Brief Candle in the Dark by Richard Dawkins

In Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28) the eponymous anti-hero is informed of the death of his wife. Shakespeare then gives him one of the classic soliloquiys in all literature. It is a despairing reflection on the brevity and futility of human life.

‘She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
— To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing’.

In 1995 celebrated astrophysicist Carl Sagan ( published The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. (Reviewed by me here It is a passionate defence of the beauty and truthfulness of science in the face of superstition and obscurantism.

It is, perhaps, with acknowledgements to these references that Richard Dawkins ( has entitled the latest volume of his memoirs Brief Candle in the Dark. A zoologist by training Dawkins’s academic career led him to become the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, a position that had been endowed by Charles Simonyi with the express intention that the holder “be expected to make important contributions to the public understanding of some scientific field”. His views gained widespread attention with the publication of his 1976 book The Selfish Gene in which he argued that all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities. What upset so many people was the implication that humans are not ‘centre stage’ of anything. The replicating entities, genes, employ human bodies to press encoded information forward to the future. The processes by which this occurs are pitiless, and certainly have no regard for human fortunes, individual or collective. The implication is that humans are not the apex of creation (as related in Genesis, and in the major religious traditions). Humans are simply one possible life form in a panoply of countless life forms that evolution has thrown up over vast stretches of time. It is a bleak realisation. Like Macbeth’s ‘Tale Told by an idiot’, human life is ‘full of sound and fury Signifying nothing’. Hardly any wonder, then, that the devout got into a bit of a tizzy about the suggestion. The ‘culture wars’ debate that ensued from discussion over The Selfish Gene have raged ever since, and Dawkins became a public persona by appearing in TV debates, discussion programmes and documentaries over the years. He elaborated and extended his views in a series of publications, all of which are worth reading –

1982 The Extended Phenotype Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-288051-9

1986 The Blind Watchmaker  W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-31570-3

1995  River Out of Eden. Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-06990-8

1996  Climbing Mount Improbable.  W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-31682-3

1998  Unweaving the Rainbow.  Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-618-05673-4

2003  A Devil’s Chaplain. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-618-33540-4

2004  The Ancestor’s Tale. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-618-00583-8

2006. The God Delusion.  Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-618-68000-4


Brief Candle in the Dark (2015) takes up Dawkins’s story from around the time that the first instalment of his memoirs, An Appetite for Wonder (2013), left off. It doesn’t aim to have a storyline. It’s a loose and multiply digressive collection of reminiscences, anecdotes, addenda, quotes from admirers, and extended quotes from himself. There are recollections of witty “sallies” and well-received lectures: “I think my speech went down quite well.” He notes instances of esprit de l’escalier about what he would have, should have, said to finish off obtuse clerics and scientific critics of the idea that selection works on the level of the gene; there are gracious acknowledgments of assistance from his wife, his editors and agents, research assistants and “winsomely charming” TV producers. There are also paybacks to incompetent TV producers, and choleric outbursts against creationist stitch-ups that made him seem to come off badly in debates. We hear, also, of bad behaviour by American fundamentalist preachers. If you’ve ever been entertained, amused or informed by the public performances of Dawkins this is the book for you. It’s the life of ‘The Dirty Harry of Science’ in his own words. It remains to be seen how far the rays from Dawkins’s brief candle stretch beyond the confines of his own strut upon the stage. You may choose to be illuminated by them pro tem. If so, enquire at your local library, or consult  for full bibliographic details.


464 pages in Bantam Press

First published 2015

ISBN 978-0593072554


Richard Dawkins




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