Book Review: An Appetite For Wonder, by Richard Dawkins

An Appetite For Wonder. Richard Dawkins. Ecco Press. 2013. $25

Had I been the publisher, I might have suggested the title, “A Career in Science was a Foregone Conclusion.” Or, perhaps, “How My Genes Forced Me Into Evolutionary Biology.” Either would have been a more appropriate title and truer to the author’s own admissions.

“I’m often asked whether my African childhood led me to become a biologist. I’d like to answer yes, but I’m not confident.” (287)

True to any admission of Fate in a biologist’s life, Dawkins provides a reasonable answer. Earlier in his autobiography, he briefly relates a debate among the “Nature vs. Nurture” crowd. There is a logical consistency to his comment; was becoming a biologist part of my nature, unavoidable and intrinsic, like having curly hair and blue eyes? Or, was becoming a biologist “nurture,” his environment a catalyst, his father a botanist and a mother who knew the name of every wildflower? Not just his parents, but his uncles and extended family, and their friends.

I can’t say Dawkins lays out a convincing argument in this book for having “an appetite for wonder”. I don’t want to make too much of the title, but I simply wasn’t struck by any sense of awe or wonder Richard might have had at any point in his youth. Maybe music, or poetry, if I was pushed to allow for some trait. I’ve personally known people who had more energy for science in their youth than Richard has shared. I never got a sense of exhilaration or wonder out of his autobiography. He grew up in eastern Africa in the early 20th century; did he not go on field trips, explore, go on expeditions, get together with friends and investigate? Eastern Africa would have been a brilliant place for star-gazing, for example. I would have loved to have read anecdotes about the time when Bobby was eaten by lions, or the time when Sally was chased by hyenas, and then there was this one time we were teasing this Bushmaster snake and it struck and killed this guy simply walking along the path. Don’t expect any of that. If anything, the only lasting impression I have about Dawkins’ childhood is his experiences in an all-boys school. I’m pretty sure a good way to screen paedophiles out of society is to post a job opening at an all-boys school and wait for all the paedophiles to apply. What better place for a paedophile to hide than in a culture of all-boys; like an all-boys school, or in the priesthood or monastery. Hell is too good of a place for those people, if you believe in that sort of thing.

For all the press Dr. Dawkins receives for his mockery of Christians, Christianity, and religion, in general, he spends little time devoted his atheism. He was very active in the church, church choir, enjoyed singing hymns, memorized prayers, and such. Richard admits to being somewhat skeptical about God around age 9, and by age 16 was pretty much convinced the concept of Providence was nothing more than a myth. Don’t look for any long discussion of how his views evolved.

Beginning with “The Spire by the Nene” (Chapter 8) and continuing through to “The Grammar of Behavior” (Chapter 13) the bulk of his important words can be found. A few good, important take-aways can be gleaned from his life. First, anyone in science needs to learn a bit of computer programming. Not to put words in his mouth, but I suspect Richard would take this one step further and state anyone learned or intellectual needs to acquire some bit of programming skill. Programming, like writing, uses a language and structure which aids in breaking down problems, organizing thought, re-ordering ideas, to make sense out of what seems a mystery.

Richard also draws considerably from economic theory, especially in the realm of “opportunity cost.” Organisms make choices based on cost. Rearing children has a biological cost in addition to a multitude of other costs, like time, energy, and money. To trace these costs though, we have to think like economists, to trace back through time and space to uncover the steps or stages which eventually lead to decisions. In other words, we have to follow the money trail. In biology, the money trail doesn’t necessarily exist. What does exist is genetics, heredity, and environment. Nature and nurture.

Dawkins points out, and rightly so, I feel, after having read his book, most Darwinians are wrong in their interpretation of evolutionary biology. The organisms which survive to the next generation are not those best suited for survival. The organism, and I hope I get this interpretation correct, is simply the conveyance for genes. The genes “decide” whether the organism survives or not. The genes are the hard drive of biological information. They contain all the necessary instructions for an organism to procreate and thus continue on. Thus, the organism is not the “evolutionary unit,” genes are. Darwinians focus on the organism; Dawkins says, no, you’ve got to follow the money trail. Genes are the primary “evolutionary unit.”

In fact, the six chapters I recommend focusing your attention upon essentially provide his argument, albeit in round about fashion. And here lies my other rub about his book, and why you might give it a pass. Richard often seems to be a shill for his other, much more famous literary effort, The Selfish Gene. I would say, rather than read his autobiography, read The Selfish Gene instead. Richard references his book on almost every page beyond the middle of the book. He often quotes his own words. He pays homage to four scientists who provided the impetus and inspiration for his works (Trivers, Hamilton, Williams, and Smith).

And that’s why I ordered The Selfish Gene yesterday. I’m pretty sure the science, methods, and philosophy of learning I am more interested in being exposed to can be found in that book. The 30-year anniversary of The Selfish Gene arrived in 2006 and Amazon still has some editions of the book for sale. I’m sure I’ll post a few reviews of the book when the time comes.

Richard Dawkins is well-traveled, having moved frequently over his life. He was born in Niarobi, Kenya.

He attended Oundle School, an independent boarding school for his early education. These independent schools are not like most we have in the United States. Oundle and others emphasize extra-curricular activities, clubs and organizations. Not sporting activities, but what people in the U.S. might equate with 4-H or Scouting. Students learn how to write, debate, compose poetry, compose music, learn carpentry, and horsemanship. Students are still required to learn mathematics, science, and grammar along the way.

Later, Dawkins would acquire his biology knowledge studying at Balliol College, Oxford. At Balliol, Dawkins would be coached by the Nobel Prize-winning Nikolaas Tinbergen. Our U.S. university system mirrors the British system. Balliol College is a member college of the world-famous University of Oxford. Many U.S. universities have “Colleges of Education,” or “School of Engineering,” which harken to the British imprint on North America, and around the world, for that matter. U.S. campus buildings tend to be in close proximity to the main campus, typically at the same location or a nearby location. Proximity is not entirely required in the British system.

As with many prominent scientists, Dawkins made his way to the United States. Attracted by UC-Berkeley, Richard spent a couple of years working and teaching at Berkeley. He relates getting caught up in the anti-war movement at Berkeley, distracting him somewhat from the true purpose of his residence, research and teaching. The Vietnam War era, especially at Berkeley, was tumultuous, to say the least.

Oxford College would eventually lure him back to England. Given the state of culture and politics in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I can see why returning home might have been more attractive to him. Richard also gave up a position at Oxford to take the Berkeley job. When life soured in California, Oxford was more than happy to have him back. And, honestly, who would turn down a job at any Oxford institution? Maybe only if a similar job was open at Berkeley, Yale, MIT, or Princeton.

Everyone’s life is influenced by geography. Even yours.

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