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An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist

An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist

3.3 6
by Richard Dawkins

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In the first volume of a projected two-volume memoir, evolutionary biologist and ethologist Dawkins (fellow, emeritus, New College, Univ. of Oxford; The God Delusion) looks back on his life from childhood through the publication of his first and most famous book, The Selfish Gene, in 1976. It's a mixture of lighthearted anecdote (when Richard was a young student, his French teacher wrote on his report card that he had "a wonderful facility in escaping work"), straightforward narrative, and the author's opinions, of which Dawkins has never been short. On almost any issue—his sister's comfort blanket, the fatuity of prayer, the fraudulence of the Book of Mormon—Dawkins's skeptical mind works away, laying out rationales for his judgments. Ultimately, this is a self-portrait of an intensely alive man whose radical positions are the logical outgrowth of his skeptical, science-based approach to almost everything. Dawkins does not paint himself as perfect, but he doesn't let himself become mired in self-doubt—the book has a peppy, positive tone to it. His memoir is more about science than atheism, although both topics crop up. VERDICT Enjoyable from start to finish, this exceptionally accessible book will appeal to science lovers, lovers of autobiographies—and, of course, all of Dawkins's fans, atheists and theists alike. [Dawkins was a member of LJ's Day of Dialog panel, "The Art of Science Writing" (ow.ly/mch8D).—Ed.]—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
Publishers Weekly
As anyone familiar with his work might expect, Dawkins’s memoir is well-written, captivating, and filled with fascinating anecdotes. Beginning just prior to his birth in colonial Kenya during WWII and concluding with the groundbreaking publication of The Selfish Gene in 1976, the book illuminates the underpinnings of Dawkins’s intellectual life, à la Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet. He relates numerous tales from his academic life—from boarding school in Kenya, to England for prep school at Chafyn Grove, public school at Oundle, and university at Balliol College at Oxford—but he rarely scratches the veneer of his experiences. (To be fair, he admits he is “not a good observer,” though he tries “eagerly”). Interestingly, he bemoans his tacit participation in minor acts of bullying during these school days, though he refrains from commenting on contemporary accusations of intellectual asperity. He often hints at themes that would preoccupy him later in life, including his firm atheism and opinions regarding pedagogy, but while he whets readers’ appetites, he rarely sates them. Finally, Dawkins interweaves an informative gloss on natural selection with an account of the making of The Selfish Gene, whereupon he clears the table to make room for a promised second course. Hopefully that one will be more satisfying. Photos. Agent: John Brockman, Brockman Inc. (Oct.)
San Francisco Chronicle
Brilliant, articulate, impassioned, and impolite.
The Evening Standard
One of the most outstanding intelligences in modern science. Richard Dawkins climbs mental Everests.
New York Times Book Review
Dawkins is above all a masterly expositor, a writer who understands the issues so clearly that he forces his readers to understand them too.
New Republic
A superb writer. Dawkins unashamedly and gloriously delights in science.
The Independent
“The Richard Dawkins that emerges here is a far cry from the strident, abrasive caricature beloved of lazy journalists … There is no score-settling, but a generous appreciation and admiration of the qualities of others, as well as a transparent love of life, literature - and science.”
The New York Times Daily
“[Here] we have the kindling of Mr. Dawkins’s curiosity, the basis for his unconventionality.”
The Guardian
“Surprisingly intimate and moving. … He is here to find out what makes us tick: to cut through the nonsense to the real stuff.”
The Times (UK)
“…this isn’t Dawkins’s version of My Family and Other Animals. It’s the beauty of ideas that arouses his appetite for wonder: and, more especially, his relentless drive … towards the answer.”
Bill Maher
“Richard Dawkins is a hero of mine, so being able to read about how he became the man and the thinker he is, was a particular delight for me. ... Some people get their kicks from Superman’s origin story, or Batman’s origin story ... But for me, it was Richard Dawkins.”
Michael Shermer
“In An Appetite for Wonder Dawkins turns his critical analysis inward to reveal how his mind works and what personal events and cultural forces most shaped his thinking. Destined to become a classic in the annals of science autobiography.”
Penn Jillette
“Skepticism and atheism do not arrive from revelation or authority. In our culture it’s a slow thoughtful process... For the modern skeptical/atheist movement, in the beginning — there was Dawkins and he was wicked good. Appetite for Wonder shows us this beginning.”
Lawrence Krauss
“Told with frankness and eloquence, warmth and humor, this is ... a truly entertaining and enlightening read and I recommend it to anyone who wants a better understanding of Dawkins the man and the rightful place of science in our modern world.”
The Daily Beast
“This memoir is destined to be a historical document that will be ceaselessly quoted.”
London Evening Standard
“This first volume of Dawkins’s autobiography … comes to life when describing the competitive collaboration and excitement among the outstanding ethologists and zoologists at Oxford in the Seventies-which stimulated his most famous book, The Selfish Gene.”
Financial Times
“Dawkins’ style [is] clear and elegant as usual… a personal introduction to an important thinker and populariser of science. … provide[s] a superb background to the academic and social climate of postwar British research.”
“[An Appetite for Wonder is] a memoir that is funny and modest, absorbing and playful. Dawkins has written a marvelous love letter to science… and for this, the book will touch scientists and science-loving persons. … an enchanting memoir to read, one that I recommend highly.”
New York Daily News
“…charming, boring, brilliant, contradictory, conventional, revolutionary. We leave it perhaps not full of facts or conclusions, but with a feeling of knowing the man.”
NPR Books
“Dawkins proves that today he is still an extraordinary thinker, and one who has made an enormous contribution to understanding human nature. This memoir is a fascinating account of one man’s attempt to find answers to some of the most difficult questions posed to mankind.”
Maria Popova
“Fantastic. [Offers] a fascinating glimpse of how one of today’s most influential scientific minds blossomed into himself.”
A.J. Jacobs
“[Here] we have the kindling of Mr. Dawkins’s curiosity, the basis for his unconventionality.”
Kirkus Reviews
Dawkins (b. 1941), having written best-sellers on his favorite subjects including evolutionary biology (The Selfish Gene, 1976) and atheism (The God Delusion, 2006), turns to the traditional autobiography. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, the author grew up in a happy family, his father an agricultural specialist in the British Colonial Service who returned to England in 1949. Dawkins delivers an amusing and thoughtful if often unflattering account of himself during his education at upper-class British prep schools. "I cannot deny a measure of unearned privilege when I compare my childhood, boyhood and youth to others less fortunate," he writes. "I do not apologize for that privilege any more than a man should apologize for his genes or his face, but I am very conscious of it." Entirely submissive to peer pressure, he enjoyed bullying unpopular classmates and pretended to know less than he did because academic achievement was scorned. Despite this unprepossessing background, he was admitted to Balliol, the most prestigious Oxford college, where he studied animal behavior under the inspiring Nobel laureate Niko Tinbergen. After a decade of intense research and deliberation, Dawkins narrowed his focus to the genes that produce this animal behavior, which led to his groundbreaking theory that it is genes, not the organism, that govern evolution. This remains controversial, but it propelled him to a flourishing career as a scientist, educator and media personality, although the media (but not this book) emphasizes his atheism over his scientific accomplishments. After delivering an entertaining account of his not-terribly-arduous youth and progression up the ladder of scientific academia, Dawkins ends with the publication of The Selfish Gene, but most readers will eagerly anticipate a concluding volume.

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Appetite for Wonder, An


HarperCollins Publishers

Copyright © 2013 Richard Dawkins
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-06-222579-5

Pith helmets


'GLAD to know you, Clint.' The friendly passport controller was
not to know that British people are sometimes given a
family name first, followed by the name their parents wanted them
to use. I was always to be Richard, just as my father was always John.
Our first name of Clinton was something we forgot about, as our
parents had intended. To me, it has been no more than a niggling
irritation which I would have been happier without (notwithstand-
ing the serendipitous realization that it gives me the same initials as
Charles Robert Darwin). But alas, nobody anticipated the United
States Department of Homeland Security. Not content with
scanning our shoes and rationing our toothpaste, they decreed that
anyone entering America must travel under his first name, exactly as
written in his passport. So I had to forgo my lifelong identity
as Richard and rebrand myself Clinton R. Dawkins when booking
tickets to the States – and, of course, when filling in those important
forms: the ones that require you explicitly to deny that you are
entering the USA in order to overthrow the constitution by force of
arms. ('Sole purpose of visit' was the British broadcaster Gilbert
Harding's response to that; nowadays such levity will see you banged
Clinton Richard Dawkins, then, is the name on my birth

certificate and passport, and my father was Clinton John. As it
happened, he was not the only C. Dawkins whose name appeared in
The Times as the father of a boy born in the Eskotene Nursing Home,
Nairobi, in March 1941. The other was the Reverend Cuthbert
Dawkins, Anglican missionary and no relation. My bemused mother
received a shower of congratulations from bishops and clerics in
England, unknown to her but kindly calling down God's blessings
upon her newborn son. We cannot know whether the misdirected
benedictions intended for Cuthbert's son had any improving effect
on me, but he became a missionary like his father and I became a
biologist like mine. To this day my mother jokes that I might be the
wrong one. I am happy to say that more than just my physical
resemblance to my father reassures me that I am not a changeling,
and was never destined for the church.
Clinton first became a Dawkins family name when my great-
great-great-grandfather Henry Dawkins (1765–1852) married
Augusta, daughter of General Sir Henry Clinton (1738–95), who, as
Commander-in-Chief of British forces from 1778 to 1782, was
partly responsible for losing the American War of Independence.
The circumstances of the marriage make the commandeering of his
name by the Dawkins family seem a bit cheeky. The following
extract is from a history of Great Portland Street, where General
Clinton lived.
In 1788 his daughter eloped from this street in a hackney-coach
with Mr Dawkins, who eluded pursuit by posting half a dozen
other hackney-coaches at the corners of the street leading into
Portland Place, with directions to drive off as rapidly as possible,
each in a different direction . . .1
1 H. B Wheatley and P. Cunningham, London Past and Present (London, Murray, 1891), vol. 1,
p. 109.

I wish I could claim this ornament of the family escutcheon as
the inspiration for Stephen Leacock's Lord Ronald, who '. . . flung
himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions'. I'd also
like to think that I inherited some of Henry Dawkins's resourceful-
ness, not to mention his ardour. This is unlikely, however, as only
one 32nd part of my genome is derived from him. One 64th part is
from General Clinton himself, and I have never shown any military
leanings. Tess of the D'Urbervilles and The Hound of the Baskervilles
are not the only works of fiction that invoke hereditary 'throwbacks'
to distant ancestors, forgetting that the proportion of genes
shared is halved with every gener ation and therefore dies away
exponentially – or it would if it were not for cousin-marriage, which
becomes ever more frequent the more distant the cousinship, so that
we are all more or less distant cousins of each other.
It is a remarkable fact, which you can prove to yourself without
leaving your armchair, that if you go back far enough in a time
machine, any individual you meet who has any living human
descendants at all must be an ancestor of everybody living. When
your time machine has travelled sufficiently far into the past, every-
body you meet is an ancestor either of everybody alive in 2013 or of
nobody. By the method of reductio ad absurdum beloved of
mathematicians, you can see that this has to be true of our fishy
ancestors of the Devonian era (my fish has to be the same as your
fish, because the absurd alternative is that your fish's descendants
and my fish's descendants stayed chastely separate from each other
for 300 million years yet are still capable of interbreeding today).
The only question is how far back you have to go to apply that argu-
ment. Clearly not as far as our fishy forebears, but how far? Well,
hurdling swiftly over the detailed calculation, I can tell you that if
the Queen is descended from William the Conqueror, you quite
probably are too (and – give or take the odd illegitimacy – I know I
am, as does almost everybody with a recorded pedigree).

Henry and Augusta's son, Clinton George Augustus Dawkins
(1808–71) was one of the few Dawkinses actually to use the name
Clinton. If he inherited any of his father's ardour he nearly lost it in
1849 during an Austrian bombardment of Venice, where he was the
British consul. I have a cannonball in my possession, sitting on a
plinth bearing an inscription on a brass plate. I don't know whose is
the authorial voice

Excerpted from Appetite for Wonder, An by . Copyright © 2013 Richard Dawkins. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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What People are Saying About This

Steven Pinker
One of the greatest nonfiction writers alive today. --Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature and How the Mind Works

Meet the Author

Richard Dawkins was first catapulted to fame with his iconic work The Selfish Gene, which he followed with a string of bestselling books. Part one of his autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder, was published in 2013.

Dawkins is a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature. He is the recipient of numerous honours and awards, including the Royal Society of Literature Award (1987), the Michael Faraday Award of the Royal Society (1990), the International Cosmos Prize for Achievement in Human Science (1997), the Kistler Prize (2001), the Shakespeare Prize (2005), the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science (2006), the Galaxy British Book Awards Author of the Year Award (2007), the Deschner Prize (2007) and the Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest (2009). He retired from his position as Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University in 2008 and remains a Fellow of New College.

In 2012, scientists studying fish in Sri Lanka created Dawkinsia as a new genus name, in recognition of his contribution to the public understanding of evolutionary science. In the same year, Richard Dawkins appeared in the BBC Four television series Beautiful Minds, revealing how he came to write The Selfish Gene and speaking about some of the events covered in this autobiography.

In 2013, Dawkins was voted the world's top thinker in Prospect magazine's poll of over 10,000 readers from over 100 countries.

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An Appetite For Wonder: The Making of a Scientist 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
SarahMcClurg More than 1 year ago
An Appetite for Wonder is a fantastic book about the life of author Richard Dawkins. Told in his own words, the book shows us Dawkin from his early years, to his intellectual awakening at Oxford, to his path to writing The Selfish Gene. It is a very interesting book about a world famous atheist.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is really amazing to understand how Dawkins developed his wonder and curiosity about the world. Really interesting book that flows beautifully.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The revelations of a new age prophet Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is one of the leading atheists of our times, and he has provoked many conservatives since his publications, "The Selfish Gene," (1976), "Unweaving the Rainbow" (1998) and "The God Delusion" (2008). In this book, he devotes much of the narratives to his childhood and early career excluding many passionate arguments he put forwarded in his earlier books. He grew up in Africa, where his father was stationed during WWII, and later growing up in England, he had unswerving belief in New Testament and the teachings of Church of England. There is little in the first half of the book that is nourishing to the mind of a reader; some paragraphs are utterly dull and lacks fire and passion. Part of his narratives includes his views on the evils of ethics and theology. Some of his comments are quite brazen and bold when he is trying to get his point across the discussion table. In one argument, visibly annoyed about the influence of religious fundamentalists and leading church leaders, he suggests that an educated person from Oxford (such as himself), a university that has produced so many Nobel laureates, is more believable than a religious leader who did not study at advanced institution; referring to advancing his own atheistic views. Dawkins's real life angel is none other than the father of evolutionary biology, Charles Darwin whose work inspired him to his current crusade and preaching his gospel that does not have God. Another biologist whose work encouraged young Dawkins was Biologist W.D. Hamilton who suggested that genes are the unit of natural selection that makes plants and animals good at caring for their offsprings. This offers species a social advantage in their cooperation among related species for survival and species evolution. Richard Dawkins is a great thinker and crusader of our times, and he is one of the few intellectuals to openly criticize the established religions and the harm it has done to humans. But he also seems to have one-sided view of life and reality. A great deal of progress has been done in theoretical physics in the last 20 years in understanding the physical existence and reality we experience in this universe. The very existence of matter (and energy) in space-time fabric is an illusion according many physicists. In a multiverse concept (a parallel universes), physicists are still debating if there is a beginning or end to time. What is space and time at the most fundamental level? Physicists are not sure yet. Quantum physics that governs the behavior of fundamental and subatomic particles strongly ties consciousness with laws of physics, and existence is defined with a probability. Past and future are not real according to relativistic and quantum physics. Until we understand reality and physical existence, let us not be too hasty in eliminating God from the picture. This is the first book in a planned two-book memoir of the author; let us hope that the he has something interesting and new ideas in store for us.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonder implies what? Answer: Design and by extension a Designer! Poor Richard is simply the product of lonely sceptics in ivory towers.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago