Posts Tagged ‘Richard Dawkins’

Contingent frailty

Dawkins - Appetite for wonder 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 Ifwithout 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.










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Hey, Bo Diddley!  Not quite sure what I’ve done to deserve it but I’m invariably awake  too early on the days I don’t work and so resort to doing something useful like ironing shirts and listening to music – help me, I almost said ‘sounds’ – with the headphones on.  And so it came to pass that I had some sort of Diddley revelation.  I’d not listened to him for years – had I ever really listened before?  There is great piano on ‘Road runner’ (1959) – a real roots anthem back in the beat group days – and there are tidy backing vocals!  The more I listened, the more I read the liner notes, the less I knew.  ‘Bo Diddley’ was 1955; the feisty ‘Pretty thing‘ (again 1955) was written by Willie Dixon (so was ‘You can’t judge a book by looking at the cover’); the original of ‘Mona‘ – so much more than the hypnotic groove the Stones hit – was full of drama and passion.  So much crossover variety along the blues-rock’n’roller-pop continuum the collection I’ve got could be a Chess sampler.

The spread of that Bob Diddley beat (“shave and a hair cut, six bits”), once ubiquitous on the UK music scene – the best? The Who’s ‘Magic bus’ – has pretty much disappeared from the landscape these days, its last flowering  George Michael’s ‘Faith’, an appropriation I probably unjustly resented.  But it strikes me that it’s a good example of a meme, a cultural gene, Richard Dawkins‘ (and others’) extension of the mechanics of evolution, the idea of the spread of the biological gene by natural selection, to cultural themes and history.  It makes sense if we look at the evolution of the blues, its growth and spread to the UK post-war and so on in the light of a struggle of musics and ideas, the survival of the fittest, the fittest not necessarily meaning strongest or meanest.  Why did it fit then for, say, Dave Davies to squawk away on  ‘Bald mountain’ or ‘Bald headed woman’ on the first Kinks album and think it was authentic and alright?  Not that those tracks survive other than as archive, evidence, musical fossils.  But others did.

Which is to say I finished Dawkins’ ‘Unweaving the rainbow’, having struggled a bit with the more technical chapters.  It picked up again towards the end though, with the aforementioned explication of the idea of memes and a fascinating discussion of consciousness and just what triggered the “self-feeding spiral of hardware/software co-evolution” to account for the relatively sudden growth in the physical size of the human brain that set our species apart, to write poetry, to develop science to make the poets moan a loss, and reveal a great poetry of its own without making the poets redundant; to iron shirts in awe of the mighty and playful Bo Diddley.

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You’ll believe a man can fly.  Absolutely stunning, emotionally and visually.  Such agility, such energy, such great shapes.  Beauty, grace, strength, vulnerability, sensuality and some fun.  I hadn’t bothered to check out the story beforehand and frankly, it wouldn’t have helped that much; they take it somewhere else.  Bourne’s reworking of ‘Swan Lake‘ with an all male flock of swans – contemporary in concept (like his ‘Dorian Gray’, celebrity culture was one reference point) if not wholly in costume – was a treat.  Hell, they were swans; suddenly all the corniness of those cod school drama lessons made beautiful sense;  “Be a swan”, and they were – you have to see it.  A few things: the bad boy at the big party just took your breath away, total charisma; the old woman with her old lady’s shopping trolley feeding the swans bread at the side of the lake after the first entrancement; the shadow play near the end, huge behind the characters.  I’ve said it before and it’s a bit of a cliché – I do not do ballet but I do do Matthew Bourne.  I’ll go again next time it’s around.

Had reason to be in a church in Letchworth last week.   There was a tasty banner displayed saying ‘Faith in Wilbury’ but we did not do the ‘Wilbury twist‘; no, the exit music was Westlife.  Turns out Wilbury is a district of Letchworth and it was us did the travellin’.  Journey took in a turn around (it said on the sign) ‘UK’s first roundabout c1909′.  Humanist that I am, ‘Abide with me‘ still gets me every time.
Did the RSPB’s ‘Big garden Birdwatch‘ on Sunday.  Bit of a disaster: 2 starlings, 2 blackbirds, a robin, a chaffinch and a blue tit was all.  Hardly a dicky bird, you might say, compared to other years; hope it’s no augury.

Well into Richard Dawkin‘s ‘Unweaving the rainbow: science, delusion and the appetite for wonder‘ (1998).  I think he makes his case well – there is poetry in the worlds science reveals, whatever is taken away (if indeed it is) is well replenished – and he takes no prisoners.  And though at times the prose hardly sparkles and that hint of the pompous cannot be denied, nor can his arguments.  The notion that pigeons could be superstitious (discovered by Skinner) was news to me, and there are lots of other similar snippets in there along the way.   The accusation of reductionism in Dawkins’ work is unfair, for all he posits about the selfish gene.  He never says, “It’s just the genes/ it’s only …”  He retains, is driven on, by a sense of wonder and a mission to share it.

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