A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Loveby Richard Dawkins
The first collection of essays from renowned scientist and best-selling author Richard Dawkins is an enthusiastic declaration, a testament to the power of rigorous scientific examination to reveal the wonders of the world. In these essays Dawkins revisits the meme, the unit of cultural information that he named and wrote about in his groundbreaking work The Selfish… See more details below
The first collection of essays from renowned scientist and best-selling author Richard Dawkins is an enthusiastic declaration, a testament to the power of rigorous scientific examination to reveal the wonders of the world. In these essays Dawkins revisits the meme, the unit of cultural information that he named and wrote about in his groundbreaking work The Selfish Gene. Here also are moving tributes to friends and colleagues, including a eulogy for novelist Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; correspondence with the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould; and visits with the famed paleoanthropologists Richard and Maeve Leakey at their African wildlife preserve. The collection ends with a vivid note to Dawkins's ten-year-old daughter, reminding her to remain curious, to ask questions, and to live the examined life.
"Dawkins’s enthusiasm for the diversity of life on this planet should prove contagious." Publishers Weekly
"His discussions of religious issues are intensely thought-provoking....Dawkins is creative, articulate and, above all, emotional."Christine Kenneally The New York Times Book Review
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This book constitutes a personal selection, made by the Editor Latha Menon, from among all the articles and lectures, reflections and polemics, book reviews and forewords, tributes and eulogies that I have published (or in a few cases not previously published) over 25 years. There are many themes here, some arising out of Darwinism or science in general, some concerned with morality, some with religion, education, justice, history of science, some just plain personal.
Though I admit to occasional flames of (entirely justified) irritation in my writing, I like to think that the greater part of it is good-humoured, perhaps even humorous. Where there is passion, well, there is much to be passionate about. Where there is anger, I hope it is a controlled anger. Where there is sadness, I hope it never spills over into despair but still looks to the future. But mostly science is, for me, a source of living joy, and I hope it comes through in these pages.
My contribution to the book itself has been to write the preambles to each of the seven sections, reflecting on the essays Latha has chosen and the connections between them. Hers was the difficult task, and I am filled with admiration for the patience with which she read through vastly more of my writings than are here reproduced, and for the skill with which she achieved a subtler balance of them than I thought they possessed. Her own Introduction gives the reasoning behind her choice, and behind her sorting of the essays into seven sections with a carefully crafted running-order within each section. But as for what she had to choose from, the responsibility is, of course, mine.
It is not possible to list all the people who helped with the individual pieces, spread as they are over 25 years. Help with the book itself came from Yan Wong, Christine DeBlase-Ballstadt, Anthony Cheetham, Michael Dover, Laura van Dam and Catherine Bradley. My gratitude to Charles Simonyi is unabated. And my wife Lalla Ward continues to lend her encouragement, her advice and her fine-tuned ear for the music of language.
It took quite a while for me to get round to reading The Selfish Gene. My love had been for the elegance, the philosophical profundity, the exquisite simplicity of the world as revealed by physics. Chemistry seemed messy, and as for biology well, my brief acquaintance with it from school had suggested a dry field, full of dull collections of facts, much learning by rote, and little in the way of organizational principles. How wrong I was. Like many, I had thought I understood evolution, but it was through the books of Richard Dawkins in particular that I was introduced to the astonishing depth and grandeur of Darwin’s (and Wallace’s) idea, to its astounding explanatory power and its profound implications for ourselves and our view of the world. The narrow domestic walls that habit, tradition and prejudice had erected between the fields of science in my mind fell away.
I was delighted, therefore, to be able to repay the debt in some small measure when I was asked by the publishers to put together this collection of Richard’s writings. Richard is an academic scientist, but this volume does not include his academic papers. Instead it brings together a number of his shorter articles and columns intended for a wider audience. The task was not an easy one. The composing of this volume has involved some difficult choices and has sadly entailed leaving behind much which must await a future collection. In selecting the pieces included here, I have sought to reflect the range of Richard’s interests and concerns, and something of his life too; indeed, almost inevitably, the volume contains an autobiographical element. It is divided into seven sections, moving broadly from science, through memes and religion, to people and memories. The first six sections contain mixtures of pieces of varying lengths and moods, written in different contexts.
There is plenty here, of course, on evolution, and more generally on the nature of science, on its unique ability to seek out truth, contrasted with the muddled thinking of New Age mysticism and spirituality, the superficially more impressive ‘metatwaddle’ of postmodernism, and the closed, authoritarian, faith-based beliefs of revealed religion. This would not be a representative volume without some of Richard’s writings on religion. I have an especially pertinent personal reason for sharing the urgency and passion of his words on the subject: I was born in India that country which has been so dragged back by its superstitious baggage, where religious labels have been used to such widespread and horrific effect. So much for the necessary and principled stand. Being a scientist and rationalist does not mean a life of soulless grind, of misery and meeeeeaninglessness, but one that is immensely more enriched, more precious. Gathered here, too, then, is a selection of warm memories of an African childhood, of inspiring mentors, of departed friends, much loved. And books and love of learning weave their way throughout the whole, with forewords, reviews and critical commentaries (including a section on the works of the late Stephen J. Gould).
The final section, ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’, in many ways sums up the key themes of the volume. It expresses an earnest hope that future generations will continue to strive for an understanding of the natural world through reason and based on evidence. It is a passionate plea against the tyranny of mind-numbing belief systems.
My main task has been the selection and arrangement of Richard’s writings. The articles appear much as they did in their original form, with occasional deletions and minor word-changes to fit the context of the collection, and the addition of further explanatory footnotes. Richard himself has been a model of patience and generosity throughout the preparation of the volume, as well as a constant inspiration. My thanks also go to Lalla Ward for her valuable comments and suggestions, Christine DeBlase- Ballstadt for her assistance with the textual material, and Michael Dover and Laura van Dam for their encouragement and support for the project.
A final word. For me as editor, working on this collection has been a particularly special experience, so closely do my own views accord with those of the author on many things. Above all, this volume is about the richness of the world when viewed in the light of scientific understanding. Science reveals a reality wondrous beyond the imaginings of tradition. Look again at that entangled bank.
1 SCIENCE AND SENSIBILITY
The first essay in this volume, A Devil’s Chaplain (1.1), has not previously been published. The title, borrowed by the book, is explained in the essay itself. The second essay, What is True? (1.2), was my contribution to a symposium of that name, in Forbes ASAP magazine. Scientists tend to take a robust view of truth and are impatient of philosophical equivocation over its reality or importance. It’s hard enough coaxing nature to give up her truths, without spectators and hangers-on strewing gratuitous obstacles in our way. My essay argues that we should at least be consistent. Truths about everyday life are just as much or as little open to philosophical doubt as scientific truths. Let us shun double standards.
At times I fear turning into a double standards bore. It started in childhood when my first hero, Doctor Dolittle (he returned irresistibly to mind when I read the Naturalist’s Voyage of my adult hero, Charles Darwin), raised my consciousness, to borrow a useful piece of feminist jargon, about our treatment of animals. Non-human animals I should say, for, of course, we are animals. The moral philosopher most justly credited with raising today’s consciousness in this direction is Peter Singer, lately moved from Australia to Princeton. His The Great Ape Project aims towards granting the other great apes, as near as is practically possible, civil rights equivalent to those enjoyed by the human great ape. When you stop and ask yourself why this seems so immediately ridiculous, the harder you think, the less ridiculous it seems. Cheap cracks like ‘I suppose you’ll need reinforced ballot-boxes for gorillas, then?’ are soon dispatched: we give rights, but not the vote, to children, lunatics and Members of the House of Lords. The biggest objection to the GAP is ‘Where will it all end? Rights for oysters?’ (Bertrand Russell’s quip, in a similar context). Where do you draw the line? Gaps in the Mind (1.3), my own contribution to the GAP book, uses an evolutionary argument to show that we should not be in the business of drawing lines in the first place. There’s no law of nature that says boundaries have to be clear-cut.
In December 2000 I was among those invited by David Miliband MP, then Head of the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit and now Minister for School Standards, to write a memo on a particular subject for Tony Blair to read over the Christmas holiday. My brief was Science, Genetics, Risk and Ethics (1.4) and I reproduce my (previously unpublished) contribution here (eliminating Risk and some other passages to avoid overlap with other essays).
Any proposal to curtail, in the smallest degree, the right of trial by jury is greeted with wails of affront. On the three occasions when I have been called to serve on a jury, the experience proved disagreeable and disillusioning. Much later, two grotesquely over-publicized trials in the United States prompted me to think through a central reason for my distrust of the jury system, and to write it down as Trial By Jury (1.5).
Crystals are first out of the box of tricks toted by psychics, mystics, mediums and other charlatans. My purpose in the next article was to explain the real magic of crystals to the readers of a London newspaper, the Sunday Telegraph. At one time it was only the low-grade tabloid newspapers that encouraged popular superstitions like crystal-gazing or astrology. Nowadays some up-market newspapers, including the Telegraph, have dumbed down to the extent of printing a regular astrology column, which is why I accepted their invitation to write Crystalline Truth and Crystal Balls (1.6).
A more intellectual species of charlatan is the target of the next essay, Postmodernism Disrobed (1.7). Dawkins’ Law of the Conservation of Difficulty states that obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic simplicity. Physics is a genuinely difficult and profound subject, so physicists need to and do work hard to make their language as simple as possible (‘but no simpler,’ rightly insisted Einstein). Other academics some would point the finger at continental schools of literary criticism and social science suffer from what Peter Medawar (I think) called Physics Envy. They want to be thought profound, but their subject is actually rather easy and shallow, so they have to language it up to redress the balance. The physicist Alan Sokal perpetrated a blissfully funny hoax on the Editorial ‘Collective’ (what else?) of a particularly pretentious journal of social studies. Afterwards, together with his colleague Jean Bricmont, he published a book, Intellectual Impostures, ably documenting this epidemic of Fashionable Nonsense (as their book was retitled in the United States). ‘Postmodernism Disrobed’ is my review of this hilarious but disquieting book.
I must add, the fact that the word ‘postmodernism’ occurs in the title given me by the Editors of Nature does not imply that I (or they) know what it means. Indeed, it is my belief that it means nothing at all, except in the restricted context of architecture where it originated. I recommend the following practice, whenever anybody uses the word in some other context. Stop them instantly and ask, in a neutral spirit of friendly curiosity, what it means. Never once have I heard anything that even remotely approaches a usable, or even faintly coherent, definition. The best you’ll get is a nervous titter and something like, ‘Yes I agree, it is a terrible word isn’t it, but you know what I mean.’ Well no, actually, I don’t.
As a lifelong teacher, I fret about where we go wrong in education. I hear horror stories almost daily of ambitious parents or ambitious schools ruining the joy of childhood. And it starts wretchedly early. A six-year-old boy receives ‘counselling’ because he is ‘worried’ that his performance in mathematics is falling behind. A headmistress summons the parents of a little girl to suggest that she should be sent for external tuition. The parents expostulate that it is the school’s job to teach the child. Why is she falling behind? She is falling behind, explains the headmistress patiently, because the parents of all the other children in the class are paying for them to go to external tutors.
It is not just the joy of childhood that is threatened. It is the joy of true education: of reading for the sake of a wonderful book rather than for an exam; of following up a subject because it is fascinating rather than because it is on a syllabus; of watching a great teacher’s eyes light up for sheer love of the subject. The Joy of Living Dangerously: Sanderson of Oundle (1.8) is an attempt to bring back from the past the spirit of just such a great teacher.
Copyright © 2003 by Richard Dawkins. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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