An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist
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With the 2006 publication of The God Delusion, the name Richard Dawkins became a byword for ruthless skepticism and "brilliant, impassioned, articulate, impolite" debate (San Francisco Chronicle). his first memoir offers a more personal view.
His first book, The Selfish Gene, caused a seismic shift in the study of biology by proffering the gene-centered view of evolution. It was also in this book that Dawkins coined the term meme, a unit of cultural evolution, which has itself become a mainstay in contemporary culture.
In An Appetite for Wonder, Richard Dawkins shares a rare view into his early life, his intellectual awakening at Oxford, and his path to writing The Selfish Gene. He paints a vivid picture of his idyllic childhood in colonial Africa, peppered with sketches of his colorful ancestors, charming parents, and the peculiarities of colonial life right after World War II. At boarding school, despite a near-religious encounter with an Elvis record, he began his career as a skeptic by refusing to kneel for prayer in chapel. Despite some inspired teaching throughout primary and secondary school, it was only when he got to Oxford that his intellectual curiosity took full flight.
Arriving at Oxford in 1959, when undergraduates "left Elvis behind" for Bach or the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dawkins began to study zoology and was introduced to some of the university's legendary mentors as well as its tutorial system. It's to this unique educational system that Dawkins credits his awakening, as it invited young people to become scholars by encouraging them to pose rigorous questions and scour the library for the latest research rather than textbook "teaching to" any kind of test. His career as a fellow and lecturer at Oxford took an unexpected turn when, in 1973, a serious strike in Britain caused prolonged electricity cuts, and he was forced to pause his computer-based research. Provoked by the then widespread misunderstanding of natural selection known as "group selection" and inspired by the work of William Hamilton, Robert Trivers, and John Maynard Smith, he began to write a book he called, jokingly, "my bestseller." It was, of course, The Selfish Gene.
Here, for the first time, is an intimate memoir of the childhood and intellectual development of the evolutionary biologist and world-famous atheist, and the story of how he came to write what is widely held to be one of the most important books of the twentieth century.
is tempting to attribute my own existence to a stroke of ballistic luck. A few inches closer to the fork of Shakespeare’s radish and . . . But actually my existence, and yours, and the postman’s, hangs from a far narrower thread of luck than that. We owe it to the precise timing and placing of everything that ever happened since the universe began. The incident of the cannonball is only a dramatic example of a much more general phenomenon. As I have put it before, if the second dinosaur to the
Dickus’ scene. We had to pass an examination called Certificate A, which involved rote learning of army knowledge: an exercise clearly designed to suppress anything remotely resembling intelligence or initiative – commodities not valued in the ranks of general infantry. ‘How many kinds of trees do we have in the army?’ The correct answer was three: Fir, Poplar and Bushy Top (the poet Henry Reed picked up on this point, but our drill sergeants would not have appreciated his satire). Peer
moustaches, ties, even bow ties. Some (not I, despite the example of my father) put the finishing touches to this image by smoking a pipe. These affectations may have been prompted by the fact that many of my fellow freshmen really were two years older; for my cohort was almost the first of the post-war generations not to be called up for military service. Those of us who came straight from school in 1959 were boys, sharing lectures, quadrangles and a dining hall with militarily trained men, and
in the library. The same is true of my more mainline essays on standard zoological topics. I have no memory of whether we had a lecture on the water-vascular system of starfish. Probably we did, but that fact had no bearing upon my tutor’s decision to assign an essay on the topic. The starfish water-vascular system is one of many highly specialized topics in zoology that I now recall for the same reason – that I once wrote an essay on them. Starfish don’t have red blood; instead, they have piped
modern standards than the KDF9, but it had the enormous advantage that I was allowed to get my hands on it. This was the time when I became fully aware of the addictive lure of computers. I really did literally – and frequently – spend all night in the warm, glowing computer room, entangled in a spaghetti of punched paper tape, which must have resembled my insomnia-tousled hair. The Elliott had the charming habit of beeping an acoustic rendering of its inner processing. You could listen to the