A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love

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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 ...
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Overview

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.
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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Dawkins is creative, articulate and, above all, emotional.—Christine Kenneally
Publishers Weekly
Oxford don Dawkins is familiar to readers with any interest in evolution. While the late Stephen Jay Gould was alive, he and Dawkins were friendly antagonists on the question of whether evolution "progresses" (Gould: No, Dawkins: Yes, depending on your definition of "progress"). Dawkins's The Selfish Gene has been very influential, not least for his introduction of the "meme," sort of a Lamarckian culturally inherited trait. In this, his first collection of essays, Dawkins muses on a wide spectrum of topics: why the jury system isn't the best way to determine innocence or guilt; the vindication of Darwinism (or what he insists is properly called neo-Darwinism) in the past quarter-century; the fallacy in thinking that individual genes, for instance a "gay gene," can be directly linked to personality traits; what he sees as the dangers of giving opponents the benefit of the doubt just because they wrap their arguments in religious belief; several sympathetic pieces on Gould; and a final section on why we all can be said to be "out of Africa." Fans of Dawkins's earlier books should snap up this collection. Readers new to him may find that the short format (many of these essays were originally forewords to books, book reviews or magazine pieces) doesn't quite do his reputation justice. Dawkins will antagonize some readers by his attacks on religion: his tone in these essays may fall just short of intellectual arrogance, but he certainly exhibits an intellectual impatience not always beneficial to his argument. Still, Dawkins's enthusiasm for the diversity of life on this planet should prove contagious. (Sept.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
A major Darwinian apologist, Dawkins put forth the idea that genes play a role in natural selection and dismissed so-called intelligent design theories of creation. This collection of disparate writings and essays, first published in scholarly monographs, newspapers such as the Guardian, and the electronic edition of Forbes, reinforces his position. In some selections, he eloquently pits scientific endeavors such as genetic engineering against what he sees as muddled and uninformed critics. In others, he ridicules pseudoscience as exemplified by "crystals" and misuse of scientific terminology in the social sciences. In "Darwinism Triumphant," Dawkins promotes his view that Darwin's theories have a universality-the question of how life evolved on earth-unmatched by thinkers such as Marx or Freud. His criticism of religion ("a dangerous collective delusion") reaches a crescendo of invective in his response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. A highlight is "Son of Moore's Law," which makes a striking analogy between increasingly inexpensive computing power and increasingly inexpensive genetic sequencing. At its best, the book reflects both the author's delight in science and the range and extendibility of his knowledge. It will complement any popular science collection in a public or academic science library and delivers an illuminating portrait of an extremely challenging and multifaceted contemporary scientist. (Many of these essays are also available on the unofficial Dawkins web site, www.world-of-dawkins.com.)-Garrett Eastman, Rowland Inst., Harvard Univ. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Collection of mostly previously published pieces that’s no déjà vu trip, but a pleasure-inducing voyage into scientific principles. To be sure, there are familiar essays on the meme (the word Dawkins coined to describe how cultural phenomena are transmitted from mind to mind like viruses able to infect and replicate) and in celebration of Darwinism. But the title piece, derived from Darwin’s comment on the "book a Devil’s chaplain might write" about the clumsy, wasteful, and cruel works of nature, has inspired Dawkins (Unweaving the Rainbow, 1998, etc.; Science/Oxford). Yes, nature is cruel, he writes, but we have the capacity to combat it, using our brains and science to make things better and overcome delusions. And so he does, in essays attacking genetic determinism, homeopathy, and postmodernism; a particularly splenetic section excoriates religions as the root cause of war. Halfway through, and the pace and tone change. Dawkins gives moving eulogies for friends and mentors: Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; evolutionary biologist W.D. Hamilton, who wanted to be buried where dung beetles could transform his corpse into new life; and Stephen Jay Gould, subject of an entire section that includes Dawkins’s reviews of his books as well as commentary revealing the mutual respect that transcended their differences. The collection ends with a section on Africa, where Dawkins was born, with visits to Richard and Maeve Leakey, adventures with a couple devoted to saving wildlife, and descriptions of two exceptional books about Africa, one written by the three children of an Englishwoman who decamped to Botswana to bring them up in the wild. As a last word, there isa letter Dawkins wrote to his daughter when she was ten admonishing her not to take anything on faith or tradition—but to ask for the evidence. And evidence, brilliantly presented and celebrated, is what readers will find here.
From the Publisher
"[A] pleasure-inducing voyage into scientific principles . . . brilliantly presented and celebrated." Kirkus Reviews, Starred

"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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780297829737
  • Publisher: Orion Publishing Group, Limited
  • Publication date: 1/1/2003
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.69 (w) x 9.57 (h) x 1.22 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins taught zoology at the University of California at Berkeley and at Oxford University and is now the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, a position he has held since 1995. Among his previous books are The Ancestor's Tale, The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow, and A Devil's Chaplain. Dawkins lives in Oxford with his wife, the actress and artist Lalla Ward.

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Read an Excerpt

AUTHOR’S NOTE

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.
—Richard Dawkins

EDITOR’S INTRODUCTION

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.
—L.M.

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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Table of Contents

Introduction to the American Edition 1
1 Science and Sensibility 5
1.1 A Devil's Chaplain 8
1.2 What is True? 14
1.3 Gaps in the Mind 20
1.4 Science, Genetics and Ethics: Memo for Tony Blair 27
1.5 Trial By Jury 38
1.6 Crystalline Truth and Crystal Balls 42
1.7 Postmodernism Disrobed 47
1.8 The Joy of Living Dangerously: Sanderson of Oundle 54
2 Night Will Be Thrown 61
2.1 Light Will Be Thrown 63
2.2 Darwin Triumphant 78
2.3 The 'Information Challenge' 91
2.4 Genes Aren't Us 104
2.5 Son of Moore's Law 107
3 The Infected Mind 117
3.1 Chinese Junk and Chinese Whispers 119
3.2 Viruses of the Mind 128
3.3 The Great Convergence 146
3.4 Dolly and the Cloth Heads 152
3.5 Time to Stand Up 156
4 They Told Me, Heraclitus 163
4.1 Lament for Douglas 165
4.2 Eulogy for Douglas Adams 168
4.3 Eulogy for W. D. Hamilton 171
4.4 Snake Oil 179
5 Even the Ranks of Tuscany 187
5.1 Rejoicing in Multifarious Nature 190
5.2 The Art of the Developable 194
5.3 Hallucigenia, Wiwaxia and Friends 203
5.4 Human Chauvinism and Evolutionary Progress 206
5.5 Unfinished Correspondence with a Darwinian Heavyweight 218
6 There is All Africa and her Prodigies in Us 223
6.1 Ecology of Genes 225
6.2 Out of the Soul of Africa 228
6.3 I Speak of Africa and Golden Joys 231
6.4 Heroes and Ancestors 234
7 A Prayer for My Daughter 241
7.1 Good and Bad Reasons for Believing 242
Endnotes 249
Index 256
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First Chapter

AUTHOR'S NOTE

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 choosefrom, 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.
—Richard Dawkins

EDITOR'S INTRODUCTION

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
meaninglessness, 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 vie in the light of scientific understanding.
Science reveals a reality wondrous beyond the imaginings of tradition. Look
again at that entangled bank.
—L.M.

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 th 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 o 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 o 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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