Excerpts for Appetite for Wonder : The Making of a Scientist

Appetite for Wonder, An


HarperCollins Publishers

Copyright © 2013 Richard Dawkins
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-06-222579-5

Pith helmets


'GLAD to know you, Clint.' The friendly passport controller was
not to know that British people are sometimes given a
family name first, followed by the name their parents wanted them
to use. I was always to be Richard, just as my father was always John.
Our first name of Clinton was something we forgot about, as our
parents had intended. To me, it has been no more than a niggling
irritation which I would have been happier without (notwithstand-
ing the serendipitous realization that it gives me the same initials as
Charles Robert Darwin). But alas, nobody anticipated the United
States Department of Homeland Security. Not content with
scanning our shoes and rationing our toothpaste, they decreed that
anyone entering America must travel under his first name, exactly as
written in his passport. So I had to forgo my lifelong identity
as Richard and rebrand myself Clinton R. Dawkins when booking
tickets to the States - and, of course, when filling in those important
forms: the ones that require you explicitly to deny that you are
entering the USA in order to overthrow the constitution by force of
arms. ('Sole purpose of visit' was the British broadcaster Gilbert
Harding's response to that; nowadays such levity will see you banged
Clinton Richard Dawkins, then, is the name on my birth

certificate and passport, and my father was Clinton John. As it
happened, he was not the only C. Dawkins whose name appeared in
The Times as the father of a boy born in the Eskotene Nursing Home,
Nairobi, in March 1941. The other was the Reverend Cuthbert
Dawkins, Anglican missionary and no relation. My bemused mother
received a shower of congratulations from bishops and clerics in
England, unknown to her but kindly calling down God's blessings
upon her newborn son. We cannot know whether the misdirected
benedictions intended for Cuthbert's son had any improving effect
on me, but he became a missionary like his father and I became a
biologist like mine. To this day my mother jokes that I might be the
wrong one. I am happy to say that more than just my physical
resemblance to my father reassures me that I am not a changeling,
and was never destined for the church.
Clinton first became a Dawkins family name when my great-
great-great-grandfather Henry Dawkins (1765-1852) married
Augusta, daughter of General Sir Henry Clinton (1738-95), who, as
Commander-in-Chief of British forces from 1778 to 1782, was
partly responsible for losing the American War of Independence.
The circumstances of the marriage make the commandeering of his
name by the Dawkins family seem a bit cheeky. The following
extract is from a history of Great Portland Street, where General
Clinton lived.
In 1788 his daughter eloped from this street in a hackney-coach
with Mr Dawkins, who eluded pursuit by posting half a dozen
other hackney-coaches at the corners of the street leading into
Portland Place, with directions to drive off as rapidly as possible,
each in a different direction . . .1
1 H. B Wheatley and P. Cunningham, London Past and Present (London, Murray, 1891), vol. 1,
p. 109.

I wish I could claim this ornament of the family escutcheon as
the inspiration for Stephen Leacock's Lord Ronald, who '. . . flung
himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions'. I'd also
like to think that I inherited some of Henry Dawkins's resourceful-
ness, not to mention his ardour. This is unlikely, however, as only
one 32nd part of my genome is derived from him. One 64th part is
from General Clinton himself, and I have never shown any military
leanings. Tess of the D'Urbervilles and The Hound of the Baskervilles
are not the only works of fiction that invoke hereditary 'throwbacks'
to distant ancestors, forgetting that the proportion of genes
shared is halved with every gener ation and therefore dies away
exponentially - or it would if it were not for cousin-marriage, which
becomes ever more frequent the more distant the cousinship, so that
we are all more or less distant cousins of each other.
It is a remarkable fact, which you can prove to yourself without
leaving your armchair, that if you go back far enough in a time
machine, any individual you meet who has any living human
descendants at all must be an ancestor of everybody living. When
your time machine has travelled sufficiently far into the past, every-
body you meet is an ancestor either of everybody alive in 2013 or of
nobody. By the method of reductio ad absurdum beloved of
mathematicians, you can see that this has to be true of our fishy
ancestors of the Devonian era (my fish has to be the same as your
fish, because the absurd alternative is that your fish's descendants
and my fish's descendants stayed chastely separate from each other
for 300 million years yet are still capable of interbreeding today).
The only question is how far back you have to go to apply that argu-
ment. Clearly not as far as our fishy forebears, but how far? Well,
hurdling swiftly over the detailed calculation, I can tell you that if
the Queen is descended from William the Conqueror, you quite
probably are too (and - give or take the odd illegitimacy - I know I
am, as does almost everybody with a recorded pedigree).

Henry and Augusta's son, Clinton George Augustus Dawkins
(1808-71) was one of the few Dawkinses actually to use the name
Clinton. If he inherited any of his father's ardour he nearly lost it in
1849 during an Austrian bombardment of Venice, where he was the
British consul. I have a cannonball in my possession, sitting on a
plinth bearing an inscription on a brass plate. I don't know whose is
the authorial voice


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