I was already an atheist by the time I read 'The God Delusion’ so I’m not sure if this story is relevant to this forum but I can’t think of anywhere else to send it. I was a committed Christian for close to ten years before I began the very difficult process of questioning my assumptions Richard’s books (esp. 'The Blind Watchmaker’ and 'Unweaving the Rainbow’), along with Dan Barker’s 'Losing Faith in Faith’ certainly helped that process but for me the story goes back further. While I was still a Christian, Richard’s books made me value academic passion and integrity.
When I was in high school, both in England and here in Australia, I wasn’t what you would typically call a nerd.
Of course I wasn’t exactly sporty, either a screwed up back and no depth perception took care of that possibility for ever. And I wasn’t dumb – on the contrary, I always scored top or near top of every class I had (except P.E.). I just wasn’t all that interested in any of it academic success generally came easily to me so it only ever became something to strive for (and therefore value) when my almost aggressive disinterest got the better of me and I began creeping backwards up the right hand of the Bell Curve towards the deathly slide down the other side into worse than mediocre. I was an academic success with very little passion for academia and I had social skills the ability to get along with people from any of the social/tribal groups (without actually belonging to any of them), and an easy manner with girls.
So, not a typical nerd but certainly showing signs of my potential nerd within. I had my own small group of friends, all of whom definitely were nerds. We were all equally likely to be found with our noses in the latest David Eddings fantasy concoction (always amazingly similar to his previous concoction) or playing Dungeons and Dragons without the benefit of dice, but somehow the nerd label never got stuck to me. Or perhaps my sense of never being labeled, of always belonging in some 'Category: Other’ off to the side somewhere was just the usual teenage how-do I-fit-the-world angst conflated into something 'interestingly other’ by an adult interpretation of hazy remembrances; my own 'windswept and interesting’ days, made so by plastic memory. Maybe I was always a nerd and people just didn’t say so to my face.
But who cares, it’s my story and I’ll remember it any bloody way I like.
None of that really changed much until I started University a Bachelor of Music (performance) at the Elder Conservatorium that I utterly loathed and quit after just one year. I really truly detested it, abominated it, hated it – and avoided it. I avoided it by reading science books in the Botanical Gardens instead of going to lectures. I don’t really remember why I started on science books rather than, say, history but I suspect it was to get as far from music as possible.
Stephen Jay Gould’s collections of essays were my usual fare, leavened with Richard Dawkins as time went on. I remember a gradually awakening understanding of the differences between these two outstanding writers. First, of course, I became more and more aware of the differences in their styles. I always thought of Gould as a classical essayist, weaving together apparently unrelated threads to produce grand and surprising tapestries a talent that seems utterly lost today due to the lack of classical education. Dawkins was the great convincer/explainer his flights of rhetorical fancy were more restrained and (unlike Gould, sometimes) always explained neatly and tied tightly back to the point that was being made and all, of course, without ever being condescending to the reader. Their written voices were so distinct I am sure that even then, having read Gould and Dawkins for only a few months, I could have identified the author of any randomly selected page from either of them.
Then I began to note the differences in their understanding of evolution – Gould’s somewhat over stated assault on gradualism, Dawkins’ patient but exasperated illustrations of the grander scale that made Gould’s point a minor one at best. I was watching an argument but a real argument, with positions stated, defined, logically defended and modified as necessary. Certainly not the bloody flaming bust-up that passes for argument in general conversation. (For those who care, Dawkins won those arguments, in my layman’s opinion.) And it dawned on me one day they didn’t care very much about being the person who was right. What mattered for both of them was that the science was right. The science was important; correct understanding was important.
I saw what academic passion looked like when displayed by two of its greatest examples – and I wanted some.
Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins taught me to love science. From what I’ve read by others on various forums and blogs over the years, that’s so common an occurrence as to be barely worth noting. But it means a lot to me. It led me to become a science teacher and from there to take the plunge into self-employment as a science communicator in schools all over South Australia a professional nerd, honestly telling kids that the word nerd is a great complement even if it’s the bullies applying it, and hoping to affect just one kid the way Richard’s writing affected me. This same passion for truth, for knowing, led me out of the church a few years ago (and sustained me while I lost my entire social network as a result) and I’m happy to say that it doesn’t look like it’s going to fade any time soon. I’m far too entranced by the garden to pay any more attention to the cardboard cut-out fairies at the bottom of it.
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