The conversation began from an unexpected direction, to those who know only Dawkins the strident atheist, or the great biologist, or even the finely cadenced writer. The scene unfolded in Kenya, as Chris Bigsby asked Dawkins about his childhood, as related in his first volume of memoirs, An Appetite for Wonder. His father was a biologist, who wanted his son to be out with “the wind in his face”, studying plants and animals. The young Dawkins, however, would creep shamefacedly up to his room to read. Nothing very edifying, he assures us: mostly boys’ adventure stories such as Biggles. Discussion of these followed, with an interesting excursus on Dawkins’ much later visit to the monastery where Gregor Mendel had lived, where he saw the library of the pea-growing genetic experimenter, which was stuffed with Biggles books.
Yet the literary tastes developed: at one point, describing his time as an assistant professor at Berkeley, where he was tear-gassed when taking part in protests against the Vietnam War, he quoted Wordsworth’s Prelude: “bliss was it in that dawn”. He honed his writing style too. This is an often neglected point: his work reads like a dream, and amply fulfils his hope that he has a feel for cadence and rhythm in his prose. These qualities are also present in his speech, which is very eloquent, with an accent which calls immediately to mind the phrase “Oxford man”. He also quoted more verse, from memory, including one amusing quatrain about his boarding school chaplain’s daughter which a fellow Oundle student had written long after their schooldays, and a poem by Aldous Huxley about the unlikelihood of any of us being born. He is very emphatic and poetic on this: “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born […] Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton” (from Unweaving the Rainbow. I urge you to read the rest of that passage. His interest in and love for music, and his early religious phase (before he read Darwin; at this point he mischievously quoted Saint Paul – “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things”) were other facts which I suspect would generate surprise in most people.
After Oundle, Dawkins put serious effort into his steps on the road into science, reading Zoology at Oxford. One of his early research projects was an inquiry into the pecking habits of chicks which aimed to work out, using algebra and other mathematical processes which this reviewer doesn’t fully understand, the mental processes going on inside the chicks’ heads, without cutting their skulls open. His real breakthrough, however, came with the publication of The Selfish Gene, which he had begun work on during the years of the Three-Day Week, drawing on ideas he had been proposing in his lectures. Finally published in 1976, the book outlined a major development of evolutionary biology, namely the idea that genes are the basic units of evolution, and that it is they that selfishly survive, as opposed to the organisms which carry them and serve merely as survival machines or vehicles. This bestseller was followed by a string of other successful scientific works, and he is now rightly regarded as one of the world’s leading scientists, as well as a populariser of the subject and a public educator.
Religious people may disagree, and Bigsby, prefacing the discussion of this prickly topic with the observation that Dawkins is more mild-mannered in person than in print, to which the latter a little shyly replied “Well, I’m not going to apologise”, moved on to discuss The God Delusion. This broadside, its author said, was aimed at those who were sitting on the fence; the truly religious, of course, would be unaffected and see it merely as a test of faith (which obviously requires, and indeed thrives on, no evidence). He cited the results of surveys about religious belief, showing that most people who ticked ‘Christian’, on further investigation could not name the first book of the New Testament, did not regard Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour, and in fact, when asked why they identified as Christian, admitted that they had fallen back lazily upon the (irrelevant) reason that they felt they were good people. The questions afterwards for the most part gave Dawkins an opportunity to rehash what he had said before, with the exception of one about freedom of speech and the right to cause offence, to which he replied by quoting Stephen Fry (“You’re offended? Well so fucking what?”) and Christopher Hitchens (approximately: “You’re offended? Ok, but I’ve yet to hear your argument”).
But we all know the score with Dawkins’ views on religion. The passages Bigsby wanted him to read out, however, were entertaining, and mark him out as a gifted satirist (characterised by what Dawkins referred to at another point as “stiletto”) rather than merely a blunt instrument to the faithful. In particular, a section on the alleged intervention of Our Lady of Fatima during an accident suffered by the former Pope would provoke a laugh from any reasonable believer. The other, non-religious reminiscences and readings were more fun, and more touching. He gave, for example, a very romantic account of how he met his wife, Lalla Ward, at a party celebrating Douglas Adam’s fortieth birthday. Dawkins saw her talking to Stephen Fry, and, after joining them and offering to refill her glass, their shared interests, combined with Dawkins’ awe at Ward’s talents (author, artist, actress in Doctor Who as Romana and Hamlet as Ophelia, alongside Derek Jacobi), led to an instant rapport, followed by dinner that evening and marriage later that year.
The close, however, was quietly magnificent, as he read from a section near the end of his latest book of memoirs, Brief Candle in the Dark. He talked about his old chaplain, who as a boy, “lying with his face in the grass”, “was inspired, by a moment of revelation, to embrace the religion which was to become his life’s path”. Dawkins continued, “I respected his epiphany enough to say that, ‘in another time and place, that boy could have been me under the stars, dazzled by Orion, Cassiopeia and Ursa Major, tearful with the unheard music of the Milky Way, heady with the night scents of frangipani and trumpet flowers in an African garden’”.
As Darwin wrote, “there is grandeur in this view of life”.