The Magic of Reality – Richard Dawkins *****

A surprising number of scientists feel that Richard Dawkins does the public understanding of science real harm through his belligerent attacks on religion, which turn off a good half of his potential audience, but no one can doubt that he has a talent for getting science, particularly biology, across to a general readership. This is his first attempt at a children’s book (or rather a ‘family’ book as it is aimed at a wider readership) and it has much to praise.

The Magic of Reality is a solid feeling hardback, half way between an ordinary non-fiction book and a coffee table book in format. Every page is illustrated by Dave McKean, with a mix of full colour photographs and diagrams, and heavily stylised line drawings – these last were perhaps a little angular and abstract for the younger audience, but overall the illustration is a good balance of supporting the text without overwhelming the page.

The approach that Dawkins takes is an excellent one, picking up on ten key questions of science – ‘What is reality? Who was the first person? Why are there so many different kinds of animals? What are things made of? Why do we have night and day, winter and summer? What is the sun? What is a rainbow? When and how did everything begin? Are we alone? and What is an Earthquake?’ Each of these starts with ancient mythical explanations (where there are any) then goes on to detail the way that science answers the questions, using the starting point of the basic question to explore many different aspects of science that can be sensibly linked to it.

All this works superbly well. Although it seems slightly odd that biology comes before the more fundamental physics and cosmology chapters, the absolute gem of the book (as you might expect) is the way that Dawkins handles ‘Who was the first person?’ His use of a stack of photographs, stretching back into the past, one of each generation, is masterful, inventive and wonderfully eye-opening. I love the way he really pushes the paradox that every creature in every generation is the same species as the previous generation’s photograph – yet over the millions of years we can see a progression from fish-like creature to modern human. If ever there was a single bit of writing that could totally wipe out anyone’s objections to evolution it’s this chapter. I loved it. It will really challenge the readers to think and will open their eyes.

However, it’s important not to let the brilliance of much of the book hide a couple of significant flaws. In terms of science content, the huge disappointment is that Dawkins doesn’t mention much modern physics. Both quantum theory and relativity really don’t get any coverage. Particle physics only gets a passing reference with a wimp-out about the author not really understanding quarks. This isn’t good enough. Omitting quantum theory and relativity from physics is like missing evolution out of biology – it’s that significant an omission.

The other problem I have is with the final two chapters. Because there aren’t 10 questions, there are 12. The remaining two are ‘Why do bad things happen?’ and ‘What is a miracle.’ The first of these isn’t too bad as it handles chance, but both are primarily Dawkins returning to his bugbear of attacking religion. I don’t think this has a place in a science book, and it certainly shouldn’t be given two chapters. I think this will confuse and quite probably bore younger readers, as after all the other wonders, these two chapters are, frankly, lacking in scientific joy. There is also one very dubious part. Dawkins suggests that readers use a method of assessing miracles that boils down to ‘How do they stand up to common sense?’ The trouble with this approach is much of modern physics doesn’t fit with what common sense predicts. For that matter, most probability runs counter to common sense. As Dawkins himself points out, common sense expects that after a row of throwing heads, a coin is more likely to throw tails – but common sense gets it wrong. It seems highly spurious to use common sense as a scientific tool, when you’ve just shown it fails magnificently.

I still think this is a great book, and I suspect many young readers will simply not bother with the last couple of chapters. Covering all of science is tricky, but despite the failings in physics, the rest of the book is good enough to make this, without doubt, one of the best children’s science books of 2011.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing – Richard Dawkins (ed.) ****

While it’s possible to quibble about the ‘modern’ in the title (it seems to mean twentieth century, with a bit of truly modern thrown in), this an excellent opportunity to dip a toe into the writings of a wide range of science writers, which is truly welcome.

All too often a collection like this has a few stars and the rest are also-rans, but here there is a truly stellar set of names. There are great names of science itself – Einstein, Feynman, Crick and Watson, Gamow, Turing and Hawking to skim but a few – and some of the best popularizers too. Richard Dawkins himself doesn’t have a contribution, arguably a mistake, as whatever you think of his ideas on science and religion, he is a good science writer. However, we don’t entirely miss out on the Dawkins wit and wisdom, as he contributes pithy prefaces to each extract – and extracts from books they are mostly, rather than short pieces in their own right.

It is very difficult to pick out favourites from such a rich collection. It isn’t always the obvious. I liked the rather humble and insight giving views of Freeman Dyson’s memory of a particular part of his early career. Ian Stewart’s exploration of infinity was elegant and enjoyable. And I was delighted to find a short piece by Fred Hoyle that explored a biological theme, rather than his usual cosmology. I could go on almost indefinitely.

Of course, as is always the case with lists and favourites, I can’t agree with all the choices. I wasn’t particularly thrilled or informed by Richard Gregory’s piece on why mirrors seem to reverse left and right but not top and bottom – an effect that can be much better and less pompously explored – and I have to admit reluctantly that Einstein’s piece is more there to get Einstein in than because it’s particularly interesting.

I’m not sure this a book many people would read cover to cover, but it’s great to dip into, to find science writing that intrigues you, and to follow up that author or book to get into some fascinating reading.

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Review by Brian Clegg

The Selfish Genius – Fern Elsdon-Baker ****

Those who have only come across Richard Dawkins from his books or TV shows may not be aware just how much mixed feeling he generates in the scientific community. There is a respected scientific journal editor who refers to Dawkins as HWMNBN (he who must not be named), likening him to the scientific equivalent of Voldemort in the Harry Potter books.

The reason for these mixed feelings is that, while Dawkins is very good at writing accessibly on science, he sometimes presents his personal views on evolution as if they were the pure scientific truth, rather than one interpretation of the science, which isn’t held by everyone in the field. Equally, Dawkins tends to tie his loud and scathing attacks on religion into evolution and science, as if it were not possible to accept evolution and a scientific viewpoint without being an atheist.

What Fern Elsdon-Baker sets out to do – and does brilliantly – is to identify just how Dawkins’ views sit within the latest scientific theories on evolution, and to separate the science from the atheism in Dawkins’ rhetoric. She starts by emphasising that the title of the book is just a play on the name of Dawkins’ most famous title, The Selfish Gene – in practice she regards him as neither selfish nor a genius. She goes on to explore the development of evolutionary theory, and how Dawkins’ ideas don’t in fact reflect the best fit with Darwin’s own stance, showing how different theories around the mechanisms by which evolution operates have developed over time.

I ought to stress that this is in no sense an apologetic for creationism or intelligent design, both of which Elsdon-Baker has no truck with. Instead it’s an attack on taking the same fundamentalist approach in science that Dawkins so rightly despises in religion.

It’s not perfect. Elsdon-Baker is sometimes so enthusiastic to ensure she comes across as fair and even handed that she can spend rather too long explaining why she’s not supporting one thing or another. And she can get a trifle repetitious in her statements of what she’s suggesting, and perhaps over-technical on some of the fine points of evolutionary biology. Yet the book is far and above the best one I’ve seen that explains to the general reader just what is going on in the sort of intellectual battles we’ve seen the likes of Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Stephen Jay Gould engage in, and is particularly effective in its dissection and dismissal of Dawkins’ most extreme outpourings and anti-religious tracts.

This is much more than a book on Dawkins, it’s a good way to get a better understanding of the position of science in society and how Dawkins’ approach to enhancing the public understanding of science can be counter-productive. Thought provoking and engaging reading.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think – Alan Grafen & Mark Ridley (Ed) **

Here is a collection of essays in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the publication of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Let’s get the bad news out of the way straight off – such an exercise is almost always a piece of academic self-indulgence, and this particular example is no exception. It has no real point. And to make matters worse, the vast majority of the essays demonstrate extremely well why Dawkins was awarded a chair of public understanding of science – because unlike most academics he can write clearly and engagingly. Most of these essays could do with a serious dose of Dawkins’ delightful prose.

Even the ones that start off well, like John Krebs’ contribution, which gives us a lovely picture of a woman at a dinner party plonkingly announcing “But we don’t believe in science in our family,” soon beds down into obscurity and all the thrill of reading a textbook. Even Michael Shermer, who writes excellently lucid columns for Scientific American, succumbs to the urge to be worthy. Honourable mention should go to Randolph M. Ness, not only for having the best title of the bunch in “Why a lot of people with selfish genes are pretty nice except for their hatred of The Selfish Gene,” but also in producing the most readable of the essays.

What none of the essays explore, sadly, is the fascinating study of the paradox that is Dawkins. Though he writes superbly, arguably there are few scientists less well qualified for a chair of public understanding of science than he is. I have never come across a scientist better at putting ordinary people’s backs up, and making them resistant to the message of science. This all comes across in a magnificent lack of understanding of human characteristics – as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, this was seen most clearly in an interview for a TV programme on the supernatural. Dawkins said that if anyone truly had psi abilities, they would come forward to be experimented on, rather than making money out of their abilities. Okay, Richard. Become a guinea pig (possibly including dissection), or make lots of money. What would your genes vote for? (I know, I know – genes can’t vote, it’s a metaphor, remember).

In the end I find it hard to know what this book is for, apart from a sort of academic equivalent of the back-patting that is the Oscars®. I can’t recommend it to anyone other than a died-in-the-wool Dawkins fan who has to own everything with Dawkins’ name on it. Otherwise, steer well clear.

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Review by Brian Clegg

A Devil’s Chaplain – Richard Dawkins *****

The great thing about A Devil’s Chaplain – that makes it arguably Richard Dawkins’ best book – is that it’s a collection of essays. His full length books, clever though they indubitably are, have a tendency to fall off in quality in some chapters and can be a little repetitious. Here, every piece is a neatly crafted gem.

It isn’t necessary always to agree with Dawkins to admire this book. In places, as usual, he is rude, intolerant and unpleasant (though in an entertaining way – for UK readers, he’s the Jeremy Paxman of science). In others he carefully weaves his argument to produce a result that arguably isn’t justified. For example, in the essay Science, Genetics and Ethics he comments “you may be being inconsistent if you think that abortion is murder but killing chimpanzees is not.” He argues this because we are on an evolutionary continuum with the chimpanzee, just as the non-sentient foetus is on a continuum with the sentient adult. But this entirely misses the point. The time-based relationship is entirely different. Fail to kill a chimpanzee and it will continue to be a chimpanzee. Fail to kill a foetus and it will (on the whole) become a sentient adult, who presumably Dawkins does consider it murder to kill. Similarly he argues that because a placenta is a true clone of a baby it’s surprising that eating placentas isn’t covered by our cannibalism taboos – but again, however long you leave that placenta it won’t turn into a sentient human being – nothing is being excluded from existence.

Wonderfully, the fact that some of the writing here is possibly wrong and definitely irritating doesn’t detract from the readability of the book – rather the reverse, it’s fun to get involved enough to want to dispute. I’d much rather read a book that makes me want to have a debate with the author than one that I agree with totally, but can’t really get excited about.

Don’t get the impression that all the content is likely to cause concerns. Much of it is hard to disagree with from Dawkins’s distaste for postmodernism to his preference to education that is driven by exploration rather than the exam regime. It’s a great book with something for everyone who has an interest in our world. Inevitably there’s rather more of biology, Darwinism and genetics than other aspects of the sciences, and you might want to skip over one or two of the pieces like eulogies for people you may never have heard of, but it doesn’t spoil the overall effect.

If you like Dawkins you’ll definitely want this book – and amazingly if you don’t like Dawkins you’ll still enjoy it. What can I say – it’s an essential.

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Review by Brian Clegg

The Ancestor’s Tale – Richard Dawkins ***

This isn’t the usual Richard Dawkins book, which I would typify as being a brilliantly constructed intellectual argument – a gem of academic reasoning, whether or not you agree with his theses, or with his often aggressive attack on anyone who disagrees with him.

Instead, this is Dawkins’ foray into the sort of field that Desmond Morris (or possibly even David Attenborough) has plumbed so effectively in the past – a big glossy book with lots of pictures and expensive looking diagrams that takes a vast, sweeping look at a topic – in this case tracing our ancestry back through early man, other mammals, fish, and so on, getting more and more basic until we reach back to bacteria.

Along the way are 39 “rendezvous” points where rather than following the “tale” of a particular branch in the tree back to the origins of life, Dawkins puts the current stage into perspective with the overview of the tree itself. As you may have gathered main text a mostly a series of “tales” a la Canterbury tales (after a while, “the X’s tale” gets a bit monotonous).

The good news is it’s a tour de force, and individual bits of the book are very readable, with Dawkins usual mix of ascerbic wit and insightful exploration of the biological battlefield – many of the tales would make excellent articles. But the whole thing, apart from being intolerably heavy in the hardback (I think there’s a serious case for suing for wrist strain), is just too bitty and too much to read through from end to end. It’s a skim and dip book for most of us, and as such not great popular science. But that shouldn’t undermine the achievement that the book represents.

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Review by Jo Reed

The Blind Watchmaker – Richard Dawkins ****

This is a superb answer to the old statement by Paley that (to paraphrase) he isn’t surprised when he finds a stone on the beach, but if he finds a watch on the beach then he reasonably deduces the existence of a watchmaker, because simple natural processes aren’t going to knock naturally available components into a functioning watch. That being the case, the argument goes, our own existence proves that there is a creator.

As Dawkins shows, this simply isn’t true. The assumption can only be made in ignorance of the sheer timescale available to evolutionary forces, and that small changes that do occur naturally can, over many generations, result in the development of something complex, provided those changes are advantageous.

Dawkins also superbly demolishes the “a partial eye is no use” argument that says we would never end up with eyes because all the intermediate steps don’t have value. It’s simply not true. There are plenty of creatures out there with almost every intermediate stage of eye. For that matter, if the eye was truly designed it has some very strange design faults, that seem natural in an evolutionary development, but not otherwise.

This is such an important book that it’s surprising in doesn’t have the full five stars – unfortunately, while the arguments are superb, there are some aspects of Dawkins himself that come through that make it a less than perfect book. Firstly there’s the aggressive style. At one point he moans about how the media, at every opportunity, lay into neo-Darwinists like him if there’s any sign of dissent. Can’t he see this is because they write the most unprofessional books? A cosmologist might write a book that challenges someone’s religious beliefs, but he would do so in a purely scientific fashion. The biologists (and Dawkins isn’t the worst) seem to delight in upsetting others by not just putting forward the facts but openly attacking religious beliefs in what is supposed to be a scientific book. They also attack each other – now all scientists do this, but other disciplines have less of a tendency to go for the jugular in such an unpleasant way.

The other problem is Dawkins’ writing style is a little old fashioned and pompous (you just know even before he does it that he is going to refer to pop music as ‘popular music’, including those quote marks. Some of the chapters are skip-makingly tedious, while others are a delight to read – he really would have done better with a co-author. Even so, this doesn’t take away the significance of the message – it’s just a shame that the way it’s done will put off those who could benefit most from it.

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Review by Brian Clegg

The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins *****

Richard Dawkins is the doyen of the new evolutionary biologists, and puts his message across with masterly ease. The topic of evolution is not just one that causes controversies on the news, it is fundamentally important to us all, and when Dawkins wrote this book back in 1976, he was to have a huge impact on the general public. Dawkins writes very smoothly – this is not only a classic of popular science, it is one of the most beautiful examples.

Evolution, and its impact on genetics is indeed crucial to us all, but it has also been fundamentally important to biologists and zoologists. Before evolution they were very much second class scientists, more concerned with collating information and categorizing species than applying any scientific theory to explain what was observed. Because of this, biologists were said to suffer from “physics envy”, because they felt inferior to the hard sciences. Evolution was to change all that – which is great, but the only irritating side effect that comes through a little in this book (and more so in the works of some other writers like Daniel Dennett) is the idea that evolution is not only a very important theory, but actually is MORE important than everything else. Dawkins opens the book by saying “If superior creatures from space ever visit earth [sic], the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?’” This is just plain silly. But don’t let it put you off the rest of the book, because it is superb.

The only part of the book that is open to significant question is the chapter or memes – Dawkins’ idea of a conceptual equivalent of genes that allow anything from ideas to advertising jingles spread through society. It was a nice thought, but has been too often taken as scientific fact in popular science writing, where it is anything but a proven concept. But that’s a minor part of the book.

Anyone who has any doubts that “evolution is just a theory” needs to read this. And I stress to read it. All too often, people have just come across the title, or heard it being talked about and assumed that Dawkins is literally suggesting that genes have conscious will, and act in order to make things better for themselves. In fact, Dawkins is master of metaphor, and that’s all it was ever intended to be. As he points out, there is no suggestion that we are puppets to our genes, and have to act in a manner that furthers the benefit of our genes. Many of us choose to act differently. But there is equally no doubt of the power of genetic evolutionary pressure. Also, a lot of the problem is that most people have a very poor grasp of probability and statistics, and find it difficult to see evolution, and its impact on genetic action in these terms. Some will always struggle against the concepts here, but everyone should have this book on their reading list.

The Selfish Gene is now in a third edition, also known as the 30th anniversary edition, which has extra prefaces in the front, but unless you are particularly interested in the development of the attitude to evolution and genetics, our advice is to skip these and get onto the main text.

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Review by Jo Reed