Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science by Richard Dawkins (Bantam, £20) I wonder how many people will feel moved to read the second volume of Richard Dawkins’s autobiography if they haven’t already made up their mind about him—for better or worse. Even less likely is that those who do will find any reason here to revise their opinion. But if we can put aside the hero/villain caricature, Brief Candle in the Dark stands as a highly readable account of the fascinating career of the science populariser. Picking up from the publication of The Selfish Gene (1976), which made Dawkins famous, it offers a revealing picture (perhaps more than intended) of how he became Prospect’s “world’s top thinker” in 2013. Among its attractions are handy summaries of the central arguments of each of Dawkins’s books.
If his critics wish to mine this book for damning evidence against him, they will find plenty here. Certainly it has its share of Pooterisms. But in its capacity to humanise the author, it does him far more favours than do his notoriously irascible posts on Twitter. It shows Dawkins in all his contradictory guises: a man profoundly generous to family, friends, colleagues, students and even academic rivals, while prone to niggardly dismissal of viewpoints different from his own; with an abiding curiosity about the natural world, yet dismaying narrowness about some other aspects of human experience; by turns touchingly humble and excruciatingly grandiose. The wise reader will use the book not to praise or bury Dawkins but to ponder on our own inconsistencies.