Good Minds Suggest—Richard Dawkins’s Favorite Life-Changing Books

Aug 29, 2013

Viral phenomena such as Gangnam Style and Grumpy Cat may not be quite what Richard Dawkins had in mind when he coined the term "meme" in his 1976 best seller, The Selfish Gene

As well known for his innovative work on the subject of natural selection as his vehement advocacy of atheism, the former Oxford professor is also the author of several popular nonfiction titles, including The God Delusion and The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.

In his first memoir, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, Dawkins reflects on his formative years and describes the significant events that guided his intellectual development. He shares five life-changing books that were similarly transformative.



Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin
"On the Origin of Species is too obviously life changing, so I choose instead Darwin's first book, Voyage of the Beagle. There is a fresh breeze blowing through this memoir, the robust energy of the young naturalist foreshadowing the genius that he would become, gestator of arguably the greatest idea ever to occur to a human mind."


Pluto's Republic by Peter Medawar
"Peter Medawar is the foremost scientific essayist of the 20th century. With no presumptuous aspiration to imitate him, I'm reasonably certain my writing style was influenced by the patrician insouciance of Medawar's prose, the sort of wit that makes you want to seize the book and rush out into the street to show somebody—anybody. The savage humor with which he destroyed the theologian Teilhard de Chardin also changed me more directly: I blush to admit that until I read the famous Medawar review (perhaps the greatest negative book review ever written), I was temporarily fooled by 'that tipsy, euphoristic prose poetry which is one of the more tiresome manifestations of the French spirit.' (Only a Nobel Prize winner could get away with that sort of thing, but you can't help laughing.)"


The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark byCarl Sagan
"You'd expect this bible of scientific skepticism to be dry, cold, Gradgrindian even. Instead it is poetic, imaginative, tinted with Carl Sagan's wonder at the magic of reality, the poetry of the real world, which is science."


The Sword of Honour Trilogy by Evelyn Waugh
"The great mystery is how so profoundly sensitive a writer of beautiful English could have been such an apparently shallow, even unpleasant, man: a jingoistic snob who not only converted to Catholicism but—worse—took it seriously. Maybe it was all a pose. Whatever is the case, I reread his books again and again, mesmerized by the chiseled craftsmanship of every sentence. I could have chosen any of his books, but The Sword of Honour Trilogy is substantial enough to deserve a special place in a list of life-changing books."


Uncle Fred in the Springtime by P.G. Wodehouse
"P.G. Wodehouse is my escape from the cares and sleep-disturbing troubles of life. I understand totally why Hilaire Belloc was able to nominate him as the greatest writer of English then living, and I know all too exactly what Evelyn Waugh meant when he said, 'Mr. Wodehouse's idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own.' I love so many of his books, but Uncle Fred is perhaps the most releasing of all."


Written By: Good Reads
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0 comments on “Good Minds Suggest—Richard Dawkins’s Favorite Life-Changing Books

  • Agreed. Voyage of the Beagle is good to read. What’s more remarkable is that he started writing it when he was in his early 20s. His powers of observation and sense of adventure were incredible given his age. Even when he gets things wrong (what he writes about the various natives he encounters can be amusing and highly prejudiced — yes, he was a child of his time, but still), it is still instructive. He did get the Big Picture right eventually; that’s the important thing.

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  • 2
    Christiana Magdalene Moodley says:

    Loved “the Demon- Haunted World”.Looking forward to “Uncle Fred in the Springtime”.Wodehouse is marvellous.”Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen”, eg.what a delightful title.Thanks!

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  • 3
    Mister Griswold says:

    “The Demon-Haunted World” was personally life-changing as it released me from any notions of the supernatural. I know my brother chose his profession based on reading “Voyage of the Beagle”. And when I hear my wife laughing in the back room I know she’s reading Wodehouse. This list is pure gold.

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  • Thanks to this, started “Beagle” last night- excellent so far 1/4 through. This book and about everything Wodehouse wrote (except of course Fred) are available as free audio books- listen on line or download. A few hundred titles and many treasures like Ingersol’s lectures, loads of Doyle, Haggard, (oh my was Alan Quatermain an enviornmental terror) Twain, Benchley- basically if the book is old enough and in the public domain, odds are they have it.

    The link-

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  • “The great mystery is how so profoundly sensitive a writer of beautiful English could have been such an apparently shallow, even unpleasant, man: a jingoistic snob who not only converted to Catholicism but—worse—took it seriously. Maybe it was all a pose. “

    I’ve never read this author but in general I’ve found that when it comes to fiction writers this is almost the norm as far as I’m concerned. In fact not just fiction writers but composers as well. Its often that I will love someone’s music or fiction and find out they are not people I would have much respect for in terms of political or general world view. Tolstoy was a religious nut as was Dostoevsky and Graham Green. F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t really have much to say that was in any way interesting when he talked about politics or philosophy but he’s one of my favorite American authors. I love Wagner’s music but he was an anti-semitic creep.

    At least for fiction writers I think part of it is a great writer, like a Tolstoy, can be magnificent at drawing characters and representing people and ideas he has no sympathy for in the real world so accurately that they can stand on their own, he’s almost acting like a good scientist reflecting back the world as it is not as he thinks it should be. I thought this was especially true for the Russians Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Solzhenytsin can create characters who represent left wing ideas that in reality they despise but they do it in a way that shows they still have empathy for the motivations and for the individuals as people.

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  • In reply to #7 by Smill:

    In reply to Red Dog, post 6. I read ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’ a while ago now, but I didn’t think Tolstoy was a religious ‘nut’; his point was that ‘Christians’ were not following the teachings of Jesus, and therefore not truly Christian, if they did not apply every word to their action, b…

    That’s a good point. My use of the phrase “religious nut” wasn’t really appropriate for Tolstoy based on what I know about him. (BTW, I don’t know much about him as an individual anyway, just bits and pieces I’ve picked up from intros to books and articles, I’ve never read a biography, as with most great writers I find their work a lot more interesting than their life).

    What I remember about Tolstoy is that he was highly religious and his religion was the kind that I find least offensive. It was rather like Jefferson’s deism, an emphasis on the messages of Jesus to love each other but not on all the genocide, rape, and war exhortations in the old testament. I do think he was somewhat right wing though, although even there I think he was right wing in the sense of not wanting the Bolsheviks to take power and wanting internal reform of the czarist system which also (especially in hindsight) wasn’t so crazy.

    My main point was that Tolstoy always impressed me in that he could create characters who expressed left wing ideals he didn’t share and still make them believable and people you could have empathy for and that in general I’ve noticed many great writers can do that.

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  • 8
    antipodesman says:

    Can anyone explain what if any is the difference between The Voyage of the Beagle and A Naturalists Voyage around the World. I have read the latter and enjoyed it immensely.

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