September 20, 2013

A biologist looks at his own universe

By Richard Dawkins
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In 2006, Richard Dawkins gleefully took on fundamentalist Christianity and many other expressions of religious faith in his fiery tract, The God Delusion. With an evangelistic fervor, he devoted the next several years to debating evangelical Christians, proponents of Creationism and just about any theologian willing to engage in a debate with him.

Dawkins’ devotion to this mission almost obscured his earlier groundbreaking and provocative work on the selfish gene and its role in evolution. When his first book, The Selfish Gene, was published in 1976, many reviewers hailed it as the new face of evolution and praised Dawkins’ ability to convey his technical ideas in easy-to-read, almost poetic, fashion.

In An Appetite for Wonder, the first volume of a promised two-volume memoir, Dawkins looks back beyond the publication of his first book in an attempt to trace the steps he made in becoming a scientist. Meandering along through his childhood in Kenya, his young adulthood in England, his college years at Oxford and Berkeley, and his early lectureships in Oxford, Dawkins poses numerous hypothetical questions about the nature of autobiography. “How much of what a man has achieved could have been predicted from his childhood? How much can be attributed to measureable qualities? To the interests and pastimes of his parents? To his genes?”

As a child in Kenya, Dawkins mistakes a scorpion for a lizard, resulting in his receiving a painful sting, and this episode indicates to him that no correlation exists between his African upbringing and his decision to become a biologist. Such encouragement comes at Oxford in a tutorial on starfish: “I didn’t just read about starfish hydraulics. . . . I slept, ate, dreamed starfish hydraulics. Tube feet marched behind my eyelids, hydraulic pedicellariae quested and sea water pulsed through my dozing brain.”

In a humorous anecdote, Dawkins recalls how a semi-divine Elvis seemed to be speaking to him about God in Elvis’ song “I Believe.” Elvis was “calling me to devote my life to telling people about the creator god—which I should be especially well-qualified to do if I became a biologist.” Not especially proud of this momentary religious fervor, Dawkins soon embraced Darwinian evolution as an explanation of the beauty and design of the universe.

In the end, Dawkins admits that he’s not a good observer, nor is he very methodical in his habits; however, he believes he is “a reasonably effective persuader,” especially as he tries to convince people—in The Selfish Gene and other books—that Darwin’s truth is far from being over. Neither is Dawkins’ story over, and he promises to tell the rest of it in a companion volume.

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An Appetite for Wonder

An Appetite for Wonder

By Richard Dawkins
ISBN 9780062225795

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