RICHARD DAWKINS holds a unique spot in our culture: Scientists know him as the biologist who furthered a gene-centric view of evolution with 1976's The Selfish Gene, but most know him as the author of 2006's brilliant, relentlessly rational argument for atheism, The God Delusion. He's also a lively force on Twitter, happily poking at issues others wouldn't go near: "All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge," he posted in August, to predictable controversy. "They did great things in the Middle Ages, though." It'd be tempting to think of Dawkins as a cultural troll if it weren't for his vibrant intellect. It's frequently easy to find fault in Dawkins' brusqueness; it's frequently difficult to find fault in his logic.
Dawkins' memoir, An Appetite for Wonder, is subtitled "The Making of a Scientist," and that's what's inside: While Dawkins' personality comes through, there are few glimpses into how it was forged. "Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is satisfying because it shows us a way in which simplicity could change into complexity," Dawkins wrote in The Selfish Gene, and Wonder follows a similar path, beginning with his childhood in Nairobi and Malawi and moving to his studies at Oxford. Friends flit by in the background; things like getting married are barely mentioned. (When sex comes up, it's promptly hidden: "It isn't that kind of autobiography.") Yet—probably to his consternation—Wonder's most interesting parts are when Dawkins considers himself not as a scientist but as a human. As a toddler, he refuses to believe a man dressed as Santa; in boarding school, he carefully observes his peers; as a teenager, he "priggishly upbraided my mother for not going to church." (!) These moments grow increasingly rare; by the time Dawkins uses diagrams to demonstrate his student research, any hope Wonder will veer into the personal are long gone. Thankfully, Dawkins' wit is constant: "When I was only three months old my father had put my name down for Marlborough, his old school, but was told that he was too late: I should have been put down at birth (how long before that sentence is quoted out of context?)."
But the most frustrating part of Wonder comes on its final page, with the literary equivalent of "TO BE CONTINUED...": Dawkins reveals that the period following the publication of The Selfish Gene, "during which the majority of my books were written," will be considered in a "companion volume that should follow in two years' time." Even for Dawkins, that's an impressive bit of trolling—but I'll be there, hoping he'll offer more of a look into Dawkins the man, not just Dawkins the scientist.