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Labourer in Darwin’s vineyard who ‘still has more work to do’
RICHARD Dawkins had just had a fierce debate about the rape of an eight-year-old Yemen girl and his own brief experience of sexual abuse many years ago.
An argument on Twitter had been sparked by his recollection of an incident from his days at a Salisbury prep school, included in his newly published memoir An Appetite For Wonder: The Making of a Scientist.
The celebrated scientist was still incensed about the exchange, as he settled into a chair at his home in North Oxford. “There is a difference between a school master sticking his hands in a boy’s shorts and a 40-year-old raping an eight-year-old girl to death. Some people can’t tell the difference between these levels of wrong,” he says.
It is tempting to view Dawkins as the only professor who could be engulfed in debates about child abuse – making headlines around the world – with the briefest memory of a school incident, this coming after another Twitter- storm over the number of Nobel prizes for Muslims.
But you would be hard pressed to find another Oxford scientist as willing to engage with detractors in no-nonsense terms, whether we are talking sex or science, man or God.
The evolutionary biologist could easily claim to be the world’s best known atheist, having been voted top thinker in Prospect magazine’s poll of 10,000 readers from over 100 countries.
Ever since his book the Selfish Gene in 1976 – suggesting we are all “survival machines programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes” – he has been a best-selling author. But now he has set down what shaped him in an autobiography covering his life up to the time he first offered us his radical version of Darwinism.
The book offers insight into how the author of The God Delusion came to lose his faith.
The biologist cannot complain about his own genes, coming from a family of scientists. His father was a botanist in Nyasaland, now Malawi.
For a biologist-in-the-making, the young Dawkins spent his early life surrounded by wildlife in Africa. He recalls being taken within 10 yards of lions. While the adults sat transfixed, he stayed on the floor totally absorbed with his toy cars.
He was to receive one painful rebuke from a scorpion. “I saw it crawling across the floor and I misidentified it as a lizard. How could I? Lizards and scorpions don’t resemble each other. I thought it would be fun to feel the ‘lizard’ run over my bare foot, so I stuck it in the animal’s path. The next thing I knew was a burning pain.”
On return to England, his family settled in Over Norton.
His education continued at Chafyn Grove, Salisbury. Today he looks back at the experience with a sense of guilt, chiding himself for failing to stop the bullying he witnessed. “It is the hallmark of the bully to have loyal lieutenants, and again we see this brutally manifested in the verbal bullying epidemic on internet forums, where abusers have the protection of anonymity,” he observes. The sexual abuse occurred at age 11 when a master pulled him on to his knee. Prof Dawkins writes: “He did no more than have a feel, but it was extremely disagreeable. As soon as I could wriggle off his lap, I ran to tell my friends, many of whom had had the same experience. I don’t think he did any of us any lasting damage, but some years later he killed himself.”
He became “intensely religious,” praying every night and he arrived at Oundle School, in Northamptonshire, as a confirmed Anglican. His faith was reinforced by Elvis Presley, of all people. Passing a shop window in Chipping Norton, he spotted the Elvis album Peace in the Valley, featuring the song ‘I Believe,’ where Elvis sings how the wonders of the natural word reinforced his faith. For Dawkins it was a “sign from heaven.”
By aged 17 he was “militantly” anti-religious. With two friends he refused to kneel in chapel and would sit defiantly with arms folded.
His discovery of Darwinian evolution was to determine his life. But Oxford University, where he read zoology, was the real catalyst.
“I didn’t have a riotous time at university. I missed out a bit,” he said. He lost his virginity at age 22 to a cellist in London. After a brief reflection on “why the nervous systems evolved in such a way to make sexual congress one of the greatest experiences life has to offer,” he moves on. “It isn’t that kind of autobiography,” he insists.
Prof Dawkins, 72, married to actress Lalla Ward, a former assistant to Dr Who, retired as Oxford University Professor of Public Understanding of Science in 2008.
The Selfish Gene was produced in 1973 in what he calls “a frenzy of creative energy”. “I am pleased I wrote the God Delusion,” he said. “I stand by it completely but I do not wish that to be the main part of what I leave behind.”
Others may dub him the God of the Godless, but Prof Dawkins sees himself as a labourer in Darwin’s vineyard, still with work to do.
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