Placing Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins has a new book out this week, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist.  Naturally he’s been out talking about it, and commentators have been talking about him.

Glancing through this stuff, I am struck as always by how precisely I can “place” a fellow Englishman.  Dawkins is straight out of the upper-middle-middle-class suburban south of England.  (Yes, yes, I know he was born in Nairobi and raised on a farm.  Makes no difference.)  His second-drawer boys’ boarding school education, his enthusiasm for the Oxford tutorial system and sentimental fondness for the Anglican Church (really), his insouciance towards the milder forms of pederasty, his ornery impatience with metaphysical flapdoodle, . . .  I know this guy, in some way that I don’t know anyone that isn’t English (although I think I might get a good part of the way there with an Irishman, Welshman, or Scot), and in a way that nobody not English can know him.

I certainly can’t “place” Americans that well, although now well into my fourth decade of residence in this country.  Yet this is a “cousin” nation, with a lot of cultural overlap.

The usual questions:

  • Is this a peculiarly English thing? Or
  • Is it an old-island-nation thing?  Can Japanese and Icelanders “place” each other like this?  Or
  • Is it universal among old, long-coherent nations?  Can Finns, Spaniards, and Thais do it?
  • If mutual recognition at this level is a common thing in nation-states, what chance does anyone have of really understanding another country? Or
  • Am I just exceptionally blind and deaf to unfamiliar cultural signals?  Did my mental equipment for “placing” people just get stuck around age 20, while other people’s matured?
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