An Appetite for Wonder—The Making of a Scientist in Conversation with Michael Shermer


RICHARD DAWKINS’ first book, The Selfish Gene, caused a seismic shift in the study of biology by proffering the gene-centered view of evolution. It was also in this book that Dawkins coined the term meme, a unit of cultural evolution, which has itself become a mainstay in contemporary culture. In An Appetite for Wonder, Richard Dawkins shares a rare view into his early life, his intellectual awakening at Oxford, and his path to writing The Selfish Gene. He paints a vivid picture of his idyllic childhood in colonial Africa, peppered with sketches of his colorful ancestors, charming parents, and the peculiarities of colonial life right after World War II. At boarding school, despite a near-religious encounter with an Elvis record, he began his career as a skeptic by refusing to kneel for prayer in chapel. Despite some inspired teaching throughout primary and secondary school, it was only when he got to Oxford that his intellectual curiosity took full flight, ultimately climaxing in the 2006 publication of The God Delusion, which made Dawkins a world famous public intellectual engaged in social activism.


Written By: Skeptic Magazine
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  1. I humbly suggest that humans and societies are just as trapped, and possibly more caged and given to fear-driven self-defensive isolationist behaviors and elective self-blindering than at any time, perhaps, since sometime in the dark or mediaval times. We have been warned of the consequences of such obviously species-destructive aspects of human nature as greed, fouling our own food- and water-dishes, wanton consumption and the acquisition of possessions, status, religious pseudo-cocoons, choosing the short- over the long-term, stunningly illogical denial of the consequences of our choices, actions, and attitudes, ignoring the incredible interdependence of systems and ecosystems as we learn more about them and the potential for their disruption through disregard, fatalistic mindsets, avoidance of personal responsibility (manifested as lapsing into a belief in one’s helplessness, impotence, and/or narrow and rigid set of beliefs and mythology which (inexplicably, to my curiosity and perceptions, insulate, protect, and relieve individuals from allowing for possibilities beyond their doctrines, rituals, and recitations provided them by whatever religious, philosophical, intellectual, academic, or other insular peer group is anxious to prescribe and provide them.

    I actually envy those for whom religion provides absolute definitions of the universe, assurances against the vastness of the unknown including death and the existence of the soul…if those people actually receive some kind of comfort, that must be a wonderful relief, and the freedom from having to consider multiple possibilities (or, as I choose, to simply accept that mystery is inherent and perhaps even a delicious challenge–if not an essential part of our psychological evolution and current state of ability to change, evolve, and conceivably transcend our collective nature.

    Science and that subset of human beings who value it as our primary goal (i.e., the discovery, understanding, and assembly into something to which we can assign pattern or meaning or certainty of outcomes), as I now see it, is both a charming human trait and an astounding demonstration of the hubris which seems to be a dismayingly out-of-balance aspect of human nature. I was gifted with above average abilities and taught to question everything, use every possible sense and intellectual tool to not only perceive as clearly and accurately as possible at all times (later learning to turn those analytical processes on my own beliefs, ego, assumptions, ethics, and especially motivations and emotional responses to all manner of stimuli). I do question everything. I am both skeptical, given the apparently yet-to-be-escaped or even fully recognized cycles I understand from the history (filtered, intuited, imagined, and taken from formal- and self-education) I’ve gathered on cultural, societal, and human nature as woven into an intrinsically tangled fiber with the processes at work which birth, modify, destroy, and dictate our survival on this curious bit of rock we’ve colonized, overpopulated, and will most likely reach exctinction upon, our species is very likely to continue in similar orbits and cycles and superstitious, self-destructive patterns.

    When I was young and floating in the miasma wafting behind the idealism and activism and exciting proposal of a possibile simultaneous transcendence of the worst of our species’ atavistic behavior patterns–the idea that if enough of us reached the same realization and understanding in the same undefined span of time–the attitude that I think permeated the 1960s? I was excited, naive, open-minded, hopeful, spiritually blank as a canvas, and a part of me has clung to what seems, if not a likelihood, still a vague if sadly distant but never impossible occurrence. Yet my education and observations are currently rather preoccupied with the cyclic nature of civilizations’, cultures’, species’, and even natural processes of upheaval and subdued, gentle changes alternating and offsetting one another.

    Perhaps these cycles will simply continue, with minor variations in length, virulence, intensity, or predominant philosophical/sociological catalysts and methods of overthrow, reconstruction, corruptive factions, overall societal and perhaps environmental improvements–or the absence thereof–and perhaps perturbations never powerful enough to alter their patterns will soon interfere. I refer to the impact of mass media (TV–and more formats which spring up at alarming and incomprehensible and seemingly exponential paces). These, in my experience, narcotize, manipulate societal values, disinform, disseminate–increasingly deliberately, I fear–propaganda and governmental control strategies, sleight of hand to distract us, , hidden power networks and agendas so complex and spun to create agreeable facades and socially-palatable goals and missions, unbridled and even pathologically self-limiting short-term goals with little or no true motive beyond the amassing of power, wealth, and a limitlesss pursuit of all manner of control (most, if not all, in complete disregard for their ultimate desctructive impact on ecology, social structure, individual and community and national/cultural structures and successful functioning, global, and even species- and ecologically-endangerment—and all, seemingly from my perspective…which I struggle to keep from leaning toward any hopelessness, dicouragement, conspiracy-theory-influenced paranoias, fears of personal loss (with the possible exception of freedoms we increasingly comfortably relinquish despite many well-known and carefully though-out scenarios presented by fairly visionary, perceptive, and seemlingly logically- and well-organized predictions easily located in the writings of many thoughtful, perceptive, and educated publications, proffered over centuries as warnings and critically important points of consideration. Amazingly, from the academic and ovservant citizen to the less-intellectually capable and far more dimly aware of the ideas such thinkers have offered us, there is a prevalent and possibly increasing lack of concern despite such prophecies revealing themselves as real dangers. Is this due to the slow pace of the unfolding of such predictions, or can it be attributed to a pernicious subterfuge by the perpetrators of such theft of personal rights, empowerment, and core values? Is it part of historical cycles? Are new pressures such as overpopulation, the speed of technological advancement and our inability to process detailed data while struggling against the growing economic pressures which unbridled free-market competitiveness and the disregard for the greed that drives them simply slipping out of our consciousness as we struggle to keep pace? Do we simply find ourselves too tired, too overwhelmed, too isolated and uninspired as, fractured as societies and communications, discussions of justice, freedoms, pursuit of social structure and our role within it fall from family, community, national, and academic discussions, in some kind of atrophy of democratic ideals as more seductive and pleasure-producing activities lure us from the vigilance we ((at least as a young democracy) believed must be maintained?

    I am unsure of my role, and responsibilities, these days, as my increasing age, declining physical and mental vigor, and a disability which has entrapped me in a level of poverty so deep (living well below the official poverty level for almost two decades, now) and coping with such issues as homelessness, the dehuminizing experiences of being at the mercy and incompetence of social services of appalling quality, the exhaustion of strugging to sustain a sense of self-worth while fighting stigmatization, a stunned education in the contrast between what religions, governments, and communities profess as values and the personal and bureacratic failure to act according to those claims. There is a prevalent sense, as I currently perceive it, that those who aren’t productive or who are dependent on social services are somehow parasites or even abusers of whatever support systems exist. If one is sick…if one is unable to function sanely in a world no longer functioning in sane ways…if one is a victim of circumstances either beyond control (say, victimization of crime or domestic violence) or due to mistakes or perhaps even a rejection of the incomprehensible soup of hypocritical, false, self-contradictory, or absent values by which one is surrounded, one is perceived to have chosen , somehow, one’s own fate and is very, very often ignored, blamed, despised, or even invisible.

    I’ve ganed much that is positive from poverty, actually, and from a level of hardship I never new existed until I found myself entrapped by it. I have learned compassion, great humility, an adamant refrainment from judgement of others, a clearer understanding of human nature and its deep ingrainment in our patterns of thought and behavior as well as its resistance to modification, and a useful perception of the fear and superstition that governs us. I have learned that a gifted intellect does not guarantee the ability to succeed (beyond being very good at taking standardized tests). I have relinquished a great deal of belief and opened my mind and heart to an existence which focuses on honesty, clarity of communication, compassion and a fearlessness in expressing the affection, human connection, loving without judging, and a raw and fearless openness to all perception.

    And it was Richard Dawkins opening comments on awareness, in his brief appearance on Bill Maher’s program, which struck me and about which I would like to know more. All I have left to give to this life, as I currently believe, is an open mind, full awareness of myself and my environment, clear and direct communication (which does often confuse and sometimes alienate others; I usually perceive them trying to ascertain and ascribe motives or hiden meanings to every simple question I ask or statement of fact or feeling I might make. It amazes me.

    Thanks for Dr. Dawkins’ words during tonight’s broadcast. I have little tolerance for television (at age 18–(this was around 1977—I became alarmed at its potential as a narcotic, source of heavily-skewed information, exploitative goals, insidious pressures to “consume, conform, and obey” and made the decision to live without exposure to it, a practice I maintained until about 2007. I am grateful for the life experiences I collected in lieu of the time most people spend simply absorbing it, and am left with a general distrust of much of what I do see when I allow myself to relax or attempt to use it to drown out the endless struggle to sort out philosophy, spirituality, my responsibilities and the purpose of my existence, which questions, and their possibility of solving–or likely never, in fact solving–ceaselessly fill my waking hours.

    I’m grateful for sparks of reassurance and the sense of connection to others who chose to perceive, remain aware, and live with clarity, and that is what I gained from Dr. Dawkins’ very brief comments tonight. I am moved to express this gratitude, and appreciate this forum for their expression. Apologies for the length and for being too tired to proofread for errors, as well.

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