Richard Dawkins has a signature style, or as Neil DeGrasse Tyson put it, “a method.”
The Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York called Dawkins out for this method, as is documented in one of the more particularly interesting portions of the newest memoir covering the British evolutionary biologist’s “Life In Science,” titled Brief Candle in the Dark. Dawkins had just delivered a talk criticizing a “religiously-inclined ecologist” when, afterward, Tyson gave some constructive criticism. He implored Dawkins to consider that “there’s got to be an act of persuasion” where education’s concerned, and it needs to be more nuanced than the professorial punch of “here’s the facts, you are either an idiot or you’re not.”
“The facts plus the sensitivity,” Tyson said, is what “creates impact.”
Dawkins, who served as professor of public understanding at the University of Oxford, is famous for his campaign as an “evangelical atheist” advocating for a “non-theist” or “secularist” intellectuality—or, rather, a naturalistic view of the world. Many of you likely read his famous books on evolution like The Selfish Gene (in which he introduced the word “meme” into our vernacular) or The Blind Watchmaker (an award-winning work from 1986 that argued against a divine creator). He would hammer non-theist points home in 2006 with The God Delusion. Since then, he has been considered as the ostensible figurehead for the advocacy of a “secularist” way of thinking and way of life. In other words, he often pisses off religious folks. But this book is more concerned with the development of a scientist, a diligent and thoughtful devotee of Darwinism, not an overt renegade divider of public opinion.
Tyson appraises Dawkins’ style as “articulately barbed.” Now, that would be all too apparent and a fair assessment to anyone who does a Youtube search on Dawkins after reading this review. But those more fiery sermons can be left to the enrage-able re-tweeters, because Brief Candle is a breath of fresh air in comparison. The book presents a much cooler, calmer recounting of his experiences in the field of scientific study, from his earlier days in academia inspired by the works of Darwin, to his days as a zoologist lecturing in animal behavior, later, as a published author and as the first professor to hold the Charles Simonyi Chair (as professor for public understanding). He even admits that he dislikes “the adversarial style of debating.” There are, of course, subtle barbs sutured throughout the pages of the book, as he may specifically be pricking any readers who hold an inkling of support in the notions of creationism. “…every time a scientist agrees to such a debate (with creationists) it creates an illusion of equal standing.”
In Candle, Dawkins admits a hope that the themes of his 12 books can be taken together as encompassing a biologist’s worldview. But, while dispelling religion has been a more expressed goal, a quieter (and more integral) goal of his, as he discusses in the chapter titled “Unweaving the Threads From a Scientist’s Loom” has been to present (or promote) this naturalistic view, informed by the studies of evolution and biology, with coherence. It’s the coherent presentation that is vital. Hence, “public understanding.”
It is one thing to campaign for atheism and advocate for an evolved understanding of what it means to be an atheist, which might be left to the next sensationalized click-bait column that likely glamorizes Dawkins’ potentially polarizing comments, but it is quite another to set that aside (or minimize those browser windows, if you will) and encounter Brief Candle as a sincerely curious student of science might, and with a mind that is free of melodrama that panelists and pundits apply to Dawkins. After all, it is not “my life” that Dawkins presents here; it is a “life in science.”
And what becomes apparent, as Dawkins revs up through the final third of the book, is that those articulate barbs Tyson spoke of topple away and he truly enters his element as an educator, sparked during the penultimate chapter with a stimulated narration exploring not just taxonomy, but embryology (through his positing of a “Genetic Book Of The Dead” that assembles our ancestors genes to tell a digital description of their environments).
Dawkins has his own style. It may be that he has given up on the Tyson’s brand of “sensitivity” when it comes to spreading understanding. But, can one be too frank? Or not frank enough? The latter, Dawkins would appraise as “conciliatory,” at least particularly when he has to defend his worldview. Dawkins suspects that ”each of the two approaches works well, but with different audiences.”
Dawkins’ new memoir has two enlightening chapters that follow his foray into being a scientist on television, and a more expansive montage of various “Debates & Encounters” where he meets fellow minds such as Tyson, and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, where there are opportunities for the reader to find numerous occasions where Dawkins is often approached with: “Well, you think you’re right and everyone else is wrong…” But, as he admitted, recently, during an interview on BBC’s Newsnight: “…the best way to convert people is not necessarily to tell people they’re idiots and I have occasionally seemed guilty of that.”
That said, Brief Candle is not an overt defense or a course correction from that. Dawkins isn’t sugar-coating anything here, but if you travel further into this memoir, the educator comes into a sharper relief. There is a “persuasion” in his style, but it might depend on whether you, reader, have decided, before you open the book, whether you think he’s wrong…
Dawkins would remind you that scientists, strange as it might sound, enjoy being wrong. As Dawkins said on Newsnight, that’s how science has advanced. Perhaps you’d like to see for yourself; perhaps you’re an aspiring teacher, perhaps you’d like to learn more about that nuanced “persuasion” when it comes to education or, perhaps, you’d like to learn more about evolution. You’ll be rewarded with this read.
Brief Candle might be a direct sequel to Appetite For Wonder, but if your interest is sparked by this review, you can easily pick this book up today and begin. An interest in science and how it shapes our modern lives may be the only thing you’ll need, beforehand.