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Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science
Richard Dawkins has contributed wonderfully to the public understanding of evolutionary biology, as well as to the propagation of a gleefully bullish version of atheism. On the evidence of this second volume of autobiography, which charts his life between 35 and 70, no one enjoys those achievements more than Dawkins.
His 12 books, he tells us, have never been out of print. The God Delusion, his attack on religion, sold 3m copies, 'including sales of a quarter of a million in German'. He was Oxford University's first holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science, from 1995 to 2008, and his work in the field of evolutionary biology, which most famously championed the role of the gene over the individual, has 'changed the way we think' (according to the subtitle of a book that he feels 'quite bashful repeating').
Philosophers and writers admire him, as well as scientists. As evidence, he quotes Daniel Dennett, who thought The Extended Phenotype had 'some of the most masterful, sustained chains of reasoning I have ever encountered'. Or ask Philip Pullman, who contributed '“a beautiful chapter on my literary style' in a tribute volume of essays. Dawkins would have liked 'to write a detailed response to every one of these marvellous chapters but', he regrets, 'it would require another book to do it justice'.
No matter, this one does the job. It has the side benefit of revealing how 'distinguished' his friends are. The adjective is deployed so often — I lost count, but no editor should have done - that it becomes clear how important distinction is to Dawkins. His 2008 retirement dinner, for instance, had 'a guest list every bit as distinguished as that for my 70th birthday dinner three years later'. Guests included 'novelists, playwrights, television personalities, musicians, comedians, historians, publishers, actors and multinational business tycoons'. In fact, '15 of those actually attending' would probably appear in anyone's 'ideal gathering of dinner-party guests'.
His family is mentioned only in passing (this is very much a career survey), but they, too, are distinguished by their distinction. His daughter's 'top first-class degree' is trumpeted, twice, as are the talents of his third wife, Lalla Ward, who played Romana in Doctor Who.
Where Dawkins is not admired, the fault is in the eye of the beholder. Clerics are misguided, obviously, though Rowan Williams is described as 'one of the nicest men I have ever met', not to mention 'obligingly intelligent'. Despite being a former Archbishop of Canterbury. Dawkins' long-running spat with the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould is rehearsed here, again. Offering evidence for his own thriving sense of humour, Dawkins reprints the index entry he slipped into The Blind Watchmaker for 'Gould, SJ'; a sub-entry reads '5% resemblance to turd, 82'. His only regret is losing a tape recording of a debate he once held with Gould, as it would have proved 'that I was right and he simply couldn't get it'. Although, as he admits, 'Steve, alas, is no longer here to dissent'. Gould died in 2002.
In the port-tinted glow of an after-dinner speech at an Oxford college, the vanities of this book could be warmly forgiven. Despite what is often claimed, Dawkins is not beyond self-ironising, and he has a naughty sense of humour. (His PG Wodehouse pastiche, in which Jeeves and Wooster debate the doctrine of salvation, is superb.) But without the rapier-play of his actual arguments, we are left here with a particular, strangely defensive version of the man himself. Someone should have told him that an autobiography is best used as an opportunity for reflection - and not the kind you see in a mirror.
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