Most people know Richard Dawkins as an outspoken anti-theist. But he’s a lot more than that – a prominent ethologist and evolutionary biologist and one of the great early popularisers of science and rational inquiry to the general public.
Dawkins’ autobiography is in fact half of one – in it, he chronicles his childhood in Africa in the late days of Empire, his schooldays in the British education system of the time – prep schools and public schools and eventually Oxford, and his first forays as an ethologist – a researcher in animal behavior – up to the point where a protracted power shortage led him to write the book that would catapult him to early public prominence – The Selfish Gene.
No one can accuse Dawkins of being a bore – he is a wonderful writer, with a special gift for combining clarity with poetic cadence. His recollections of his idyllic childhood in Kenya and Nyasaland – what is now Malawi – are tinged with a kind of genteel nostalgia, suffused with fond anecdotes and snatches of verse, lullabies and epistolary fragments. But far from whitewashing the actions of Empire, he conditions his prose with the implicit awareness of the ills of British colonialism.
It might have been tempting to spin a narrative of how his experiences living in the African wild influenced his later decision to become an ethologist, but Dawkins shies away from anything so obvious. He is circumspect in the infinite web of cause and effect relationships that pushed the byways of his life into what he is now.
His accounts of schoolboy life in Chafyn Grove and Oundle are oddly evocative of Roald Dahl’s more fanciful take on the subject. Fagging (in which new students are de facto slaves to their elders), idiosyncratic masters, and the mischievous antics of his peers feature. Somewhat shocking are his strangely matter-of-fact accounts of pedophile teachers and schoolboy pederasty, which would probably not have had a place in Dahl’s tome but invite horrified wonder as to how widespread these kinds of cultures were in 1960s England.
In any case, what is most of interest are his recountings of life in Oxford, as well as his early career up to the release of The Selfish Gene – at which the book abruptly ends, in expectation of Part Two, which he says will come in a few years. His is a life of much serendipity, if we believe his account of how he navigated early days under a bevy of excellent educators, mentors and collaborators – and his wry descriptions of his early obsession with programming computers strikes a chord.
In the entire volume he suffuses this account of his life with a mixture of self-deprecation, accounts of his moral shortcomings, and homilies to his greatest inspirations, coming across as almost excessively humble but not quite so. Whether or not you buy his humility is one thing; but I personally think he means it all. A man with a greater facility for self-serving self-effacement would not say half the things he does in public.
But what I appreciate the most is that he is first and foremost a scientist. As far as he is able, he relates everything to biology. There are parts where, caught by a stray thought, he suddenly branches off into an extended discussion about how that point in his life relates to some scientific theory or snippet of moral philosophy. For example, when talking about how he was made to recite a good-night prayer in school and garbled up the words more and more every night because he didn’t actually understand what he was reciting, he suddenly starts talking about how this is a good test of meme theory – how the lack of a “normalization” mechanism – i.e. comprehension of the words’ meaning – caused a high ‘mutation rate’ in the words. He also takes the opportunity – when talking about his first magnum opus – to explicate the central thesis of that book to the reader – that we are in effect lumbering vehicles for the propagation of our immortal, selfish genes, which care not for our survival but only their own – in the form of being passed down generation to generation. Some might accuse him of being a kind of in-your-face know-it-all. But I see it as an educator’s inveterate failing – that he must fill every crevice of his life in the act of passing knowledge to another. Perhaps that is the common wellspring from which his outspoken atheism originates as well.
This book was supposedly met with mixed reviews upon release – one reviewer called it self-absorbed, which is a very bizarre critique for an autobiography. I suppose, when compared to the fiery clarity of The Selfish Gene or the brazenly polemical The God Delusion, this book might seem disappointingly dull. But I think of it as a kind of mellow effort on Dawkins’ part to reveal his more human, positive side. I had the occasion to attend a talk of his in Stanford last year where he was promoting his book – which was one of the reasons I even read it in the first place – and far from being the firebrand that he is often caricatured as, he comes across as mild and urbane in person, even when confronted by the inevitable audience questioning on the selfsame topics that have occupied his recent attention. Well, people, you can’t have it one way or another. Dawkins is human like the rest of us.
If you’re wondering whether this book is worth your time – if you’re not a Dawkins fan, probably not. But if you’re interested in learning more about the biologist behind the anti-theist, go ahead. He may surprise you. And perhaps the book itself, elegantly written as it is, is surely more testament to the harmony between science and poetry – that the infusion of rational inquiry into life’s Mystery does not lay it bare, but enriches and enlivens it.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 Dawkins Organs