The evening began as John Figdor, head of the Humanist Connection, stepped onto the CEMEX stage to introduce Dawkins as a figure of atheism. The Humanist Connection began last year with a mission “to build, educate, and nurture a diverse community of atheists” on campus. Dawkins had been invited to Stanford first and foremost for his role as a vehemently determined and prominent atheist.
Second to the stage was Robert Seagal, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford’s Medical School, who gave an overview of Dawkins’s life and accomplishments, and introduced him as an “explicator of science and popularizer of environmental theory.”
Rather than a strictly scientific focus, Seagal touched on the more culturally significant moments in Dawkins’s career so far. Among other noteworthy facts, Dawkins has a genus of fish named in his honor and was a Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University from 1995-2008.
Dawkins coined the term “meme” as a unit of cultural translation in The Selfish Gene. A “meme” can be a behavior, style, or idea – for example, a musical tune or particular fashion – that evolves by natural selection, as genes do. Meme theory can help explain cultural evolution and human behavior, though academics disagree as to each individual’s ability to “rebel” against traditional habits and behavior.
Seagal, too, touched on Dawkins’s role as a figure of atheism and protester of the “detrimental effects of religious belief on educators.”
Seagal finished his introduction by pulling out a puppet of Darwin and comparing the famous naturalist to Dawkins. From the audience, the puppet looked more like a much-loved Lorax than the familiar bearded naturalist, but the similarities Seagal found were impressive. The two share initials – Clinton Richard Dawkins and Charles Robert Darwin – and both were born to wealthy, prominent families. Both were first published in their early thirties, and their books both lead to “revolutions in biology.” Both struggled with issues involving religion and science.
Finally, Dawkins entered and stared out at the audience for many moments before sitting down to discuss An Appetite for Wonder.
Perhaps to lift an introduction heavy in atheistic conviction and lists of scholastic achievement, Dawkins chose to begin by reading an excerpt from his childhood.
Dawkins was born in Nairobi in 1949 and lived in Colonial Africa for the first eight years of his life, before attending boarding school in England. He read about the time he was stung by a scorpion.
“I saw what I thought was a lizard –“ here he broke off. “To think I was to be a biologist!” The crowd laughed, and Dawkins smiled an enormously bright, round smile that revealed a personality different from his divisive reputation as an unshakeable atheist and aggressive political and academic activist.Dawkins’s book, An Appetite for Wonder, chronicles his life from birth up to his first best-seller in 1976, The Selfish Gene, in which Dawkins theorizes on gene evolution and the role of altruism in natural selection.
As he reflected on teachers and mentors who had inspired him over the years, Dawkins emphasized the importance the humanities had had on his scientific career. One of his mentors at Oxford, the late evolutionary biologist Arthur Cain, had Dawkins read philosophy and the history of biology for his tutorial.
“It would never have occurred to [Cain] to be preparing me for the exam. He treated me as a scholar, and it was wonderful to be treated that way, like a scholar.”
The same was true of another influential mentor at Oxford, the late Nobel Prize winning ornithologist John Michael Cullen. Of Cullen, Dawkins said, “his style of tutoring again had no relation to what I would get on an exam.” Dawkins saw his literature-focused education as being crucial to his understanding the role of science in terms of the world at large.
The conversation on stage inevitably shifted back to atheism. Noting the social disapproval of atheism and agnosticism, one questioner asked Dawkins to comment on the lack of a single atheist in the United States Government. “And you believe that?” Dawkins retorted with a smile.
Those who know Dawkins from his book The God Delusion or from his role as a prominent atheist may be surprised to learn of his early, pious childhood. In An Appetite for Wonder, Dawkins recalled, “I became intensely religious around the time I was confirmed… I prayed every night … in what I confided to myself was ‘my own little corner with God.’”
“When did you discover you were an atheist?” the interviewer asked. Dawkins said he was 16 when he discovered the “beauty and power of Darwinian thinking … and the powerful illusion of intelligent design.”
Responding to the idea that leading an atheistic life was less inspirational – did he feel less of a sense of purpose and less lucky to be here, without God? – Dawkins recited Aldous Huxley from memory.
“A million million spermatozoa/ All of them alive./ Out of their cataclysm but one poor Noah / Dare hope to survive. / And among that billion minus one / Might have chanced to be / Shakespeare, another Newton, a new Donne – / But that One was me.”
“We, all of us, have no right to exist,” Dawkins said. “It’s practically impossible for us to, but we do.” Dawkins concluded that “once you’ve succeeded like that,” other things – an illustrious career or a handful of best selling novels – seem suddenly much more attainable.
Dawkins’s book, An Appetite for Wonder, is the first part of a two-book autobiography.