The Making of a Scientist
by Richard Dawkins
Professor Dawkins is one of the few dedicated scientists who can write about the most complex subject and make it both interesting and comprehensible. In An Appetite For Wonder, the first part of his intended two-part autobiography, we do not have to worry too much about the comprehension and can concentrate on the interesting bits. Born in Nairobi, Dawkins spent a large part of his childhood in East Africa before moving finally to England in 1949. Considering his well publicised views about religion (publicised to the detriment of his scientific writing!), it came as a surprise (or perhaps not!) to learn that his paternal ancestry includes seven generations of Anglican vicars.
After a few years at ‘preparatory’ school – [American friends may well ask, as does Dawkins himself, what such schools prepare you for] – he was enrolled at Oundle Public School in Northamptonshire. [American friends read ‘Boys’ Private School’]. Now, I know Oundle quite well, not so much the school as the town, because I live close by, and was fascinated by his description of his life there in the 1950s. His account is laced with dry humour concerning long abolished practices such as fagging, – [a peculiar English public school custom] – being examined intimately by the school matron and having baths in water already soiled by fourteen other members of the school rugby team. Things are very different now; for several years now, Oundle has admitted girls, so I guess customs HAD to change.
From Oundle, Dawkins went to Oxford University, where he read [studied or majored in] Zoology, while learning to programme computers, which he is remarkably good at doing. After his marriage in 1967 to Marian Stamp, also a research scientist, he took up an offer of an assistant professorship at UCAL Berkeley, where he seems to have become an active anti-Vietnam War campaigner. The couple returned to Oxford in 1969 to work on various research projects. Then , in 1973, Dawkins began work on his first book The Selfish Gene, which was published in 1976.
Professor Dawkins is not a modest man. He is proud of his achievements, and this comes over in his writing. However, he is not a boastful man either and is equally ready to admit his mistakes and regrets. Although he argues with passion, his reputation as a ‘militant’ is ill-deserved, even – it seems to me anyway – in the religious debate. I have heard him speak and he is always polite and respectful to his audience and argues his case with reason and logic. Perhaps it is – as is often the case with people of strong opinions – he attracts fanatics, who latch onto a few remarks as total justification for their more extreme views.
An Appetite For Wonder is worth reading for a picture of a man very much in the public eye, often for the wrong reasons, and for a nostagic and often humourous glimpse of academia in the days before personal computers.