The Making of a Scientist

Cape Times (South Africa), December 6, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Making of a Scientist


BYLINE: Review: Justin Fox

Richard Dawkins

Bantam Press

As a young graduate student at Oxford, I lit upon the idea of writing my doctoral thesis on literature about islands.

I wanted to examine how the theory of evolution had changed the way novelists wrote about islands. My supervisor, a lovable Yeats scholar of intemperate habits, suggested I steep myself first in Darwin and then "the chap over the wall at New College".

Richard Dawkins was disparagingly referred to by many at Oxford as a "media don", courting the limelight and appearing perhaps a little too often on the BBC. Not to be deterred, I started with The Selfish Gene and worked my way through his oeuvre.

His work perfectly explained the mechanisms of Neo-Darwinism and confirmed my own atheism.

During four years at Oxford, Dawkins provided perhaps the most influential material I read, but I never met the man.

So it was with no small degree of anticipation that I opened An Appetite for Wonder. At last I would meet him, albeit only in the candid flesh of autobiography.

The memoir concentrates on the first half of his life and doesn't deal with the later fame and controversy (get ready for part two). He focuses on his ancestry, early life in Africa, intellectual awakenings at Oxford, and his journey to writing The Selfish Gene.

One of the most entertaining, and indeed original, aspects of this memoir is the way Dawkins interprets aspects of his past in scientific or ideological terms.

It provides for some illuminating and amusing digressions. Talk of his ancestors leads him to analysing exactly what proportion of his genes comes from which forebear.

When expounding on his circumcision, he laments the fact that preventing the practice today gets vetoed by religious sentimentality. What about the child's rights, he argues. "Religion enjoys astonishing privileges in our societies, privileges denied to almost any other special interest group one can think of."

His childhood reading is viewed in ecological terms: Doctor Dolittle books are redeemed of their racism by their more prominent anti-speciesism.

When recounting the loss of his virginity, he takes a moment to tell us why the nervous system has made sexual congress such a heightened experience.

His wit is dry as a bone; the book could have done with more of it.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the memoir, especially for African readers, is his colonial childhood. Dawkins was born in Kenya in 1941 and spent his early years in Malawi. He paints a charming picture of an African childhood, rich with anecdotes and the peculiarities of a colonial existence. …

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