For nearly three decades, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has remained arguably the world’s most significant and influential atheist (with apologies to Penn Jillette). Since the landmark publication of his first book, “The Selfish Gene,” in 1976, Dawkins has become the premier proponent for a gene-centered view of evolution and an outspoken critic of religion.
“Religion enjoys astonishing privileges in our societies,” he writes, “privileges denied to almost any other special interest group one can think of — and certainly denied to individuals.”
In this first installment of a planned two-volume memoir, however, the author displays little of the fiery passion that has made such previous books as “Unweaving the Rainbow” (1998) and “The God Delusion” (2008) so appealing to scientific-minded readers. Dawkins seems content to merely supply the facts of his childhood and early career, leaving off with the publication of his debut book.
In fact, much of the narrative, when not larded with extensive quotations from his previous writings and other books, poems, and songs, is indifferently written: Of one memory, he writes, “Embarrassing to recall. Revealing? Maybe, but I don’t know of what,” and notes later, “. . . if you happen to be interested in such things — and if you are not, and don’t know what I’m talking about, skip to the next paragraph.”
Dawkins is consistently old-fashioned in his methodical, chronological delivery, covering the facts of his parents’ lives; his early upbringing in Africa (his father served in the King’s African Rifles during World War II), and back in England, where he attended prep school and dutifully followed, at least initially, the traditionally Anglican teachings: “I retained a strong belief in some sort of unspecified creator, almost entirely because I was impressed by the beauty and apparent design of the living world, and . . . I bamboozled myself into believing that the appearance of design demanded a designer.”
Though he harbored doubts, it was not until secondary school that the author truly began questioning the ideas of religion and its rote teaching in school — as well as the way it takes advantage of the gullibility of children. “I can’t help wondering whether a diet of fairy stories filled with magic spells and miracles . . . is educationally harmful,” he writes. “But whenever I suggest such a thing today I get kicked around the room for seeking to interfere with the magic of childhood.”
After discussing his entrance and study at Balliol College, Oxford, where he absorbed the lessons of his mentor, Nobel Prize-winning ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen, Dawkins chronicles his first position as a professor of zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, and his brief participation in the late-1960s activism that surrounded the campus.
“I am proud of my part in protesting American involvement in Vietnam,” he writes, “proud of having worked hard in the antiwar campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy, less proud of some of the other political movements in which I was involved.” Fair enough, but Dawkins fails to adequately capture the energy of what he describes as the “youthful excitement at the very idea of rebellion.”
As can be expected, the author is far more illuminating on the subjects of zoology, sociobiology, neurophysiology, and other scientific matters than he is on his autobiographical details. Indeed, the last third of the book will prove the most revealing and useful to Dawkins fans, as he finally delves deeper into the development of his scientific theories and the influences behind them.
There’s no question that “The Selfish Gene” was one of the most important books of popular science of the past 30 years, but the mechanics of science writing don’t always translate to memoir. So it is with “An Appetite for Wonder,” which is, ultimately, a misnomer, as much of the narrative is a slog. Hopefully, once Dawkins explores the real meat of his career, the pace will pick up and provide more compelling revelations.