THE GOLDEN PEN
BEFORE The Selfish Gene, scientists wrote books for each other, or for laymen, but rarely for both. The great interpreters of science, such as Peter Medawar, J. B. S. Haldane, or Arthur Eddington might write with fluency, wit, and verve, but they were still more inclined to explain established ideas than to explore new mysteries. Gracefully and graciously they gave you the answer rather than the argument. More than anybody before him, Richard Dawkins thought that if he was to persuade his fellow scientists of a new truth that seemed to him 'stranger than fiction' he might as well try to enlighten the rest of us while he was at it. The result was that he gave laymen a chance to eavesdrop on scientific debate in action. He was quite explicit about it in his preface: 'Three imaginary readers looked over my shoulder while I was writing, and I now dedicate this book to them. First, the general reader, the layman …' The other imaginary readers were the expert and the student.
I think that is why I still recall a sense of slight bewilderment when I read the newly published book as a first-term undergraduate at Oxford. Was this chap's theory right or not? Until now my teachers had helpfully divided the world of science into right and wrong ideas. But here, I suddenly realized, I was going to have to make up my own mind. The handrails had gone.
It would be wrong to claim that modern popular science writing sprang fully formed into the world in 1976. Non-fiction publishers had been given plenty of warning that science was a rich vein to mine, evolutionary theory in particular. In 1961 the screen writer Robert Ardrey's African Genesis popularized the killer ape