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A Devil's Chaplain: Selected Writings
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53 of 55 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEon 23 September 2003
To some people, Richard Dawkins is threatening. His phrases pry open shut minds. His words bend and flex rigid thinking. His ideas trash dearly held dogmas. And, of course, he idolizes The Devil's Chaplain - Charles Darwin [the title is from a letter of Darwin's]. He performs all these feats with a graceful style - one which anyone writing science should study. This collection is comprised of letters, book reviews and even eulogies - an unusual vehicle for espousing the cause of rational thinking. If much of his writing seems intense, it's because he recognizes his role in waging an uphill battle against "established truths", no matter how false they prove. To show the validity of truth over myth requires a direct approach.
Dawkins recognizes that people abhor being called animals. The continuity of life, one of the major themes in this collection, remains an indisputable fact, he stresses. This series reinforces Dawkins' attempts to make us aware that we are part of Nature. He is always witty, using his sound scientific basis and rationale to keep us informed. Science, in his view, must not be eroded by baseless tradition nor false dogmas. The goal of living, he argues, is the understanding of life itself. Religion and philosophy have failed abysmally, the realm of science should be given its opportunity. It's a broad view, sustained by an ability to grasp it firmly. Better yet, for us, it's presented here with verve and dedication.
Segregated into [lucky!] seven sections, each addressing a general theme. He covers many topics in this anthology - evolution, of course, but medicine, genetically modified foods [many foods are hybrids resulting from genetic manipulation], jury trials, intellectual heresies, and even government policies are included. The arrangement presents no difficulty - in fact, each offering might be chosen at random without losing any impact. Selecting a favourite is an arduous task [although it promotes re-reading] but the review of Sokal and Bricmont's "Fashionable Nonsense" ranks very high. The review demonstrates Dawkins' many talents, from insight to incisiveness. Few essayists provide the imagery he can attain to explain an idea.
There are those, particularly adherents of the idea that science lacks morality, who see scientists as cold and distant. Dawkins shows how false this idea is with his laudatory comments on John Diamond, Douglas Adams and William Hamilton. He even extends an olive branch to his academic opponent, the late Stephen J. Gould. As fellow evolutionists, Dawkins and Gould forged a rapport against the rants and duplicities of the Christian creationists. It requires a broad mind to take such steps, and narrowness isn't among Dawkins' blemishes. He's a feeling human being and a tireless campaigner. We would all do well to heed and emulate him. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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43 of 46 people found the following review helpful
One of the most engaging books I have ever read. More gripping than any thriller, you will not sleep untill you have read every single page. Covering many subjects from ethics to religion, the champion of atheism, Richard Dawkins, elegantly presents his arguments and views, backing them up with clear observable evidence that leaves you thinking - why didn't I realise that. Many theologans and theists visciously attack his work, but after reading some of their 'high-minded' and 'ritcheous' books, it is clear who is right.

Dawkins does not attack the act of believing, merely renders it illogical. He does not blame religious people, but just accepts that different people have different opinions, and wishes that extreemist would realise this too.

I have spent hours mulling over what is in this book with my peers and I urge people to read this book with an open mind. Some say you can't change a mind entrenched, but such a deeply thought provoking book is well worth a read. This publication provokes debate, and that is what makes it great.
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
If you only read one book by Professor Richard Dawkins, I recommend The Selfish Gene. That book is a remarkable tour de force covering the latest thinking about how evolution really works by taking into account our understanding of genetic qualities in reinforcing the evolutionary struggle of the survival of the fittest.
By contrast, A Devil's Chaplain is a book that will appeal primarily to people who have read several books by Professor Dawkins and would like to know more about him as a person and his views outside of neo-Darwinism.
If you have not read anything by Professor Dawkins, I recommend you skip this book unless you have a thorough understanding of the latest evolutionary theories. Much of the book won't make sense to you otherwise.
A Devil's Chaplain is a series of essays (some published before and some not), laments, eulogies and a letter to his daughter. From these materials, you can learn more about how Professor Dawkins sees his colleagues, those who oppose evolutionary teachings, postmodernists, and his personal views on religious beliefs and "alternative" medicine. Much of what he says will not surprise you. As a scientist, he favors the scientific method and is rationally skeptical of anything that cannot be proven by this method. He is also annoyed by a society that grants prominent opportunities to share views that are not proven by scientific methods. As a result, he is also an atheist . . . but one who draws great joy from considering the world around him and the methods by which it has been created.
Many people think of atheists as gloomy people, or people without much emotion. Professor Dawkins is neither. His loving descriptions of relations with his colleagues, rivals and mentors show just the opposite. His concern for using scientific methods is obviously also based on a desire to help people live better lives.
Catholics may find the book a little annoying in that Professor Dawkins likes to challenge some of the "faith"-based beliefs that that religion espouses.
As I finished the book, I found that I was most attracted to the advanced speculations that Professor Dawkins used in his book that speak directly to evolutionary studies. I especially recommend the essay, "Son of Moore's Law," where he describes the timing of when individual genomes will be economically affordable and how that will influence health and medical treatments. I was also drawn to the essays that describe his optimistic belief that we can escape our evolutionary heritage and evolve into people who produce the best possible future for all.
There's much food for thought here. I doubt if any religious believers will be undone by his arguments. I also doubt that he will convert any people who believe in the literal creation as described in the Bible to change their views.
Ultimately, I was left wondering how other prominent scientists bridge the gap between their scientific methods and having a rich religious life.
I graded the book down one star because the editor presumes the reader has a little too much familiarity with the leading lines of thought about evolution. The book could have used more footnotes to explain the background of the points Professor Dawkins is making for those of us who are not evolutionary biologists . . . but simply like to read books about the subject.
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98 of 107 people found the following review helpful
on 20 February 2003
This is collection of essays by Dawkins that have been published over the last 3 decades, with an over arching theme of championing rationalism over the burgeoning amount of mysticism, post-modernistic rubbish and general ignorance of science that meets us today.
All the essays are equally engaging, being passionately and clearly presented. Divided into seven categories they cover the familiar ground of evolutionary principals, memes and genes, cultural relativism and his contempt for all things mystical clearly prevails. The gloves really come off with a damning indictment of religion in general and the ills that it can lead to, which is followed up eloquently in the final essay where he writes an open letter to his 10 year old daughter urging her to think and question the nature of anything before she becomes a victim of any selfishly proliferating memes.
What is striking is the diversity of topics covered. Even if you have read his previous works there are still a few gems of evolutionary theory in there and he covers topics such as speciesism and the ethics of trial by jury in his usual persuasive way. Moreover there are many poignant thoughts on friends and colleagues, with references to Douglas Adams, Hamilton and Steven J Gould.
As is so often with Dawkins, the pages just keep turning and you find yourself more and more enlightened as the hours fly by. A must read for anyone, whether you're familiar with him or not.
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75 of 83 people found the following review helpful
If you only read one book by Professor Richard Dawkins, I recommend The Selfish Gene. That book is a remarkable tour de force covering the latest thinking about how evolution really works by taking into account our understanding of genetic qualities in reinforcing the evolutionary struggle of the survival of the fittest.
By contrast, A Devil's Chaplain is a book that will appeal primarily to people who have read several books by Professor Dawkins and would like to know more about him as a person and his views outside of neo-Darwinism.
If you have not read anything by Professor Dawkins, I recommend you skip this book unless you have a thorough understanding of the latest evolutionary theories. Much of the book won't make sense to you otherwise.
A Devil's Chaplain is a series of essays (some published before and some not), laments, eulogies and a letter to his daughter. From these materials, you can learn more about how Professor Dawkins sees his colleagues, those who oppose evolutionary teachings, postmodernists, and his personal views on religious beliefs and "alternative" medicine. Much of what he says will not surprise you. As a scientist, he favors the scientific method and is rationally skeptical of anything that cannot be proven by this method. He is also annoyed by a society that grants prominent opportunities to share views that are not proven by scientific methods. As a result, he is also an atheist . . . but one who draws great joy from considering the world around him and the methods by which it has been created.
Many people think of atheists as gloomy people, or people without much emotion. Professor Dawkins is neither. His loving descriptions of relations with his colleagues, rivals and mentors show just the opposite. His concern for using scientific methods is obviously also based on a desire to help people live better lives.
Catholics may find the book a little annoying in that Professor Dawkins likes to challenge some of the "faith"-based beliefs that that religion espouses.
As I finished the book, I found that I was most attracted to the advanced speculations that Professor Dawkins used in his book that speak directly to evolutionary studies. I especially recommend the essay, "Son of Moore's Law," where he describes the timing of when individual genomes will be economically affordable and how that will influence health and medical treatments. I was also drawn to the essays that describe his optimistic belief that we can escape our evolutionary heritage and evolve into people who produce the best possible future for all.
There's much food for thought here. I doubt if any religious believers will be undone by his arguments. I also doubt that he will convert any people who believe in the literal creation as described in the Bible to change their views.
Ultimately, I was left wondering how other prominent scientists bridge the gap between their scientific methods and having a rich religious life.
I graded the book down one star because the editor presumes the reader has a little too much familiarity with the leading lines of thought about evolution. The book could have used more footnotes to explain the background of the points Professor Dawkins is making for those of us who are not evolutionary biologists . . . but simply like to read books about the subject.
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39 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on 12 July 2006
So many different things I feel and believe about all aspects of this cosmos and our existance in it. Richard Dawkins has the intellect, the passion, the experience and the flair to put so many of my confused and muddled thoughts into sentences of perfect clarity so that again and again I find myself nodding and agreeing with all he has to say as I turn the pages. He can express ideas in a way that others can't. I don't think I have ever heard anyone talk so much common sense. Not only that but his dry wit draws a regular smile from the reader. For me he is a hero and I can't help but sing his praises. It is an easier read than the Selfish Gene, with a wide variance in subject and a less detailed study of theory. Consider it a light hearted yet fascinating study of the world we live in.

Best wishes.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
To hear him discussing and introducing this book, I had arrived at the Oxford Union early; it was already packed and more benches and chairs were brought in. After an hour and a half's wait, during which he appeared at the door at regular intervals, it began. (In the interlude, the outside court had been packed, right along and out on to Broad Street and St Giles. The police had been called to control the - generally - orderly crowd and to explain there was no more room.) I had never seen that before or since; not many people can attract that high level of interest for a book dealing mainly with science and how humanity should determine what is true. Of course, the result of the crowd and the wait was, inevitably, a shorter lecture.

Science and Sensibility
Light Will be Thrown
The Infected Mind
They Told Me, Heraclitus
Even the Ranks of Tuscany
There is All Africa and Her Prodigies in Us
A Prayer for My Daughter

It is a book of thirty plus essays on a wide range of subjects but loosely linked on truth in science and the world. "In the face of these profound and sublime mysteries (nano science at atomic and molecular scale, string theory - my brackets) the low grade intellectual poodling of pseudo-philosophical poseurs seems unworthy of adult interest." (P 19)
Never one to mince words as the foregoing illustrates, "Viruses in the Mind" deals with his concept of "memes", first mentioned in "The Selfish Gene", and the analogies of an infected computer and infected minds. The final essay is a charming but Dawkinsian letter to his daughter, ending "Your loving Daddy".

He has always been a clear, pleasing and poetic writer, yes, even on science! In an essay entitled "Snake Oil" dealing with cancer, John Diamond and Prince Charles' request for more money for alternative medicines, he writes: "When the pathologists have read the rune; when the oracles of X-ray, CT scan and biopsy have spoken and hope is guttering low; when the surgeons enters the room accompanied by 'a tall man ... looking embarrassed ... in hood and gown with a scythe over his shoulder', it is then that the 'alternative' and 'complimentary' vultures start circling." Over-dramatic, mixed-metaphors, perhaps; but writing of that quality needs consideration and explains why he has been recognised and awarded for the writing as well as the content.

Always an intelligent, challenging read his works often seem like that little chef's knife used to pry open clam shells, shells designed to keep the world out.

You may not agree with everything or the strength of his convictions but he will make you think. Recommended.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Richard Dawkins is a national treasure and this collection of essays and articles is a delight. There is a great variety of material here, ranging from dense chapters on evolution to a letter to his ten-year-old daughter. I must admit I loved this one as it's simple and clear and makes its points beautifully. The evolution stuff gets pretty complicated and a grounding in science may help, although Dawkins is more accessible on this subject than many others scientists would or could be.

Certain phrases and descriptions stick with you. Certain arguments he uses are wonderful for their lucidity. We are so lucky to have a scientist who can WRITE as well as he can think. I recommend this book heartily for anyone of rational mind.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 14 February 2007
I find it amusing that the only negative comments about this book here are from someone clearly scared of the cold hard truth. They describe Dawkins view of the universe as being empty of meaning and design; as if that is a bad thing. It should also be noted that Dawkins does not see himself as a Devils Chaplain; the lone negative reviewer clearly did not read this book.

When one realizes the beauty of knowledge -compared to the fragility of faith- then books like this are a true joy. They help the healthy sceptic in us all to articulate and consolidate our thoughts on such nonsense as homeopathy, creation and other such juvenile "bad science".

Highly reccomended reading.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 6 May 2003
Richard Dawkins, the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, defends the need for science and reason in this superb collection of essays, selected from his work over the last 25 years. The book includes many of his writings on science, education, evolutionary biology, alternative medicine and religion. It also contains tributes to colleagues and friends, and reviews of Stephen Jay Gould’s works.
Dawkins points out that the scientific method is the most powerful idea that we have ever invented, and that its goal is truth. That the sun is hotter than the earth is true, not just a belief. Nor is it a hypothesis awaiting falsification, as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn would claim, nor is it a local truth deniable in another culture.
Dawkins contends that Darwinism, one of mankind’s greatest achievements, defined as ‘cumulative evolution by non-random survival of random hereditary changes’, is universally true. He shows how the human mind is a material product of natural selection.
He says yes to science and no to religion, the two possible roads. In science, ideas are up for attack, through evidence, argument and debate; in religion, there is only the appeal to authority, tradition and revelation. He opposes idealism in philosophy and all its consequent clerical and postmodernist waffle. We are on our own and must cope with the real world like adults.
But convention says that we must respect religions. Why? Religion’s intellectual function is to screen and defend non-science, while its social function is to promote fear. As Dawkins notes, “Religion is the most inflammatory enemy-labelling device in history.” For instance, the Old Testament, a barbaric Bronze Age text, promotes genocide, slavery, misanthropy and eternal hellfire.
This is a book full of ideas, which must be read for its sheer sparkling, searing intelligence. Dawkins represents the collective mind of science at its most focused, consistent and militant.
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