An Appetite for Wonder: The Makings of a Scientist by Richard Dawkins (Ecco Press)
If an autobiography can ever contain a true reflection of the author, it is nearly always found in a throwaway sentence. When the world’s most celebrated atheist writes of the discovery of evolution, Richard Dawkins unwittingly reveals his sense of his mission in the world. Toward the end of An Appetite for Wonder, the first installment in what is meant to be a two-volume memoir, Dawkins cites the opening lines of the first chapter of the book that made him famous, The Selfish Gene, published in 1976:
Intelligent life on a planet comes of an age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilisation, is: “Have they discovered evolution yet?” Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin.
Several of the traits that Dawkins displays in his campaign against religion are on show here. There is his equation of superiority with cleverness: the visiting aliens are more advanced creatures than humans because they are smarter and know more than humans do. The theory of evolution by natural selection is treated not as a fallible theory—the best account we have so far of how life emerged and developed—but as an unalterable truth, which has been revealed to a single individual of transcendent genius. There cannot be much doubt that Dawkins sees himself as a Darwin-like figure, propagating the revelation that came to the Victorian naturalist.
Among these traits, it is Dawkins’s identification with Darwin that is most incongruous. No two minds could be less alike than those of the great nineteenth-century scientist and the latter-day evangelist for atheism. Hesitant, doubtful, and often painfully perplexed, Darwin understood science as an empirical investigation in which truth is never self-evident and theories are always provisional. If science, for Darwin, was a method of inquiry that enabled him to edge tentatively and humbly toward the truth, for Dawkins, science is an unquestioned view of the world. The Victorians are often mocked for their supposed certainties, when in fact many of them (Darwin not least) were beset by anxieties and uncertainties. Dawkins, by contrast, seems never to doubt for a moment the capacity of the human mind—his own, at any rate—to resolve questions that previous generations have found insoluble.
Dawkins may not be Victorian, but the figure who emerges from An Appetite for Wonder is in many ways decidedly old-fashioned. Before Dawkins’s own story begins, the reader is given a detailed account of the Dawkins family tree—perhaps a natural prelude for one involved so passionately with genes, but slightly eccentric in a twenty-first-century memoir. Dawkins’s description of growing up in British colonial Africa, going on to boarding school and then to Oxford, has a similarly archaic flavor and could easily have been written before World War II. The style in which he recounts his early years has a labored jocularity of a sort one associates with some of the stuffier products of that era, who—dimly aware that they lacked any sense of humor—were determined to show they appreciated the lighter side of life.
Born in 1941 in Nairobi, Kenya, and growing up in Nyasaland, now Malawi, Dawkins writes of life in the colonies in glowingly idyllic terms: “We always had a cook, a gardener and several other servants. … Tea was served on the lawn, with beautiful silver teapot and hot-water jug, and a milk jug under a dainty muslin cover weighted down with periwinkle shells sewn around the edges.” He remembers with special fondness the head servant, Ali, who “loyally accompanied” the family in its travels, and later became Dawkins’s “constant companion and friend.” Unlike the best of the colonial administrators, some of whom were deeply versed in the languages and histories of the peoples they ruled, Dawkins displays no interest in the cultures of the African countries where he lived as a boy. It is the obedient devotion of those who served his family that has remained in his memory.
Loyal servants turn up at several points in Dawkins’s progress through life. When he arrives at Oxford, the porter at Balliol—a college that had demonstrated its intellectual credentials by admitting three members of his family—recalls Dawkins’s father and two uncles but mistakes them for Dawkins’s brothers. This, Dawkins tells us, showed the “timeless view” characteristic of “that loyal and bowler-hatted profession.” He goes on to recount an anecdote about a new recruit to the profession, who recorded in his log-book of his duties how he could hear “rain banging on me bowler hat while I did me rounds.” The tone of indulgent superiority is telling. Dawkins is ready to smile on those he regards as beneath him as long as it is clear who is on top.
It is a different matter when those he sees as his intellectual underlings—religious believers and any who stray from the strictest interpretation of Darwinism—refuse to follow his lead. Recalling his years at boarding school, Dawkins winces at the memory of the bullying suffered by a sensitive boy, “a precociously brilliant scholar” who was reduced to “a state of whimpering, abject horror” when he was stripped of his clothing and forced to take cold baths. Today, Dawkins is baffled by the fact that he didn’t feel sympathy for the boy. “I don’t recall feeling even secret pity for the victim of the bullying,” he writes. Dawkins’s bafflement at his lack of empathy suggests a deficiency in self-knowledge. As anyone who reads his sermons against religion can attest, his attitude towards believers is one of bullying and contempt reminiscent of the attitude of some of the more obtuse colonial missionaries towards those they aimed to convert.
Exactly how Dawkins became the anti-religious missionary with whom we are familiar will probably never be known. From what he writes here, I doubt he knows himself. Still, there are a few clues. He began his pilgrimage to unbelief at the age of nine, when he learned from his mother “that Christianity was one of many religions and they contradicted each other. They couldn’t all be right, so why believe the one in which, by sheer accident of birth, I happened to be brought up?” But he was not yet ready to embrace atheism, and curiously his teenage passion for Elvis Presley reinforced his vestigial Christianity. Listening to Elvis sing “I Believe,” Dawkins was amazed to discover that the rock star was religious. “I worshipped Elvis,” he recalls, “and I was a strong believer in a non-denominational creator god.” Dawkins confesses to being puzzled as to why he should have been so surprised that Elvis was religious: “He came from an uneducated working-class family in the American South. How could he not have been religious?” By the time he was sixteen, Dawkins had “shed my last vestige of theistic credulity.” As one might expect, the catalyst for his final conversion from theism was Darwinism. “I became increasingly aware that Darwinian evolution was a powerfully available alternative to my creator god as an explanation of the beauty and apparent design of life. … It wasn’t long then before I became strongly and militantly atheistic.”
What is striking is the commonplace quality of Dawkins’s rebellion against religion. In turning away from the milk-and-water Anglicanism in which he had been reared—after his conversion from theism, he “refused to kneel in chapel,” he writes proudly—he was doing what tens of thousands of Britain’s young people did at the time. Compulsory religious instruction of the kind that exists in British schools, it has often been observed, creates a fertile environment for atheism. Dawkins’s career illustrates the soundness of this truism. If there is anything remarkable in his adolescent rebellion, it is that he has remained stuck in it. At no point has Dawkins thrown off his Christian inheritance. Instead, emptying the faith he was taught of its transcendental content, he became a neo-Christian evangelist. A more inquiring mind would have noticed at some point that religion comes in a great many varieties, with belief in a creator god figuring in only a few of the world’s faiths and most having no interest in proselytizing. It is only against the background of a certain kind of monotheism that Dawkins’s evangelical atheism makes any sense.
Even more remarkable is Dawkins’s inveterate literal-mindedness. He tells us that “the Pauline belief that everybody is born in sin, inherited from Adam (whose embarrassing non-existence was unknown to St. Paul), is one of the very nastiest aspects of Christianity.” It is true that the idea of original sin has become one with a morbid preoccupation with sexuality, which has been part of Christianity throughout much of its history. Even so, it is an idea that contains a vital truth: evil is not error, a mistake of the mind, a failure of understanding that can be corrected by smarter thinking. It is something deeper and more constitutive of human life itself. The capacity and propensity for destruction goes with being human. One does not have to be religious to acknowledge this dark fact. With his myth or metaphor of the death instinct thanatos, Freud—a lifelong atheist—recognized that impulses of hatred and cruelty are integral to the human psyche. As an atheist myself, it is a view I find no difficulty in sharing.
Quite apart from the substance of the idea, there is no reason to suppose that the Genesis myth to which Dawkins refers was meant literally. Coarse and tendentious atheists of the Dawkins variety prefer to overlook the vast traditions of figurative and allegorical interpretations with which believers have read Scripture. Both Augustine and before him the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria explicitly cautioned against literalism in interpreting the biblical creation story. Later, in the twelfth century, Maimonides took a similar view. It was only around the time of the Reformation that the idea that the story was a factual account of events became widely held. When he maintains that Darwin’s account of evolution displaced the biblical story, Dawkins is assuming that both are explanatory theories—one primitive and erroneous, the other more advanced and literally true. In treating religion as a set of factual propositions, Dawkins is mimicking Christianity at its most fundamentalist.
There is an interesting inconsistency between Dawkins’s dismissal of religion as being little more than a tissue of falsehood and his adherence to an evolutionary account of human behavior. In the later chapters of An Appetite for Wonder, Dawkins recounts his work on the behavior of blowflies, and later mice, guppy fish, and crickets. As always, what he describes as his “Darwin-obsessed brain” analyzed these behaviors in terms that were meant to be consistent with Darwinian orthodoxy. His best-selling manifesto The Selfish Gene originated in 1973, when strike action by miners led to a “three-day week” in which there were frequent power-cuts. Dawkins needed electricity for his work on crickets, but he could do without it for writing, which he did on a portable typewriter, so he began to write instead. By 1982, we find him “trying to push Universal Darwinism”—the view that genes are not the only replicators in natural selection—a theme he had explored in the last chapter of his best-seller, where he presented his theory of memes. Dawkins’s suggestion is that memes “leap from brain to brain, via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation,” and it is clear that he sees this process at work throughout human culture, including religion.
There are many difficulties in talk of memes, including how they are to be identified. Is Romanticism a meme? Is the idea of evolution itself a meme, jumping unbidden from brain to brain? My suspicion is that the entire “theory” amounts to not much more than a misplaced metaphor. The larger problem is that a meme-based Darwinian account of religion is at odds with Dawkins’s assault on religion as a type of intellectual error. If Darwinian evolution applies to religion, then religion must have some evolutionary value. But in that case there is a tension between naturalism (the study of humans and other animals as organisms in the natural world) and the rationalist belief that the human mind can rid itself of error and illusion through a process of critical reasoning. To be sure, Dawkins and those who think like him will object that evolutionary theory tells us how we got where we are, but does not preclude our taking charge of ourselves from here on. But who are “we”? In a passage from The Selfish Gene that Dawkins quotes in this memoir, he writes:
They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, these replicators. Now they come by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.
If we “are” survival machines, it is unclear how “we” can decide anything. The idea of free will, after all, comes from religion and not from science. Science may give us the unvarnished truth—or some of it—about our species. Part of that truth may prove to be that humans are not and can never be rational animals. Religion may be an illusion, but that does not mean science can dispel it. On the contrary, science may well show that religion cannot be eradicated from the human mind. Unsurprisingly, this is a possibility that Dawkins never explores.
For all his fervent enthusiasm for science, Dawkins shows very little interest in asking what scientific knowledge is or how it comes to be possible. There are many philosophies of science. Among them is empiricism, which maintains that scientific knowledge extends only so far as observation and experiment can reach; realism, which holds that science can give an account of parts of the world that can never be observed; irrealism, according to which there is no one truth of things to which scientific theories approximate; and pragmatism, which views science theories as useful tools for organizing and controlling experience. If he is aware of these divergent philosophies, Dawkins never discusses them. His attitude to science is that of a practitioner who does not need to bother with philosophical questions.
It is worth noting, therefore, that it is not as a practicing scientist that Dawkins has produced his assaults against religion. As he makes clear in this memoir, he gave up active research in the 1970s when he left his crickets behind and began to write The Selfish Gene. Ever since, he has written as an ideologue of scientism, the positivistic creed according to which science is the only source of knowledge and the key to human liberation. He writes well—fluently, vividly, and at times with considerable power. But the ideas and the arguments that he presents are in no sense novel or original, and he seems unaware of the critiques of positivism that appeared in its Victorian heyday.
Some of them bear re-reading today. One of the subtlest and most penetrating came from the pen of Arthur Balfour, the Conservative statesman, British foreign secretary, and sometime prime minister. Well over a century ago, Balfour identified a problem with the evolutionary thinking that was gaining ascendancy at the time. If the human mind has evolved in obedience to the imperatives of survival, what reason is there for thinking that it can acquire knowledge of reality, when all that is required in order to reproduce the species is that its errors and illusions are not fatal? A purely naturalistic philosophy cannot account for the knowledge that we believe we possess. As he framed the problem in The Foundations of Belief in 1895, “We have not merely stumbled on truth in spite of error and illusion, which is odd, but because of error and illusion, which is even odder.” Balfour’s solution was that naturalism is self-defeating: humans can gain access to the truth only because the human mind has been shaped by a divine mind. Similar arguments can be found in a number of contemporary philosophers, most notably Alvin Plantinga. Again, one does not need to accept Balfour’s theistic solution to see the force of his argument. A rigorously naturalistic account of the human mind entails a much more skeptical view of human knowledge than is commonly acknowledged.
Balfour’s contributions to the debate about science and religion are nowadays little known—compelling testimony to the historical illiteracy of contemporary philosophy. But Balfour also testifies to how shallow, crass, and degraded the debate has become since Victorian times. Unlike most of those who debated then, Dawkins knows practically nothing of the philosophy of science, still less about theology or the history of religion. From his point of view, he has no need to know. He can deduce everything he wants to say from first principles. Religion is a type of supernatural belief, which is irrational, and we will all be better off without it: for all its paraphernalia of evolution and memes, this is the sum total of Dawkins’s argument for atheism. His attack on religion has a crudity that would make a militant Victorian unbeliever such as T.H. Huxley—described by his contemporaries as “Darwin’s bulldog” because he was so fierce in his defense of evolution—blush scarlet with embarrassment.
If religion comes in many varieties, so too does atheism. Dawkins takes for granted that being an atheist goes with having liberal values (with the possible exception of tolerance). But as the Victorians well knew, there are many types of atheism, liberal and illiberal, and many versions of atheist ethics. Again, Dawkins imagines an atheist is bound to be an enemy of religion. But there is no necessary connection between atheism and hostility to religion, as some of the great Victorian unbelievers understood. More intelligent than their latter-day disciple, the positivists tried to found a new religion of humanity—especially August Comte (1798–1857), who established a secular church in Paris that for a time found converts in many other parts of the world. The new religion was an absurdity, with rituals being practiced that were based on the pseudo-science of phrenology—but at least the positivists understood that atheism cannot banish human needs that only faith can meet.
One might wager a decent sum of money that it has never occurred to Dawkins that to many people he appears as a comic figure. His default mode is one of rational indignation—a stance of withering patrician disdain for the untutored mind of a kind one might expect in a schoolmaster in a minor public school sometime in the 1930s. He seems to have no suspicion that any of those he despises could find his stilted pose of indignant rationality merely laughable. “I am not a good observer,” he writes modestly. He is referring to his observations of animals and plants, but his weakness applies more obviously in the case of humans. Transfixed in wonderment at the workings of his own mind, Dawkins misses much that is of importance in human beings—himself and others.
To the best of my recollection, I have met Dawkins only once and by chance, when we coincided at some meeting in London. It must have been in late 2001, since conversation at dinner centered around the terrorist attacks of September 11. Most of those at the table were concerned with how the West would respond: would it retaliate, and if so how? Dawkins seemed uninterested. What exercised him was that Tony Blair had invited leaders of the main religions in Britain to Downing Street to discuss the situation—but somehow omitted to ask a leader of atheism (presumably Dawkins himself) to join the gathering. There seemed no question in Dawkins’s mind that atheism as he understood it fell into the same category as the world’s faiths.
In this, Dawkins is surely right. To suppose that science can liberate humankind from ignorance requires considerable credulity. We know how science has been used in the past—not only to alleviate the human lot, but equally to serve tyranny and oppression. The notion that things might be fundamentally different in the future is an act of faith—one as gratuitous as any of the claims of religion, if not more so. Consider Pascal. One of the founders of modern probability theory and the designer of the world’s first mass-transit system, he was far too intelligent to imagine that human reason could resolve perennial questions. His celebrated wager has always seemed to me a rather bad bet. Since we cannot know what gods there may be (if any), why stake our lives on pleasing one of them? But Pascal’s wager was meant as a pedagogical device rather than a demonstrative argument, and he reached faith himself by way of skeptical doubt. In contrast, Dawkins shows not a trace of skepticism anywhere in his writings. In comparison with Pascal, a man of restless intellectual energy, Dawkins is a monument to unthinking certitude.
We must await the second volume of his memoirs to discover how Dawkins envisions his future. But near the end of the present volume, an inadvertent remark hints at what he might want for himself. Darwin was “never Sir Charles,” he writes, “and what an amazing indictment of our honours system that is.” It is hard to resist the thought that the public recognition that in Britain is conferred by a knighthood is Dawkins’s secret dream. A life peerage would be even better. What could be more fitting for this tireless evangelist than to become the country’s officially appointed atheist, seated alongside the bishops in the House of Lords? He may lack their redeeming tolerance and display none of their sense of humor, but there cannot be any reasonable doubt that he belongs in the same profession.
This piece originally appeared in the New Republic