November 29, 2015
NY Times Sunday Book Review
‘Brief Candle in the Dark,’ by Richard Dawkins
Some lumbering robot, this Richard Dawkins. “Lumbering robots” was one of the ways in which this scarily brilliant evolutionary biologist described human beings vis-à-vis their genes in “The Selfish Gene,” his first and probably still his most influential book — more than a million copies sold. (His atheist manifesto, “The God Delusion,” has sold more than three million.) We’re essentially a means of physical and, more important, temporal transportation for our genes, he explained. They can live on for eons after we take our own inherited genes and mate with those of that handsome boy behind us in the movie-ticket line who ended up sitting next to us or the ones belonging to that pretty girl whose change we picked up by mistake at the newsstand and with whom we then had an apologetic coffee. And so on down the line. Our lines. Dawkins has also called us “throwaway survival machines” for our genes. But only, I think, to make a biological point.
In “Brief Candle in the Dark” — a title that I have to admit made me say, “Oh, please!” — Dawkins gives us a chronologically helter-skelter account of his grown-up research, discoveries, reflections, collaborations and controversies (especially about religion), along with reports on his appearances at various events, debates and conferences. So many events, so many conferences. He has become what Yeats calls himself in “Among School Children,” a “smiling public man.” (Though not always smiling, in Dawkins’s case, especially when it comes to his atheism.)
“Helter-skelter”? The book is “organized” achronologically, with, for example, sections devoted to the author’s academic progress, culminating in his appointment as Oxford’s first Charles Simonyi professor of public understanding of science; a chapter about his publishing history; another about “Debates and Encounters.” “If you don’t like digressive anecdotes,” Dawkins tells us, “you might find you’re reading the wrong book.”
Here is Dawkins describing Jane Brockmann’s experiments with the burrows of the female digger wasp, which he used to demonstrate the principle of evolutionarily stable strategy: “We need ESS theory whenever it happens that the best strategy for an animal depends on which strategy most other animals in the population have adopted.” Here he is three pages later introducing at some admiring length his Oxford University student Alan Grafen, who helped with the math of the digger-wasp-burrow study. A page later, still nominally among the wasp burrows, we find a Monty Python-esque description of the Great Annual Punt Race, in which the Animal Behavior Research Group rows against the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology.
Dawkins’s tributes to teachers, colleagues, students and public figures mingle with fairly extensive reprises on and further thoughts about the scientific research and philosophical positions he has developed in his 12 previous works. (They are all still in print, Dawkins tells us, presumably with a little blush.) There is his tribute to one of his “heroes,” the Nobel Prize-winning biologist Peter Medawar, admired “as much for his writing style as for his science.” And another to David Attenborough, brother of Richard, a “marvelous man.” And to Susan Blackmore, a “briskly intelligent psychologist.” Then there’s Christopher Hitchens, with his “intellect, wit, lightning repartee.” And so on.
These encomiums and credit-givings complement Dawkins’s persistent efforts to leaven his recollections with humor, applying a generally light touch: “An agent was a good thing to have,” and Caroline Dawnay “was a good representative of the genus.” “The snort of a pig-frog . . . may affect another pig-frog as the nightingale affected Keats, or the skylark Shelley.” Together, these mots — bon and otherwise — and Dawkins’s acknowledgments of the talents and the contributions of others to his life and work add up to a kind of self-effacement campaign. The crucial element in “self-effacement” is “self.” Self-effacement is not the same as modesty or humility — it is an effort of will, not a unitary psychological state. Nevertheless, that Dawkins mounts this campaign in “Brief Candle in the Dark” is surprisingly sweet, and admirable. That he loses the battle is in no way shameful. If anyone in modern science deserves to regard his or her own contributions with pride, even with triumph, it is Richard Dawkins.
The sections of “Brief Candle in the Dark” that deal with religion and atheism are middle-aged if not old hat to anyone who knows anything about the public Dawkins, along with Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss and Christopher Hitchens. But they are still entertaining. The often long passages that involve pure science are sometimes difficult and thus, sadly, require short shrift in a book review. “Natural selection, at each locus independently, favors whichever allele cooperates with the other genes with whom it shares a succession of bodies: And that means it cooperates with the alleles at those other loci, which cooperate in their turn.” But work on them and they become, as you might expect, cogent précis of Dawkins’s life’s work, and vastly illuminating: “Animals are islands in this hyperspace, vastly spaced out from one another as if in some Hyperpolynesia, surrounded by a fringing reef of closely related animals.” “If one identical twin were good at three-dimensional visualization, I would expect that his twin would be too. But I’d be very surprised to find genes for gothic arches, postmodern finials or neoclassical architraves.”
Especially bright is the light thrown in summary on replication and adaptation and connectedness, not only biological but cultural, especially in the concept of the “meme” — a word coined by Dawkins to describe images, phrases, references, pieces of music, that are themselves replicated and then spread virally throughout the world’s cultural consciousness. The meme is at best, I think, a metaphorically baggy analogue to the gene, but it serves the purpose of emphasizing the recursiveness and interrelatedness of our experience of the world.
Sometimes you get the feeling that Dawkins sees — and believes we should see — everything as connected to everything else, everything affecting everything else, everything determining and being determined by everything else. In fact, in “Brief Candle in the Dark,” he recursively recites something pertinent to this point that he wrote in “Unweaving the Rainbow,” about the compatibility of art and science: “The living world can be seen as a network of interlocking fields of replicator power.”
In his marveling at art and music and the accomplishments of his predecessors, in his sense of wonder, unspoiled — in fact amplified — by science, Dawkins proves we’re not in any way reducible to mere lumbering (or any other kinds of) robots for our genes. Even though the price of our ability to learn and marvel is death, and our genes have at least theoretical immortality, they’re really but tiny vehicles for our own wonder.
Daniel Menaker’s most recent book is a memoir, “My Mistake.”
A version of this review appears in print on November 29, 2015, on page BR8 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: In His Genes. Today’s Paper