Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Genes and memes

I have just read Richard Dawkins' new book, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, a memoir of the first half of his life, from his birth in Africa during World War II to the publication of the book that brought him to international prominence in 1976, The Selfish Gene. It is, as we would expect, a jolly good read, especially the first half recounting his childhood and adolescence. What makes it good is his graceful writing, brash wit and dash of sass. He beautifully balances, in what can only be called a Dawkinsesque way, self-satisfaction and self-deprecation. He knows he's the sharpest tack in the room, but we forgive him for it because we know he is too. I've read all his books and been inspired by them.

American anglophiles like me will respond with delight to his tales of British boarding schools, and the stiff-upper-lip confidence that marked the declining days of Empire. His journey from infancy in Nyasaland to Balliol College, Oxford, rattles gaily along like a plucky Range Rover bumping across the savannah wrapped in jerry cans of petrol.

The book drags a bit when he gets to describing his early scientific work in animal behavior, involving chicks and crickets (and computers). All very clever, but hardly earthshaking. We are reminded that Dawkins' genius lies in the popular explication of science, rather than in research. Still, he seems to have known all the great biologists of his and the previous generation, and his store of anecdotes is entertaining. He is quick to give credit where credit is due for ideas that he gave common currency, such as those he developed in The Selfish Gene.

At the end of An Appetite for Wonder Dawkins promises a second volume, bringing his autobiography up to the present. That is worth waiting for. Genes may be immortal (as he argues in The Selfish Gene), but you and I are individually fleeting, a message that enflames his recent notoriety. God and personal immortality may be delusions, but they are refractory memes. It will be fun to read Dawkins' take on his role as the genial bane of organized religion.