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An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist

richard dawkins

ecco, 320 pages, $27.99


Richard Dawkins’ An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist invites comparisons with C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy. Both are memoirs by thinkers who seemed a little surprised to end up as apologists, much less as writers whom growing numbers would credit with their conversion or de-conversion. Unfortunately, there is much more joy in Lewis’ work than there is wonder in Dawkins’.

When Dawkins recounts stories from his childhood in Africa or schooling in England, he seldom enters into his thoughts or feelings. (The volume, first of a promised two, goes up to the publication of The Selfish Gene in 1976, when Dawkins was a lecturer in zoology at Oxford.) The story of his circumcision is used to set up an aside about German law. We learn about his frustration with legal accommodation of religion, but nothing about if and how he had any personal feelings on the topic.

He writes of the “fortuitously well named” Dr. Trim, the person presumably responsible for having him circumcised. “Obviously I wasn’t asked for my consent, but it seems my parents weren’t either. . . . Apparently it was the default presumption in Dr. Trim’s nursing home.” About the recent German court ruling that circumcising infants, even for religious reasons, violates their rights, he argues that the verdict “will probably be overruled because of the shrieks of protest that to prevent parents circumcising their children is a violation of the parents’ rights to practice their religion. Significantly, no mention of the child’s rights. Religion enjoys astonishing privileges in our ­societies, privileges denied to almost any other special interest group one can think of—and certainly denied to ­individuals.”

Dawkins speaks in defense of the rights of individuals, but there are no people with thoughts and feelings in his anecdote. His infant self can be excused for not having a reaction, but a memoirist adds context to the stories he tells by reflecting on their impact on his present self. Yet Dawkins remains ­impassive.

A boat trip he took with his family on which his sister lost her blanket in a storm becomes an occasion not for discussing her feelings or his, but for another quick flight to abstraction: “[Comfort blankets] seem to be held in a position to be smelled while thumb- or finger-sucking. I suspect there is a connection to the research of Harry Harlow on rhesus monkeys and cloth mother-substitutes.”

He does not explain the reference, even in a footnote. Perhaps he expects all of his readers to be familiar with the experiment: Harry Harlow isolated baby rhesus monkeys from their mothers, and offered them a choice of a pseudo-mother made out of wire or one that was covered in cloth. Even when only the wire mother could feed them, they still clung to the cloth mother for comfort.

Explaining Harlow’s research would be a way to invite the reader into Dawkins’ thought process, perhaps to awaken a shared sense of wonder at the way humans ape monkeys. But the dangling references simply leave us wondering what Dawkins is wondering at.

His writing picks up considerably by the time he is in university and has research to explain. Dawkins can draw the reader into the description of a fly washing its feet as he explains how recording and studying its ­movements helped him understand the way simple animals can enact complex behaviors. But he con­tinues to neglect the mechanisms driving the creature ostensibly under his ­microscope: himself.

Dawkins writes off his involvement with the People’s Park protest as a young teacher at Berkeley as “a trumped-up excuse for radical political activism for its own sake.” He strains to find sympathy with his past self: “I try to peer into my own state of mind in my twenties in Berkeley as honestly as I can. I think what I see there is a kind of youthful excitement at the very idea of rebellion.”

He complains about his poor taste in books as a child (“[not] much to do with philosophy or the meaning of life or other such deep questions”), his lack of reflection in failing to notify his school kitchen it was his birthday, and thus missing the chance to have a cake (“perhaps I thought it materialized by super natural magic”), and his first enthusiasm for computer programming as an adult (“bore the same relation to serious programming as my tootling in the Oundle music school bore to real music”).

Each recollection is faintly scornful, but he does not pause to dissect and diagnose his errors. If he wants to tutor his fans in critical thinking, he could serve them well by working through his errors with the same attention to detail he gives his ­experiments.

What questions should he have asked? And what should have been the trigger to notice that he was on the verge of a mistake or a misunderstanding? He heaps scorn on his teenage self for believing a classmate’s claim that people who are hit by lightning are unaware of the fact for up to fifteen minutes, but complains, “Shouldn’t children be taught critical, skeptical thinking from an early age? Shouldn’t we all be taught to doubt, to weigh up plausibility, to demand evidence?”

Part of critical thinking is storytelling, imagining and extending alternatives and noticing how your predictions clash or match with the world around you. Dawkins is adept at this process when it comes to his biology research, but not when reflecting on everyday life.

Ignorance is seldom willful, and understanding our own errors, even if we believe we’ve grown out of them, can help us lend a hand to a friend who is stuck, instead of simply being relieved we are no longer so gullible. But Dawkins does not seem as ready to use his own small errors as a lens on human thinking as he is to describe the mechanics of a duck’s drinking posture.

Moments of pure joy and wonder were what moved C. S. Lewis to believe there must be some kind of God that could fulfill this inborn longing. I am of a much less Franciscan temperament than Lewis, and I have seldom found my moments of joy in a landscape, English or otherwise.

Like Dawkins, I tend to find them in science, mathematics, and computer science—the moments where all your theorizing comes together and you have a sense of the delicate machinery whirring along beneath the world. Or, better yet, when your theory fails its test, and even an error is a piece of data, an invitation to keep looking and inquiring.

Mathematicians are often accused of being secret Platonists because they firmly believe that a proof will turn out to have some elegant form; that truth and beauty are yoked together. I’ve spent enough time in math departments to have acquired the same hope. When I look at the inelegant or ugly acts of cruelty, carelessness, or uncharity committed against me or by me, I try to keep prying them apart, trusting that there is some kind of misdirected love at their heart, and that it’s worth understanding what went awry and trying to fix it. Dawkins’ memoir seems to lack this expectation of the beauty of all mechanisms, including those of the human heart.

Another memoir from another well-known, atheistic popularizer of science could make a better claim on Dawkins’ title. In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, physicist Richard Feynman conveys an insatiable appetite for wonder, as lock-picking, spinning plates, bongos, and, of course, physics catch his attention and ours. Feynman shares his joy at being able to misunderstand the world well enough to make predictions, watch them fail, refine his understanding, and learn.

A reader looking for the making of a scientist would be better served by picking up Feynman’s book or Dawkins’ own writing on natural science like The Selfish Gene. In his memoir, Dawkins has too little curiosity about himself to stir the ­imagination. 

Leah Libresco is an editorial assistant at the American Conservative and blogs about religion at Unequally Yoked.