An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, by Richard Dawkins

An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist is part one in a two-part memoir by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Part one chronicles his life from birth up until his groundbreaking work The Selfish Gene, which was published in 1976. 

I should say that I listened to the audiobook version of this book. I normally don’t make a point to specify whether I read the physical book or consumed the audiobook, but I want to highlight it here. I encourage everyone to check out audiobook versions of memoirs if a couple conditions are met: 1.) that the author narrates his/her own work 2.) if #1 is filled, that the author is a good narrator. Mr. Dawkins narrates this work along with his wife, Lalla Ward (who reads his mother’s diary entries beautifully). He is a great narrator and when the aforementioned conditions are filled, it’s as if you’re sitting in a room with the person one-on-one while they regale you with their life story; it’s quite remarkable. Another memoir that I couldn’t recommend higher that is also narrated by the author is Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens. He does an impeccable job and that remains my favorite memoir I have ever read.

As for An Appetite for Wonder, it is certainly enjoyable. You get a view into the life of a scientist that has not been revealed until now. I greatly enjoyed the parts of the book describing his early childhood in Africa. It sounded like a unique and fascinating place to spend your early years. I was entertained by the songs he remembered. Being the audiobook, he sang the songs, which added to the fulfillment of the story. 

As the secondary title states, this book is very much about how he became a scientist. Through his early years, he described personal stories, but they seemed to vanish after he got to Oxford. He described in detail the names and relationships he held with faculty and colleagues, which was interesting, but there was little in the way of personal stories, which was a bit of a disappointment. 

One of the biggest surprises to me was how much Mr. Dawkins enjoyed (not sure if he still does) computer programming. When he was in school, computers were in their infancy, but that didn’t stop him from taking a fascination in them. He nostalgically described times when he taught himself to program and then applied the programming to his research in biology and ethology. 

Overall a good, quick read and must for any fans of Mr. Dawkins or his work, particularly The Selfish Gene, which he dedicates an entire chapter to. I am very interested in part two, the second half of his life, which includes the remainder (and bulk) of his work, his involvement in the atheist movement and a new marriage. I am anxiously awaiting the release of that book, which I hope to listen to again as if I’m sitting with Mr. Dawkins.

If you're interested in the book, you can find it at:  Amazon | Audible

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel C. Dennett

Breaking the Spell by Daniel C. Dennett is a significant work that prompts society to ask hard questions about religions and ultimately try to answer them through scientific inquiry. The “spell” that Dennett refers to in the title is not what many may think. He’s not outwardly asking people to leave organized religion, but simply asking that it be critically examined. Most aspects of society have been examined under the microscope of the physical and social sciences, but religion remains elusive. Sure a lot of work has been done on the subject, but it remains a taboo, which he would like eradicated. I agree with him on this. I think that any subject should be analyzed through a critical lense. Examining what human beings were like before religion, the rise of tribal beliefs, the evolution of those beliefs that eventually transformed into organized religion are just a few aspects that he would like to see explored further.

A few questions he brings up that I find interesting:

Is religion the product of evolutionary instinct or a rational choice?
There has been a lot dedicated to the question of whether a ‘God gene’ exists. If, for example, a gene did in fact make people more prone to religious beliefs, why did it enable survival over other genes?

Would a world without love be possible or good?

What were our ancestors like before religion?

How well have non literate cultures preserved their rituals and creeds over the generations? This question is difficult to study for obvious reasons but I think it is an interesting one to think about. 

Dennett does a fantastic job covering a range of topics in a way that is very accessible. Numerous points were raised in the book, but none more important than his main one: that religion should be subjected to the same scrutiny and scientific inquiry as other subjects such as physics, psychology  and philosophy. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the subjects of religion, philosophy or the evolution of beliefs and human societies. 

If you're interested in the book, you can find it at:  Amazon | Audible

The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone -- Especially Ourselves, by Dan Ariely

This work by Dan Ariely is both informative and enjoyable. If you’re interested in behavioral economics, psychology or just about the concept of dishonesty in general, I recommend that you check out this book. His main thesis is that we, as human beings, all want to benefit from cheating, but only by a little bit. This is because we are also beings that want to think of ourselves as moral and honest. The constant push and pull from these two seemingly contradictory concepts is what Ariely’s book is all about. He refers to this as the “fudge factor.” What situations make us more likely to cheat or be dishonest? Which are more likely to make us tell the truth? Is being dishonest always a conscious act? If not, is there a way to control dishonesty? These are all very intriguing questions and Ariely provides an abundance of experiments throughout the book as evidence to support claims that attempt to answer them. 

An experiment I particularly enjoyed was constructed to try to find out whether people are more likely to cheat if people around them are cheating as well. Ariely had one consistent task set-up throughout the book and would change variables to see what would happen. Students at a university were given a twenty question exam. One group was not allowed to cheat and on average, they scored 7/20. The remainder of the groups were allowed to cheat if they wanted. There was a shredder in the back which they were asked to use after comparing their tests to the answer sheet. They were then asked to tell the instructor how many questions they got right and they were paid accordingly. Without any other variables changed, the students cheated on average to improve by five questions for a total of 12/20. But would would happen if a student (a planted actor) announced after thirty seconds that he had finished and answered everything correctly? This scenario improved the average score to an astonishingly high 16/20. However, when Ariely changed this scenario slightly by making the student wear a sweatshirt from a rival university, cheating was barely above the control experiment at 9/20. This illustrates that people want to think of themselves as moral people most of the time, but are persuaded to cheat when someone from within their social group is cheating as well.

Some important questions were raised by Ariely that I would like to explore further:

Is it possible to be objective if you’re being paid? We as a society are well aware of conflicts-of-interest; they have permeated every aspect of culture. I think Ariely’s suggestion that we try to avoid them is a bit unrealistic, so we have to find other avenues. 

Are dishonesty and cheating really contagious, and if so, how do we contain them?

If you're interested in the book, you can find it at:  Amazon | Audible


The Age of Empathy, by Frans de Waal

Frans de Waal is a primatologist and ethologist at Emory University. In The Age of Empathy, he argues that empathy is an inherent biological trait, not only for humans, but for other species as well. Due to this, he wants humans to accept this and start treating your fellow beings with dignity and respect.

Overall I enjoyed the book. The introduction can come off as anti-capitalist, but de Waal clarifies what he means later in the book. He is from Europe and has lived in the United States for a long time so he has witnessed the benefits and drawbacks of both economic systems. If pressed, he said that he would have a difficult time choosing which he prefers more. More inequity but more wealth overall and more of an incentive-driven system (United States), versus less inequity, fewer poor but less of an incentive-driven system (Europe).

I think the book brings up a few interesting ideas:

  • Is empathy involuntary or voluntary?

    • de Waal argues that it is involuntary and built into our evolutionary make-up. He provides evidence of studies done where humans were asked to view images that scrolled too fast to comprehend. They were images of humans smiling or frowning, but the speed at which they moved prevented the volunteers in deciding which was which. The participants who saw people smiling were happier and vice versa. This is one example of a study that has been done to try to prove if empathy resonates with us when we’re not consciously thinking about it.

  • Are other species prone to inequity aversion?

    • Towards the end of the book, de Waal provides some examples of animals that have displayed inequity aversion, which is a dislike when circumstances are not fair. Chimps, for example, will break up fights over food without taking any of the food for themselves. They understand that inequity causes strife, so they stride to ensure everyone is taken care of.

    • A second example that struck me was the domesticated dog. A study conducted involved two dogs in close proximity. They were both asked to shake but only one was given a reward. The dog who did not receive the reward refused to shake. However, the test was done again without rewards altogether and they both shook, demonstrating that it’s not about rewards but fairness.

One area where I disagree with de Waal is economic/business self interest. Throughout the book, he continually puts down the concept of competition as a necessary aspect of society. He draws a line between competition and charity as if the two are completely distinct. I disagree. I feel you can have a healthy and competitive economic framework alongside altruistic charitable work. Competition leads to greater innovation, which helps move society forward. Then, companies and people alike can donate and volunteer for causes they care for. Also, I feel that being socially responsible has become good business. We’ve seen a backlash against companies that have not been responsible socially or environmentally. They have been forced to change their policies as society grows and matures.

I very much recommend picking up The Age of Empathy. I think the most valuable information is the abundance of evidence for empathy and sympathy in animals. The evidence is only going to grow from here and I am always fascinated by it.

If you're interested in the book, you can find it at:  Amazon | Audible