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Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science (2015)
Book Reviews

Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science (2015)

Dawkins’ second memoir is both essential reading and an invaluable companion for fans and foes of his previous work.

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How does one review a memoir? More accurately, how does one review a single volume of a series of autobiographical memoirs, especially by someone whose views and personality you may not entirely agree with? As with all things, an open mind and objectivity, lest the calcifying effects of apathy and ignorance set in.

I embrace the Aristotelianism view that a person should be able to entertain conflicting thoughts without necessarily endorsing or believing in either. With someone like Richard Dawkins one need evaluate all things in relation to another, taking great care not to let one prejudice overtake or envelop another.

Brief Candle in the Dark is the second of Dawkins’ continuing memoirs, following 2013’s An Appetite for Wonder, which detailed his more formative years. However, familiarity with the first volume isn’t required to comprehend and enjoy the second. The Dawkins on display here is fully blossomed, confidently the man much beloved, reviled, and familiar as the world’s preeminent evolutionary biologist and secular humanist. Here he focuses, primarily, as the subtitle suggests, his life in, around, and with science.

The title refers not just to Shakespeare’s Macbeth (“Out, out, brief candle!”), but also to Dawkins’ most appropriate antecedent, Carl Sagan, cited as being on the ‘visionary’ or ‘poetic’ scientific spectrum, and his landmark book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. This has the double effect of embracing both the collaborative nature of scientific study as well as Dawkins’ frequent treatise on the intersection of both academia and the arts, a ‘third culture’ relationship documented in his study of the relationship between science and the arts in his 1998 book “Unweaving the Rainbow” and elsewhere.

It’s difficult to think of someone more emblematic of the recent science revolution than Dawkins, whose very name alone elicits strong emotions; which is entirely fitting, as the progenitor of the term ‘meme’ he’s become something of a meme himself. He has become, for better or worse, the premier iconoclast of our generation in every sense of the word.

As such, any review of Dawkins’ work could easily become, with little effort, either a defense or indictment of the man himself or his ideology. One could read his series of autobiographies as a form of opposition research, scraping sentences and entire paragraphs for language and other ammunition to justify any number of arguments, both for or against. Not that he’s made it tough for them; many words have been used to describe Richard Dawkins, but furtive isn’t one of them.

While it was his work in academia that helped add scientific credibility to this ideas, it’s been his considerable work in popularizing not just evolutionary theory, but atheism and secular thinking, by way of his best-selling books, films, television programs and – increasingly – online persona to millions of fans and detractors alike.

Rather than get caught up in this this distinction between “scholars and popularizers” it must be said that Dawkins’ place among both camps was forever secured when, in 2012, a group of Sri Lankan ichthyologists named for him a genus of freshwater fish, Dawkinsia. In 1989 a similar honor was bestowed upon cartoonist Gary Larson when biologist Dale H .Clayton named a species of chewing louse after him: Strigiphilus garylarsoni. Larson, whose comic panel The Far Side was – and remains – hugely popular with both the scientific community and general populace, said of the honor: “You have to grab these opportunities when they come along.

I won’t pretend to understand or even comprehend much of the scientific minutiae here; that’s above my pay grade and intellectual limits. This is especially true in the latter-third of the book, where Dawkins’ penchant for scientific explanation and discovery take hold and we’re treated to scores of new material that both complement and supplement his most familiar work, becoming an invaluable companion volume to The Selfish Gene (1976), The Extended Phenotype (1982), and The God Delusion (2006).

Told in Dawkins’ imitable style of frank honesty, events and pivotal moments eschew chronological ordering entirely – he admits to “dispensing with rigid chronology”, instead focusing on “a series of flashbacks divided into themes”, which are also arbitrary. If the narrative often meanders off-topic and peppered with Dawkins’ own, ahem, biographical color and sauce, this is entirely in character: why in blazes would anyone want a Dawkins autobiography to be anything less than characteristically Dawkins, warts and all?

Apart from his considerable excursions in scientific data and explanations, Dawkins’ fills much of this volume with insider gossip detailing his relationships, both good and not so much, with other scientists, colleagues, and celebrities alike. Familiar names like Steven Pinker, Stephen Fry, Desmond Morris, John Cleese, Stephan Jay Gould and Christopher Hitchens, “that hero of the mind”, are frequent guests here.

Special attention is paid to his great friendship with the late Douglas Adams, whose live instructional performance as ‘Dish of the Day’ from “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” during Dawkins’ Christmas lectures will surely bring misty tears (of joy) to fans of life, the universe, and everything.

Naturally, it’s these areas that will likely be of most interest to those most familiar with Dawkins’ public persona, especially his various television specials (an area he talks about in great detail), his experiments with early computer programming, and the pure joys of discovery.

One such journey follows Dawkins as he boards the research vessel Alucia, enduring a 28-hour ferry ride from Tokyo to the Ogasawara archipelago, the “Galápagos of the Orient”, as a guest of friend and fellow science enthusiast Ray Dalio in his quest to film the fabled giant squid.

Thanks to the use of a bioluminescent lure (hardly a spoiler, given the journey was filmed for the Discovery Channel), their success in finally capturing the mythical beast on film was, as recalled by Dawkins, “spectral, almost nightmarish shape of the giant squid pouncing on the luminous bait is a sight I cannot forget.” Moreover, he remembers the reactions of marine biologist Edith Widder and her crew at the accomplishment, whose “facial expressions and exultant cries made me tremble with the joy of vicarious discovery.” Dawkins, ever the realist, admits the scene had to be reenacted for the TV cameras.

To read authors like Dawkins is to accept not the absolutism of his ideas and theories at face value, but to embrace the joys and wonder of ‘the thinking’ itself, the process that allows both thoughts and analogies that might appear, at first, counter-intuitive or contradictory, to not get trapped at the gate of stubbornness and intellectual apathy.

It helps that he’s that rarest of flowers; a gifted writer and thinker, one whose grasp of his chosen subject is effortlessly conveyed via poetic and often beautiful language that makes one feel as if he’s a constant and encouraging presence, guiding us on a personal tour of his most cherished memories and other recollections. However, as with so many beautiful flowers, there are thorns.

If Dawkins’ work presented an intercession on behalf of scientific evolution and secularism in an theocratic world, we’re now witnessing a freakish abrogation of intellectual curiosity in the public sphere, one where science (or some perversion of it) has become a replacement belief; practically a religion itself. As with most religions, hardline fundamentalism often sets in under the belief that ‘enough’ orthodoxical evolution has taken place, thus necessitating a closure of further intellectual discovery and exploration.

What a shame it would be to find a voice that passionately articulated for intellectual discovery and thinking effectively shut down by and through the very mechanics of cultural evolution that first brought him to public attention; for them he represented a necessary break from the dominance of faith in both social and private life. This division all but complete, branching sects have elected to wash their hands of him, tearing away bits of his personality and achievements that best suit their aims or prejudices, quite often to attack others with contradictory opinions that challenge their new status quo. How ironic.

Yes, Dawkins’ personality and literary style can seem caustic and disparaging – and in truth it often is. But it’s his style, informed by a life and experience completely unknown to me, so I’ll respect it. His penchant for antagonism was noted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, a “warm, friendly, witty, clever man”, who once criticized Dawkins’ style of communication by reminding him he was “Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, not professor of delivering truth to the public,” adding “these are two different exercises.

Considering Tyson’s own dalliances with the truth in the name of popularizing science, one can imagine the mental lubrication necessary to keep attention spans entertained, to say nothing of lucrative television and podcast audiences.

Physically, the book is interspersed with poetry – some his own but often not – and features over over twenty pages of beautiful color photographs, paintings, newspaper clippings, and other germane material that help make a big, thick book like this worth the effort to thumb through.

A word for those reading non-paper editions: the digital e-book does include these beautiful photos, and while the audiobook version, sadly, cannot, it does have the benefit of being read by the author. For those familiar with Dawkins’ previous audiobook efforts this is a treat, as he excels acquitting himself, aurally speaking.

Brief Candle In The Dark is, for longtime Dawkins fans, essential reading. The voluminous new material alone makes this an easy recommendation, while Dawkins’ grasp of language make it a fascinating intellectual memoir, one that can be read for pleasure – or academically, scribbling notes for future research and one’s own edification, even for those who disagree with him. And for them? Dawkins quotes a fellow Brit, one equally renowned for his surly ripostes to those he had little time for: Winston Churchill. “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.

About the Author: Nathan Evans