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.
on me at Eagle, even ‘Fight the good fight with all thy might’, sung to a stupefyingly dreary tune more appropriate to dozing than fighting. All parents were told to equip their sons with a bible. My parents, for some reason, gave me The Children’s Bible, which was not the same thing at all, and I felt rather left out and ‘different’. In particular it was not divided up into chapters and verses, which I felt as a terrible deprivation. I was so intrigued by the biblical method of subdividing prose
game of Matabeles and Mashonas (a local version of Cowboys and Indians, using the names of the two dominant Rhodesian tribes) which had us roaming through the woods and meadows of the Vumba (‘the mountains of the mist’ in the Shona language). Goodness knows how we managed not to get lost for ever. And although the school had no swimming pool (one was built later, after I left) we were taken to swim (naked) in a lovely pool at the foot of a waterfall, which was far more exciting. What boy needs a
phrase beginning with that letter. Single-syllable words represent dots, longer words dashes. G, for instance, was ‘Gordon Highlanders go’ – dash dash dot. I could construct no such mnemonics for semaphore and that was perhaps why I was bad at it. Or it may have been because I have low spatial intelligence: I do well on IQ tests until I hit the spatial rotation questions at the end, and they pull my score right down. The other high spot of the year was the annual school play, always an operetta,
he had consented to add his name to his students’ publications, as readily as modern supervisors insist on putting their names on papers to which they contribute much less, Mike would have been a conventionally successful scientist, lauded with conventional honours. As it is, he was a brilliantly successful scientist in a far deeper and truer sense. And I think we know which kind of scientist we really admire. Oxford sadly lost him to Australia. Years later, in Melbourne, at a party for me as
future generations. Such steps may involve behaving in certain ways, or growing organs of a particular shape or character. It can also be helpful to think metaphorically of genes as ‘thinking’ about what steps to take in order to pass themselves on to future generations. Such steps will usually involve manipulating individual organisms via the processes of embryonic development. But it is never even metaphorically legitimate to treat animals as thinking about what steps to take in order to