An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist

An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist

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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

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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.

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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" (—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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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

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