Dawkins: No Modern-Day Darwin

John Gray pans Richard Dawkins’ memoir, An Appetite for Wonder, which takes us beyond Dawkins’ polemics on behalf of science to reveal a bit of the man himself. One point Gray makes? The famed New Atheist is nothing like his hero Charles Darwin:

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.