Brief Candle in the Dark

  • By Richard Dawkins
  • Ecco
  • 464 pp.

The provocative biologist's latest work may please his current fans but is unlikely to win him any new ones.

About halfway through reading Brief Candle in the Dark, I broke one of the cardinal rules of reviewing books: I looked at other reviews. Dwight Garner of the New York Times labeled the book “an intellectual victory lap,” a turn of phrase so neatly encapsulating its essence that I instantly regretted not giving myself the chance to think of it. What sent me prematurely to other reviews was a growing obsession, as I read, with a question that almost never comes up: To whom would I recommend this book?

Brief Candle in the Dark is the second volume of Richard Dawkins’ memoirs, taking up where An Appetite for Wonder leaves off. Rather than a chronological tale, it’s structured as a series of anecdotes: snippets of Dawkins’s life as an Oxford don; the story of how his endowed professorship came to be; behind-the-scenes tidbits about television programs he’s been part of and prestigious lectures he’s given; dealings with people famous and not-so-famous; and recapitulations of some of the ideas he’s advanced as a scientist and a public intellectual.

The Richard Dawkins on these pages leads an incredible life of travel — to Japan to search for giant squid, to the Galapagos Islands to see the species that inspired Darwin, to the United States for a book tour (where he visits Duke University in South Carolina, an error he makes twice and one an editor should have caught) — lectures, and hobnobbing with famous people across the range of human endeavor. Neil Armstrong, Christopher Hitchens, and Larry Summers, among many others, make appearances.

The strident, sometimes shrill Richard Dawkins of popular culture and social media is nowhere to be found; our narrator has something nice to say about almost everyone (certain creationist preachers notwithstanding), and remains humble in spite of his fame and the honors and accolades heaped upon him. But this memoir doesn’t dish any dirt or provide much introspection. Dawkins reveals very little about himself and virtually nothing about others.

Dawkins is famous as a prose stylist, and his tone here is informal, chatty, and easy to read, even when he’s talking about complex ideas. He is a charming and charismatic narrator. But there are a few quirks that aren’t for everyone.

He digresses, and digresses upon his digressions. Although he’s upfront about it, and talented enough to make it work, parts of the book read as stream-of-consciousness. He quotes at length from other sources: introductions to other books, speeches, and lectures, and so on. To make these tics less annoying than they otherwise would be, I imagined having a conversation with Dawkins in his study, as he grabbed books off the shelf to make his points, exclaiming, “See here!” This helped a bit.

I daresay that many people who know of Dawkins only casually think of him primarily as a vocal atheist. But he is, most fundamentally (no pun intended), a popularizer of science, something he’s done for many years through a variety of media, perhaps most notably in his best-known book, The Selfish Gene. Indeed, the endowed (by former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi) chair Dawkins held at Oxford University is in “Public Understanding of Science.”

Yet one of the most interesting parts of the book is an incisive stylistic critique Dawkins receives from Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who tells him: “Being an educator is not only getting the truth right, but there’s got to be an act of persuasion in there as well. Persuasion isn’t always `Here’s the facts, you are either an idiot or you’re not.’ It’s `Here’s the facts, and here is a sensitivity to your state of mind.’ And it’s the facts plus the sensitivity…that creates impact. And I worry that your methods, and how articulately barbed you can be, end up simply being ineffective.”

Dawkins includes the criticism, at even greater length than I’ve quoted here. But he doesn’t tell us what, if anything, he learned from it. That the most rational argument doesn’t always win is a painful truism, but it’s accepted by people who’d like to achieve a desired outcome rather than merely argue. (Those of us whose occupations intersect the main business of our nation’s capital can certainly vouch for this.) Can anyone be effective at helping the public understand science if they don’t take the time to understand the public?

And so I return to my original question, about whom I’d recommend this book to. It’s not a good introduction to Dawkins for those not already familiar with him. It doesn’t break new ground in terms of ideas. Nor does it tell us much we didn’t already know about Dawkins or those he’s interacted with. It’s as described: skillfully relayed anecdotes full of wit.

So the answer is: I’d recommend Brief Candle in the Dark to fans of Richard Dawkins. Maybe that’s an acceptable place for a memoir to land, but given the breadth of knowledge and experience of the author, it’s disappointing.

Josh Trapani is a scientist turned policy wonk and former managing editor of the Independent.

comments powered by Disqus