Sept 15, 2013
An arch atheist reveals his poetic soul
Jane Wheatley | Canberra Times
Polarising academic Richard Dawkins still has time for whimsy.
In his new book, the arch-rationalist Richard Dawkins recalls himself as a young man, turned by poetry into ''byways of romantic fantasy'', in love with the idea of being in love. He quotes at length some of the verses that moved him: ''They were an important part of making me what I am,'' he writes, ''and they were all (in some cases still are) word perfect in my memory.''
He is sitting opposite me, the first volume of his autobiography lying closed between us on the table. Could he recite those verses now?
''I probably could,'' he says. What about the Yeats one with the phrase ''cloud-pale eyelids''? He nods - ''Oh yes, lovely'' - and takes a breath: ''And I dreamed my lost love came stealthily out of the wood/With her cloud-pale eyelids falling on dream-dimmed eyes …''
I feel quite privileged to be here listening to the author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion reciting poetry to me. Especially as interviews with the world's most controversial scientist carry a health warning. I've been told he is aloof and prickly about questions that threaten to stray into private realms. As we are here to talk about his life story - as opposed to the evolutionary and cultural arguments for which he is famous - such sensitivity was bound to be tricky.
Dawkins was born in Africa, where his father, John, worked in the Colonial Service. ''For generations,'' the son writes, ''sun-browned Dawkins legs have been striding in khaki shorts through the jungles of empire.'' At seven, Richard was sent away to The Eagle - a boarding school in the Vumba Mountains of what was then Southern Rhodesia. In the early mornings he would imagine the matron on her rounds ''would somehow be magically transformed into my mother''. ''I prayed incessantly for this.'' Jean Dawkins tells me later that she didn't want to send her son away to school: ''But it's what you did in those days. He was rather a nice little boy and brave; he never made a fuss about going.''
(continue to source article at canberratimes.com.au)Richard Dawkins: 'I don't think I am strident or aggressive'
Richard Dawkins is outspoken in denouncing religion. But what really drives him, he says, is the wonder, and truth, of Darwinism
Andrew Anthony | The Guardian
On the top floor of Random House's offices in London, the world's number one thinker – according to Prospect magazine's annual poll – walks in from the roof terrace and shakes my hand. Richard Dawkins is a trim 72-year-old with one of those faces that, no matter the accumulation of lines, will always draw the adjective "boyish".
There's a smoothness to the way he carries himself – a touch of the Nigel Havers – that could no doubt be construed as an arrogance befitting his intellectual status, but in conversation he is restrained, even hesitant, and faultlessly modest throughout our interview.
Perhaps the renowned evolutionary biologist and the world's most famous atheist was feeling especially cautious. The day before I met him he had become embroiled in a Twitterstorm, which grew into a broader media monsoon, after he had tweeted the following: "All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the middle ages, though."
He defended himself in the ensuing furore by saying that he was merely stating a fact. And it's true, it was a fact. Many objected that it was a fact used to demonise Muslims, that it was racist (Dawkins responded by pointing out that Islam is not a race), and that, out of context, it was, at the very least, mischievous and misleading.
continue to source article at theguardian.com
Book review: An Appetite For Wonder, By Richard Dawkins
An insight beyond the caricature
Brandon Robshaw | The Independent
The reason Richard Dawkins’s books are so successful is that they are both intellectually rigorous and refreshingly easy to read. This first volume of autobiography, beginning with his early life as a child in colonial East Africa, is no exception. One might assume that growing up surrounded by spectacular wildlife was what first interested Dawkins in zoology, but apparently not. Taken on a trip to see a pride of lions eat their kill, the boy Dawkins ignored them and played with a toy car instead.
Dawkins writes of his boyhood with affectionate nostalgia, and his scientific curiosity informs almost everything he recounts. Quoting his mother’s diary entry about birds picking the teeth of crocodiles, he notes that this parallels the symbiotic cleaning habits of coral reef fish and that the underlying evolutionary theory is best expressed in the language of mathematical game theory. The book simply bubbles with ideas – such as his theory (occasioned by his mother’s Cornish roots) that two divergent dialects have become separate languages when, if a native speaker of one attempts to speak the other, it is taken as a compliment rather than an insult.
Continue to source article indpendent.co.uk
Sept 14, 2013
For an eager young Seventies scientist, research was all in the genes
by Claire Harman
London Evening Standard
This first volume of Dawkins's autobiography is sadly lacking in detail about his personal life but 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
When biologist and world-famous atheist Richard Dawkins was a graduate student at Oxford, his research involved studying inborn behaviour, using chicks deprived of overhead light and lonely crickets, which he encouraged to walk up and down a balsawood seesaw. Fixed Action Patterns, units of activity which “once initiated, [go] through to completion”, helped him to his greatest discoveries: the genetic basis of evolutionary biology and the idea of “memes”.
His own life makes a similarly interesting study of flux, fixedness and transmission. Dawkins was born in Kenya during the war to handsome, cheerful parents in the colonial service who, out of the blue, inherited an estate in the Cotswolds. Dawkins’s subsequent years among battered Land Rovers and pet piglets was “about as happy as family life gets”, and even if it hadn’t been, one feels he would have been upbeat about it. He is lyrical about all the boarding schools he attended, despite the cold baths, corporal punishment and gropings by the games teacher. “I don’t think he did any of us lasting damage, but some years later he killed himself.”
No molecule of young Dawkins remains to reconsider that matter and it would be anachronistic to try, he says, reasonably enough. Current health and safety regulations would have stopped many of Dawkins’s early experiments, modern security measures would have prevented him from travelling with them. And who would have dreamed, 20 years ago, that Charles Darwin would require a fearless champion?
This is the first volume of Dawkins’s autobiography and much though one admires his outstanding contributions to science and tireless altruism, when it comes to writing there are clear disadvantages to keeping one’s head permanently above the parapet. Dawkins in monologue rambles, quoting unenterprisingly from earlier works and speeches. The earlier part of his book seems to retain a strict privacy: the names of two of his three wives are dropped in passing but he’s not prepared to say anything about them, nor much about the girl he lost his virginity to, who had taken off her tight skirt to play him a cello piece. “It isn’t difficult for a biologist to explain why nervous systems evolved in such a way as to make sexual congress one of the consistently greatest experiences life has to offer,” he ponders dreamily, “but I’ll say no more on the subject. It’s not that kind of autobiography.” What a pity. A lifetime spent studying animal behaviour might be expected to deliver a little more about his own.
(continue to source article standard.co.uk)
An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist by Richard Dawkins
by Simon Barnes
A good part of Richard Dawkins’s early boyhood was spent in unusual circumstances in Africa, so you’d expect that the savannahs and the place where humans first walked upright were the making of this brilliant mind. Especially given the book’s title.
There is a story near the beginning of a pride of lions on a kill and a family expedition to view this primordial sight. My own first experience of such a thing changed me. So there’s little Richard and friend within ten yards of a group of lions, the adults all transfixed with wonder ...... “and I stayed on the floor, totally absorbed with our toy cars, which we were driving around and saying ‘vroom vroom’. We showed complete indifference to the lions despite the adults’ repeated attempts to arouse our interest.”
The wonder that Dawkins has such an appetite for is not the wild world. He confesses that he’s not really an outdoor man, that he’s familiar with the songs of no more than half a dozen British birds. Get him on to early computers, though, and the man lights up like a pinball machine: “My 43-year time-wasting and soul-consuming love affair with computer programming, a lovely affair that is now happily over .....”
So no, 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 (vroom vroom) towards the answer. “All science is either physics or stamp-collecting,” said the scientist Ernest Rutherford. Not Dawkins’s view.
Dawkins went into biology with the reductionist view of the physicist: as if living as well as inanimate matter can he distilled to a single universal principle. This lust for simplicity, this extraordinary clarity of mind brought us the masterpiece The Selfish Gene. Dawkins’s autobiography gives hints and suggestions about the way his mind developed (to use the word “evolved” in this context would be inappropriate).
His gift is to perceive patterns and meanings without prejudice, and to get right to the guts of a question and never to avoid an answer because it looks ugly: “We are survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.” This from The Selfish Gene, whose publication marks the end point for An Appetite for Wonder.
It gets there by way of Dawkins’s religious phase. Of course he had one. He even had a Damascene moment of soul-deep God-filled joy. The moment came from — yes, Elvis Presley, who else? Dawkins quotes the Elvis version of the song I Believe: “Every time I see a newborn baby cry,/ Or touch a leaf/ Or see the sky/ Then I know why/ I believe.”
“My own sentiments exactly! Surely this was a sign from Heaven.” Dawkins recounts his teenage fudge: his acceptance that a universe as glorious as this required a conscious creator. He goes on to chide himself for his failure to see that this conclusion only asks a further question: who or what created the creator?
Never mind. Soon we find him refusing to kneel in chapel, arms folded, lips tight: a bit showy-offy in his public rejection of religion. And to that stance — or seated posture — he has been faithful ever since. So much so that he seems like a man with two missions: the first to make us understand about Darwinism, — or, to put that another way, life — the second to stamp out all religion. Of course, as Dawkins makes clear in a quiet way in this book and many times over elsewhere, he sees this as a single task.
It’s actually only daft religious fundamentalists who refuse to accept the fact of evolution, even if it is the most widely misunderstood principle in all of science. But Dawkins sees all religion as fundamentalism and responds, here as elsewhere, with fundamentalist atheism. “Why do adults foster the credulity of children? Is it really so obviously wrong, when a child believes in Father Christmas, to lead her in gentle game of questioning? How many chimneys would he have to reach, if he is to deliver presents to all the children in the world? How fast would his reindeer have to fly in order that he should finish the task by Christmas morning? Don’t tell her point-black that there is no Father Christmas. Just encourage her in the unfaultable habit of sceptical questioning.”
That other great modern writer about Darwinism, the American Stephen Jay Gould, came up with the principle of “non-overlapping magisteria” or NOMA: the notion that religion is not qualified to pronounce on science nor science on religion. Dawkins can’t prove you don’t have a soul and you can’t prove you have one. It’s a non-argument. And either way you can accept the fact of evolution for what it is.
But Dawkins has always required God-rejection as part of the package. With evangelical fervour he believes that atheism will make us better and wiser people ...... and perhaps his eventual posthumous biographer will write in the last chapter of his deathbed repentance and rosary-clutching last moments.
Dawkins is a fascinating man and as a writer he is nothing less than essential. This book humanises him just a little, with a few unguarded moments such as his deflowering by a cellist who began the seduction process by removing her skirt to play — perhaps the mot juste is foreplay — her instrument.
Anthony Powell observed: “Every individual’s story has its enthralling aspect, though the essential pivot was usually omitted or obscured by most autobiographers.” Powell wouldn’t change his mind after reading this: but Dawkins is a man who has influenced or changed the way people think. His story needs to be read.
“Amazingly, the job of persuading people of Darwin’s own truth is still not over,” he writes towards the end. Darwinism is something we think we understand but if we go into it at any depth at all we soon find we don’t. The truth is shattering to our delicate minds and our unquenchable species-pride. Dawkins helped us to show us the way life works. Vroom vroom.