An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist

Tonight I had the honor of introducing Richard Dawkins at a Kepler’s Bookstore book-signing for his memoirs An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist. Here are my notes from the intro:

Good evening! I’m your neighbor David Cowan, and with Thanksgiving only 6 weeks away, it’s my job tonight to share with you 6 reasons why we are all very fortunate.

First, we are fortunate to have Kepler’s in our community so we can meet our literary and scientific heroes.

Second we are fortunate because tonight we have a visitor, Richard Dawkins, who ranks among the handful of greatest scientists of our generation. From his perch at Oxford, Professor Dawkins has advanced evolutionary biology, and authored several of the best-selling science books ever published, including Extended Phenotype, Selfish Gene, Blind Watchmaker, Unweaving the Rainbow, Devil’s Chaplain, and God Delusion, which has sold millions of copies.

Another book of his, Climbing Mount Improbable, taught me our third good fortune tonight: that after billions of years of chaos, life sprung on our little planet, our species emerged from a trillion accidents of nature, and the organisms sitting in this room won the lottery of conception. (You may notice that these fortunes are not necessarily presented in any increasing or decreasing order of magnitude.)

And now he’s written his memoirs, An Appettite for Wonder: the Making of a Scientist, and we are quadruply fortunate that after multiple visits here, Kepler’s remains one of Richard’s favorite places to meet his readers.

The first chapter of his memoirs recounts his family history in which Clinton George Augustus Dawkins, consul to Austria and not yet a father in 1830, was fired upon by a cannonball that just barely missed his privates. Naturally, that is good fortune number five for us tonight.

The memoirs go on to document the intellectual development of Earth’s most famous atheist, from humble beginnings on a country farm, and parents who lived sparingly in order to afford the finest education for their children. Reading about the collision of his Anglican indoctrination with natural evidence and common sense evoked strong memories of my own religious upbringing, as I’m sure it would for many of you. He writes:

“I was intensely religious around the time I was confirmed. I priggishly upbraided my mother for not going to church. She took it very well and didn’t tell me, as she should have, to take a running jump.”

But soon Young Richard (or Clinton which we now know to be his true name) started to question the institutional rituals around him. This is my favorite chapter…

[p. 140] I was especially incensed by the hypocrisy of the General Confession in we mumbled in chorus that we were miserable offenders. The very fact that the exact words were written down to be repeated the following week, and the week after and for the rest of our lives (and had been so repeated since 1662) sent a clear signal that we had no intention of being anything other than miserable offenders in the future. 

But Richard retained his belief in a Creator God, and as a teenager he did continue to worship…. Elvis Presley, that is. Richard privately impersonated the rock and roll legend, and remembers buying the album I Believe.

[p. 142] I listened with delight – for my hero sang that every time he saw the wonders of the world, his faith was reinforced. My own sentiments exactly!…I sort of half believed that in this unexpected record, Elvis was speaking personally to me, calling me to devote my life to telling people about the Creator God. 6. 

Skipping down to our 6th and final good fortune tonight…

I became increasingly aware that Darwinian evolution was a powerfully available alternative to my creator god as an explanation for the beauty and apparent design of life. It was my father who first explained it to me… But eventually a friend – one of the two, neither of them biologists, in whose company I later refused to kneel in chapel – persuaded me of the full force of Darwin’s brilliant idea and I shed my last vestige of theistic credulity, probably at the age of about sixteen. 

Because Richard refused to kneel in chapel, his housemaster Peter Ling summoned his parents for a heart to heart talk over tea.

[p 143] Mr. Ling asked my parents to try to persuade me to change my ways. My father said (approximately, by mother’s recollection): ‘It is not our business to control him in that sort of way, that kind of thing is your problem, and I am afraid I must decline your request.’ 

Richard hasn’t kneeled since then. As Oxford University’s very first Professor for Public Understanding of Science, he has become a powerful agent of social change through his discoveries, lectures, and books. He promotes science education and science-based policy through his private foundation, daily tweets and even last week’s appearance on the Daily Show.

So, neighbors, if you feel as fortunate as I do tonight, please join me in giving a warm Kepler’s welcome to our visiting Biologist, Author, Teacher, Social Activist, Tweeter, and Elvis Impersonator, Professor Clinton Richard Dawkins!