“An Appetite for Wonder” is only the first half of Richard Dawkins’s projected two-volume memoir about his life in science. With typical unsentimental pragmatism, he notes that “the companion volume should follow in two years — if I am not carried off by the unpredictable equivalent of a sneeze.” No one will ever accuse this highly opinionated ethologist and evolutionary biologist, whose books include “The Selfish Gene” and “The God Delusion,” of a rosy attitude.
This first installment reads like the work of a man who has already written abundantly about himself. He often tells stories that, he acknowledges, he has told before. He includes the texts of speeches he has made. And he puts particular emphasis on the evolution — yes, he’d approve of that word — of “The Selfish Gene,” the 1976 genetics book that established his reputation (and put the word “meme” on the map).
With the benefit of hindsight, and with a dearth of other compelling material, he wonders if “The Immortal Gene,” a title suggested to him by a London publisher, might have been better than the one he used. “I can’t now remember why I didn’t follow his advice,” he writes. “I think I should have done.”
Anyone expecting an incisive account of Mr. Dawkins’s growth as a scientist may be surprised by the meandering path he takes here. True, his lineage is impressive, and his boyhood was uncommonly adventurous, so both warrant attention. He takes his time explaining that his great-great-great-grandparents eloped more cleverly than most couples do. Henry Dawkins and Augusta Clinton made their getaway in a coach, but not before the groom-to-be had planted half a dozen decoy coaches near Augusta’s home so that her father, Sir Henry Clinton, could not prevent the marriage. As the British commander in chief in America, he could not win the Revolutionary War, either.
The family history also includes Clinton George Augustus Dawkins, son of the eloped couple, who earned his place in family lore during the Austrian bombardment of rebel Venice in 1849, when a cannonball hit his bed.
“A cannonball penetrated the bed covers and passed between his legs, but happily did him no more than superficial damage,” reads the inscription that accompanies a cannonball in Mr. Dawkins’s possession. The story may not be 100 percent true, but it does underscore this family’s staying power.
Mr. Dawkins’s forebears had scientific leanings of all kinds. Since many were posted to remote corners of the British Empire, those leanings are more exotic than most. One cousin wrote major books about the birds of Burma and Borneo. Other relatives held the post of chief conservator of the forests in India and Nepal. Another relative is credited with persuading Aldous Huxley to take mescaline and open the doors of perception. As Mr. Dawkins has already written in a brief and more obscure memoir: “For generations, sun-browned Dawkins legs have been striding in khaki shorts through the jungles of Empire.”
He himself was born in 1941 in Nairobi, Kenya. Growing up in Nyasaland (now Malawi), he led what sounds like a charmed early life. This book includes a lovely, whimsical painting, made by his mother, illustrating the family’s idyllic-looking African life, which included a pet chameleon and a pet bush baby, a squirrel-size, big-eyed mammal. Mr. Dawkins recalls his father’s bedtime stories (“often featuring a ‘Broncosaurus,’ which said ‘Tiddly-widdly-widdly’ in a high falsetto voice”) and reading about Doctor Dolittle, whose love of animals made him one of the great fairy tale naturalists.
Written By: Janet Maslincontinue to source article at nytimes.com