Douglas Adams aficionado, cricket fan and one of the foremost biologists of our time, Richard Dawkins is amongst the staunchest defenders of reason against what some perceive as a raising flood of irrationality – and he does it in excellent style.
‘Devil’s Chaplain’ is a collection of essays, articles and reviews mostly previously published, but now edited and put together in a well thought-out format.
I have recently read a book called ‘Blank Slate’ (by Steven Pinker) which was also a passionate evolutionary manifesto, and I enjoyed it very much, but it was also tiring, readable but perhaps bit too brash. Dawkins maintains style throughout; he can be scathing, but he is also lucid, elegant and a joy to read. He respects his opponents – that is, the ones that are worth respecting. And he is marvellously ruthless towards the ones who are not. Not insulting to them as human beings, by no means; but scathing in the dismissal of arguments that are not even worth arguing with. You see, Richard Dawkins believes in truth being more than just a social, historical and cultural construct. He doesn’t like blurring of the boundaries and false congruencies between differing world views; he relentlessly champions scientific truths and logical reasoning while at the same time remaining resolutely humane in his moral convictions.
The collection is divided into several sections; each of them preceded by a short foreword by the author who summarises the main message and tell us a bit more about origins of each text.
What follows is a short look at each of the seven sections. If you are reading just for a general view of the book, please skip to the next three stars.
‘Science and Sensibility’ is one of my favourite sections as it deals with general issues of science and beyond. It is here that Dawkins argues for existence of the objective truth: “It is simply true that the Sun is hotter than the Earth, that the desk at which I am writing is made of wood. These are not hypotheses awaiting verification, not local truths that can be denied in another culture. And the same can be safely said about may scientific truths” . There is a piece on the tendency of the human mind to classify objects into discontinuous categories: he concentrates on the human-animal distinction which is, apparently, so easy to make only because of accidents of extinction that got rid of all the ‘semi-human’ creatures of the past. Dawkins writes about how the science can inform our ethical deliberations and how it cannot decide them which I found moving an very stimulating. The final tour-de-force of the whole section is provided by two essays, one contrasting the new-age mumbo-jumbo of ‘crystal power’ with the real wonders of crystallography; the other debunking post-modernist mumble of pseudo-science.
‘Light Will Be Thrown’ explores the still amazingly relevant, current legacy of Darwin’s work including a debunking of one of the creationists’ arguments. There is also rather surprisng text which shows why a primitive genetic determinism is wrong (no, genes ARE NOT us).
‘Infected Mind’ concentrates on the concept of the meme (invented by Dawkins but developed by others) and the epidemiology of ideas, from clothes fashions to religions. It also contains several essays which attack the organised (and non-organised, for that matter) religion in a way that ranges from passionate to virulent and which I found refreshingly honest though perhaps slightly off the mark. I cannot believe a mind of Dawkins’ stature would not realise that the reason that religious prejudice is respected nowadays is because it used to be the grounds for terrible persecutions in the past. Giving all religions an automaticly guarnateed voice is a reaction to the times when there was only one held to be THE truth. On this score, although I agree with Dawkins’ belief in generally negative effects of religion on the human affairs, I think that relativism is doing a grand job indeed. Most human beings do seem to need and want to have some kind of religion and accepting ‘you keep your belief and I will keep mine’ premise seems to me to be the best solution. This is of course only possible in a secular state in which all religions’ teeth have been removed and strong arms disabled.
‘They Told Me, Heraclitus’ contains several tributes/eulogies including two for Dawkins’ beloved friend and the author of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide…’, Douglas Adams.
‘Even the Ranks of Tuscany’ consists exclusively of Dawkins’ reviews and comments on the work of the other great populariser and researcher in the field of evolution, his contemporary Stephen Jay Gould. Dawkins respects and even admires Gould despite their technical differences on some aspects of the evolutionary process. He gives Gould his scientific due, though, and reserves his most negative opinion for Gould’s political affiliates from the left. I personally find it rather painful that the political left whose ideological principles are quite close to my heart has so many champions amongst the adherents of meaningless mumbo-jumbo. The figure of Noam Chomsky is, however; a towering proof that there is no contradiction between championing subversive political views and believing in evolution, innate human nature and scientific enquiry in search of truth.
Pieces included in ‘There is Africa and her Prodigies in Us’ are reviews and travel pieces that I found least interesting in the whole collection.
“Devil’s Chaplain” closes with a touching if a very rational letter to the author`s ten year old daughter concerning good and bad reasons to believe in things (good reason is evidence, bad reasons include tradition and revelation). I couldn’t help feeling that both this letter and earlier references to a small child being sent for nun indoctrination might refer to the same child, which seems estranged from her father desperately trying to counteract the irrational influence in her upbringing (which were not of his choosing).
As it can be seen, some themes naturally recur throughout: evolution of life on this planet, good and bad reasons for believing something is a fact, critique of relativism, and most of all a tremendous fascination and awe of the world and its inhabitnats; intricacies and mechanics of life. There is also a certain amount of a healthy optimism regarding the power of science and a strong commitment to making the most of our life, as we only have this one.
As a confirmed atheist and a fascinated believer in science, I couldn’t agree more. But even religious people will find in this book something for themselves, as enthusiastic quotes from the Christian church bishops on the back cover confirm.
I was tempted to say: read and be enlightened, but that would be contrary to Dawkins’ good and bad reasons for believing in something. Le me rephrase then: read, think and decide for yourself.