Book Review: An Appetite For Wonder

An appetite for wonder

“I’m happy to say it wasn’t long before I reverted to earlier doubts, first planted at the age of about nine when I learned from my 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?” p. 141

Famed biologist Richard Dawkins is known as much for his contribution to science as he is for his voracious commentary on atheism.  Having never read any of his published works, which include The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion, and The Ancestor’s Tale, Dawkins’ biography was an enjoyable journey in learning more about the man. Unlike other works of non-fiction, this particular book called to be read out over months instead of being sped through in days.

An Appetite For Wonder is fairly easy to follow as chapters are divided chronologically; the book invites us to work our way through Dawkins’ childhood in Africa, his formative years in England, trained at Oundle Public School and Oxford, quirky teachers, friends, and relatives he had, poems, hymns, and songs he had to sing as part of tradition, and his experiences as a member of the scientific community. His predilection for the natural sciences started young and was also hereditary. What makes the book particularly enjoyable are the numerous anecdotes that Dawkins shares, followed by biting bits of self-reflexive criticisms.

One early example is when he was bitten was a scorpion as a child:

“As for the scorpion, it gave me a painful rebuke for my deficiencies as a budding naturalist. I saw it crawling across the floor and I misidentified it as a lizard. How could I?” p. 37

There are also some beautifully explained passages about dull scientific concepts.

Recently Dawkins has been attaining some negative press over his comments about a young Texas high school student, Ahmed, who was arrested for making a home-made clock and bringing it to school. Dawkins took to Twitter and linked to a video post that called into question the authenticity of Ahmed’s ‘invention’ and wondered what his motives were.

Predictably, Dawkins received a fair bit of flack of side-tracking from the issue and also the hints of Islamophobia in his comments – it didn’t matter what Ahmed made was authentic enough to be called his own invention or what his motives might have been. The important issue was that he was unfairly targeted by his high school and the cops because he happened to be brown and Muslim.

Dawkins’ scepticism was hard to understand, especially when the boy in question was merely 14. In his biography, he is just as blunt and unsympathetic in his communication. In one instance, he talks about his scepticism about students. He wrote an account of his time at Oundle:

“Peer pressure among schoolchildren is notoriously strong…You had to pretend to be working less hard than you actually were….But such missed opportunities!…Perhaps devoted teachers, instead of casting their pearls before piglets, should be given the opportunity to teach pupils old enough to appreciate their beauty.” p. 128

Not that this has anything to do with his unfair comments about Ahmed, but as I read through his Twitter, I couldn’t help but recall what he wrote above. He values education, which is evident in the way he talks about his own journey, first as a student, then as an educator, and there are some brilliant anecdotes that give readers a glimpse into his atypical posh English life. (I mean if that’s your thing when picking up a book.)

Dawkins also talks candidly about his circumcision, being a bystander in instances of bullying, and then drops a bombshell by talking about his experiences with sexual abuse at the hands of a teacher in boarding school. Things one wouldn’t expect people to be so forthcoming about by writing it down in pages for millions to see. There was plenty of retrospection about Dawkins’ search for an identity as a child, the kind of nomadic life he led as an expat in his early years – something that I can relate to – and there were also some potentially unpopular views. He argued, several times throughout, that children should not be encouraged to be gullible and believe in the fantastic; he recalled his own instances where he was young enough to be fooled into believing in the fantastic and called those experiences embarrassing.

“Why do adults foster the credulity of children? Is it really so obviously wrong, when a child believes in Father Christmas, to lead her in a gentle little game of questioning?” p. 51

As a student of literature, I found that objectionable because, unlike his area of study, mine thrives on the fantastical.

Overall, the book is worth a read if one is interested in Richard Dawkins. Before I was gifted this book by a family friend, I was aware of him but never actively interested in his being. Which made this book a perfect primer into exploring his other published works and figure out if the hype is worth it.

[Read | Skim | Toss]

[Buy | Borrow]

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