room for seeking to interfere with the magic of childhood.
- however, this is the kind of minutiae I delight in, and I’m glad he vouchsafed it in all its stilted glory. Even at Oundle it took him a while to lose his religion. Can you believe I believe on the Peace in the valley gospel album kept Richard Dawkins aboard the ship of faith for a while?
… at the time the ‘it’s all so beautiful, there must have been a designer’ argument swayed me. My faith was reinforced by, of all people Elvis Presley, of whom I was a dizzily enthusiastic fan, like most of my friends. I bought his records as soon as they were released …
- and finally, I don’t know if Dawkins has revealed this elsewhere, but it was new to me, and I’d say it’s quite a big What if … While he was writing The selfish gene he had a meeting with Tom Maschler, head of Jonathan Cape, and then as grand a man in UK publishing as you could get:
He’d read my chapters and liked them, but urged me to change the title. ‘Selfish’, he explained to me, is such a ‘down word’. Why not The immortal gene? With hindsight he was very probably right. I can’t now remember why I didn’t follow his advice. I think I should have done.