86 of 122 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars These dogmatists, they don't like it up 'em!
This is a small book, printed on thick paper with big margins - which sounds like a criticism, but, since it makes its case succintly, stylishly and, for the most part, carefully, really functions as a dig at Richard Dawkins' big book, The God Delusion, which brims with ideas apparently cribbed from stage 1 philosophy notes - the implication being that a more careful and...
Published on 25 Sept. 2007 by Olly Buxton
80 of 112 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Darwin's Angel gives Dawkins a pasting?
I approached this book with some glee; it has generally had good reviews and I had high hopes of it. There have been several previous books, attempting serious criticisms of Richard Dawkins's highly popular (currently 51 weeks on the US `Bestseller list') The God Delusion. These earlier books disappointed me; they either failed to rebut Dawkins, they misrepresented him...
Published on 16 Sept. 2007 by John Anderson
Most Helpful First | Newest First
80 of 112 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Darwin's Angel gives Dawkins a pasting?,
I approached this book with some glee; it has generally had good reviews and I had high hopes of it. There have been several previous books, attempting serious criticisms of Richard Dawkins's highly popular (currently 51 weeks on the US `Bestseller list') The God Delusion. These earlier books disappointed me; they either failed to rebut Dawkins, they misrepresented him or, it appeared, their authors had not read TGD. So, how does Cornwell's Darwin's Angel compare? Unlike other writers, Cornwell has clearly read TGD; but to what effect? I had some surprises. The seraph writes:
Two natural philosophers, Diderot and d'Holbach, invoked atheism in reaction to theology's continued sway over physics, mathematics and medicine. These philosophers... were convinced that the autonomy of the sciences must be achieved by denying the existence of God. (DA, p. 158)
This misrepresents the French Enlightenment. The philosophes railed against the Church (not `theology') for its stifling of rational inquiry and it's cruel, authoritarian nature. In writing the Encyclopedie, the attempt to record the sum of human knowledge at the time, the philosophes did not `deny the existence of God' to achieve the autonomy of science; some may have concluded `there is no God' but others, perhaps the majority, were actually Deists and believed in a non-interventionist, non-personal God. And the Encyclopedie was about far more than science.
You may not see this as important and think that such differences do not matter. But they do. It is an example of how Cornwell twists things. Virtually the whole of Chapter 10 is a mis-representation of Dawkins's writing about Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.
Then there is Chapter 4, the `Beauty' argument. Here, the seraph again wilfully misunderstands Dawkins's position but, as for Chapter 10, you would have to read TGD yourself to understand. Here's just a snippet, where you can see that Cornwell doesn't give the whole picture:
It seems perfectly understandable, doesn't it, that an artist should be moved by a religious story without necessarily adhering to orthodox beliefs. Could anyone doubt that...the music of Mozart's Requiem was influenced by the liturgy of the Mass of the Dead? (DA, p. 18)
Well, you also have to understand patronage. Forget Amadeus here. Because Mozart - an Enlightenment figure par excellence - was hard up at the time, he was probably more influenced by the promise of a large fee from Count Walsegg-Stuppach who commissioned the work.
Finally, here's some more and obvious mis-attribution. Dawkins writes of the Amish, parodying and ridiculing an implied legal opinion thus:
... you quaint little people with your bonnets and breeches, your horse buggies, your archaic dialect and your earth-closet privies, you enrich our lives. Of course you must be allowed to trap your children with you in your seventeenth-century time warp, otherwise something irretrievable would be lost to us: a part of the wonderful diversity of human culture. (TGD, p.331; DA, p.107)
Cornwell's seraph put these words into Dawkins's mouth when it is perfectly clear from the text that Dawkins is attributing that naïve view to the US Supreme Court that decided that children from the Amish community need not have a proper education.
The seraph, with extraordinary effrontery, then holds up the Amish as paragons of resource conservation. In this respect, the Amish and the Unabomber (remember him?) have a lot in common. His manifesto begins: `The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.' If one really wants to preserve the Amish lifestyle, why not consign it to the Epcot Centre in Disneyworld? There is a museum, `Blists Hill Victorian Town', at Ironbridge in Shropshire UK, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. Costumed people greet visitors and point out primitive aspects of their ancestors' lives. But they take off their costumes and return to a proper life in the evenings. The Amish children do not have this choice.
In his preface, Cornwell is explicit that he intends `...not so much to pick a fight...as to offer a few `grace notes'...and...glosses in the interests of sharper logic, closer insight, and factual accuracy' (DA p. 18). Well, phooey! If logic equals caprice, insight equals obfuscation and factual accuracy equals willful misrepresentation, then he's on target. His seraph is facile, ethereal and dishonest. If you read Darwin's Angel, you will find a travesty of Dawkins's views and, if you accept Cornwell's misrepresentations, you will find yourself very badly informed by his perversions. Dawkins is vulnerable in several areas: the supposed evolutionary value of religion, the nature of `evidence', and the diverse nature of faith, for example. He draws no distinction between `reasonable faith' and `blind faith' and his reasoning for conflating them, particularly in relation to terrorism, is incomplete. If you want to be able to refute Dawkins's arguments, you would be wiser to buy The God Delusion instead and make your own judgements.
86 of 122 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars These dogmatists, they don't like it up 'em!,
This is a small book, printed on thick paper with big margins - which sounds like a criticism, but, since it makes its case succintly, stylishly and, for the most part, carefully, really functions as a dig at Richard Dawkins' big book, The God Delusion, which brims with ideas apparently cribbed from stage 1 philosophy notes - the implication being that a more careful and detailed exposition would be lost on the sort of reader who was impressed with Richard Dawkins' original arguments.
Cornwell's book strikes just the right tone - faintly amused and rather derisive of Dawkins' great foray into religious studies: treating a dogmatic zoologist as a serious entrant in the philophy of religion would be to afford him too much respect: a courtesy Dawkins himself wouldn't extend for a moment if confronted with a dogmatic religious fundamentalist wishing to discuss biology (famously, Dawkins refuses to even debate such people).
Cornwell is also wise not to get dragged too far into the merits of the issue (i.e., whether there actually is a God) and instead spends his few pages more profitably remarking that, whatever ones position on that question, Dawkins' arguments simply can't carry the day, unless you really want them to.
That's important because Cornwell can therefore carry along skeptics like me, who don't personally subscribe to religious belief, but still find Dawkins' dogmatic essentialism a crashing bore.
Along the way Cornwell makes some thumping scores and while, as other reviewers have noted, he may misconstrue Dawkins' arguments in a couple of places, they don't really make a difference and, in any case, for a Dawkinite to make that protest really is to call the kettle black. The scores he does make are doozies, and one in particular stood out: Dawkins' support for Martin Rees' rebuttal of the Anthropic Principal by means of the "multiverse" - the suggestion that there are many universes, co-existing like bubbles of foam, in a "multiverse", and only one of these universes needs to have the right "bye-laws" to sustain evolved life. Of course, that's a moronic idea, and Cornwell shows admirable restraint in his derision: "there are no more observable data for this "suggestion" than the positing of [Bertrand Russell's hypothetical] miniature teapot circumnavigating the earth". Quite.
In other words, Richard Dawkins is prepared to resort to unfalsifiable, non-causal explanations when it suits him, along with the best of the theists he decries.
I still think there is room for a book taking an expressly non-religious (and therefore non-defensive) line - that the scientific realism that Dawkins insists on is indefensible; that there is room on the planet for religious, literary, scientific and moral stories to sit alongside each other - that they need not (and given their different applications, cannot) get in each others way: the late Stephen Jay Gould got closest to that with his appeal for religious-scientific detente in "Rocks of Ages", and the late Richard Rorty, especially in "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" and "Philosophy and Social Hope" had a thing or two to say about it, too.
Nonetheless, this volume (perhaps once in paperback) has much to recommend it.
8 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An intelligent and measured 'riposte'.,
This review is from: Darwin's Angel: An angelic riposte to The God Delusion (Paperback)
I have just finished reading 'Darwin's Angel' having read Dawkins' 'The God Delusion' a couple of years ago. I ask myself why I left it so long to get round to reading an alternative view. I think it was largely due to wanting to avoid reading a religious defence that preached all the age old arguments about why one should 'believe' rather than not. It is easy to read Dawkins book and enjoy the ride, even though one sees through the arrogance and definitive views he presents. I found Cornwell's reply to be carefully researched, yet engaging a light tone - such a relief after the arrogant anger of Dawkins. He presumes that Science has already provided us with all the answers - but it hasn't, even Stephen Hawking, our modern giant in mathematical physics, who has pushed the boundaries of knowledge further than most, has admitted this. 'Darwin's Angel' placed Dawkins and his views firmly on the 'burning plains' of Matthew Arnold's poem, 'Empedocles': Dawkins reduces Darwin's theory's to the known world of material thinking rather than allowing it its place in the continuing search to explain our existence within the mysteries of the still unknown. Established religion, in my view, is still trapped in physical materialism, but the ancient search for 'truth' even within it still goes on for some, in one form or another, as Cornwell so well points out. If anything I rate this book on Cornwell's ability to put into words what for most people is the main driving force of how we try to live our lives: despite the aberrations and mistakes in history of mankind's ignorance, to find a way towards 'agape' through whichever cultural 'meme' we have been exposed to; and on the grander scale, to seek an understanding of 'why there is something rather than nothing'. If this is what it is to be 'religious', then I have no argument with it - but, it would seem, that no one religious body across the world has been able to rise above dictates of the 'Selfish Gene' within. At its worst, religious doctrine, in my opinion, is no better than Dawkins' doctrine on atheism; it shares the same desire to influence in ways that feed only its own material gains. At its best, it offers us a more enlightened way forward - as could Dawkins' faith in Science. Reductionist views rarely if ever expand human understanding in positive ways.
So - not really a book review but an opinion - if nothing else 'Darwin's Angel' delivers an intelligent and academic exposition of the many different routes available towards furthering an understanding of what we are capable of, if we can only control the 'Selfish Gene'within. And, refreshingly, it did not seek to convert. We are young though as a species - perhaps a little more time to evolve is all that is needed.
45 of 66 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A patronising, partial, badly-argued book that fails to address Dawkins's real propositions.,
Listing this book's failings would take a volume almost as long as the book itself, so this review will inevitably pick on only a few of its failings - although I promise to try to be fair.
I found the patronising tone repellent. Cornwell, wrapping himself in the wings of 'Darwin's Angel,' here allows himself the kind of personal abuse and partiality that isn't present in his other books. Instead of taking on Dawkins's issues on their own terms, he writes in a 'de haut en bas' style that diminishes his arguments by their sense of personal attack - thereby ensuring that anyone who reads the book without already having taken sides will probably be cheering for Dawkins.
He completely ignores some of the arguments that Dawkins presents for a benign and universal God: for example, Dawkins cites more than one Old Testament story in which a man is praised for putting out his daughters or his servants to be gang-raped to death - there are a number of such anecdotes, and they deserve to be treated on their own terms.
Somewhere about half-way through the book (which by now is becoming unreadable) he elides 'religion' into the 'Christian God' and so we have very little treatment of the dreadful atrocities committed in the name of whatever God is in view. And he doesn't treat any of the arguments for a benign God that permits childhood cancer, or any of the arguments that say 'God loves you ... but break his commandments and he'll send you to hell.'
I couldn't make sense of the last part of the book (and I have a fairly good brain). It seemed to be a mixture of name-slinging, calling into th argument people who had no real reason to be there except that they backed up his argument, and a sort of not-very-well-put argument that God and science are to be understood by totally different means.
I take personal objection to something he says in the final part, which is that because of the example and teaching of Christ, and their acknowledgement of their fallenness, Christians pick themselves up and start again when they fail. I am not a professing Christian, but I pick myself up and start again when I fail, with true remorse. A scientist would say that an exception to a 'rule' means that the rule has failed and must be re-examined. But Mr. Cornwell left science behind a long time ago. He had to, otherwise he'd never have managed to produce this silly little book.
42 of 64 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Misunderstanding or misrepresentation,
I can only hope that Cornwell misunderstood Dawkins' "The God Delusion", because if that isn't the case, then he's deliberately misrepresented Dawkins' arguments throughout, creating straw men to knock over whilst avoiding the main thrust of Dawkins' book which is that belief in superstitious nonsense is to the detriment of humankind. More flea powder, the fleas are multiplying!
63 of 97 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars With angels like these, who needs demons?,
It would be hard to find a better illustration of the old proverb that one shouldn't judge a book by its cover than this latest offering from John Cornwell; for the cover of Darwin's Angel is really rather beautiful and worth looking it. Sadly, any hope that its contents may be equally rewarding is destroyed from the very first sentence, which confidently informs the reader that "One of the most beautiful conceits of mortal wit is the idea of the angel; for angels exemplify, symbolise, and render intelligible the dynamic mental capacity known as imagination." (They do WHAT?)
Assuming that you are able either to untangle that particular piece of mangled logic or to put it aside as unimportant and press on regardless, the rest of the book continues in much the same vein.
Cornwell pounces on every instance in The God Delusion where Dawkins has dared to pronounce on the nature of religion, and gleefully proclaims it to be not what the religious believe at all. He does this, however, with more predictability than clarity, for having ploughed through the entire book I am left none the wiser as to what he thinks the religious really do believe. It would appear that they believe whatever they are able to imagine (which of course varies from believer to believer), and that we should respect their imagination by acknowledging that it's just possible that it may have hit on something resembling the truth. On this basis, I see little option but to conclude that there are roughly 6 billion deities alive and active in today's world and that there's precious little point in thinking about any of them, since any conclusions we reach will be wrong in 5,999,999,999 out of 6,000,000,000 cases.
The angel in Cornwell's book, it must be said, displays a surprisingly spiteful streak and I felt that Richard Dawkins had been rather unfortunate in having this particular seraph assigned to him as his guardian. Would you feel your reputation and wellbeing were in safe hands when entrusted to someone who regularly went considerably out of his way to show you in the worst possible light? Who consistently twisted and distorted your words, actions and motives? Who felt no compunction in resorting to frequently repeated personal jibe and insult? And who patently hadn't read your book (or at least, not with any intention of understanding it) before attempting to demolish it publicly? (And, moreover, who was so inept, that he failed, even then?)
No, this angel is mean-spirited, snide, ungenerous, sneaky and, one suspects, downright dishonest. His outbursts of barely comprehensible evasion, self-justification and defamation might almost be comical (but for their signal lack of warmth, humanity or truth), but they hardly form a coherent or credible response to a well reasoned, logically impeccable argument, such as can be found in The God Delusion.
This angel is also strikingly insular. Despite his ability to "ring the earth in a trice", it would appear that he prefers to remain in the polite confines of the theology reading room at Jesus College, Cambridge. Certainly he has not ventured to the USA recently, for he regularly asserts that the fundamentalist religion decried by Dawkins only exists in a small minority of believers, and that the majority of religionists accept evolution and a non-literal interpretation of the Bible without demur. This is one angel who really should get out more.
Cornwell is an ex-seminarian, and it is impossible to escape the impression that he has spent so much of his life contemplating his navel that all his thoughts now get caught up in the swirling vortex of it, landing dizzy, confused and incompletely digested in his gut, where they mingle with bile and re-emerge later in the only biologically possible form via the only biologically possible route.
Darwin's Angel is a perversion of language, intellect, integrity, decency and, in all likelihood, religion too. Nevertheless I have given it 2 stars: one because the cover really IS rather lovely, and the other because, as an atheist, I take my consolations where I realistically can and it is, at least, mercifully short.
22 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Witty and Friendly,
This review is from: Darwin's Angel: An angelic riposte to The God Delusion (Paperback)
Darwins Angel pokes the holes in Dawkins arguments easily (it does not take much) and with a great deal of wit. That is the great enjoyment of the book. Cornwell uses the guise of Darwins Angel who becomes Dawkins Angel as he parades around as to be Darwins heir, of which Darwin I am sure would be horrified although I am sure Professor Dawkins would think it a great mark of respect for Darwin to be associated with him.
Each argument is dealt with and the flaws in the logic appear all too apparent, and there are some laugh out loud moments. An entertainng book with a very serious purpose!
34 of 54 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Remove the ad hominem and there's no book,
Of all the multitude of anti-Dawkins books that have sought to cash in on the true believers' discomfort induced by the best selling "The God Delusion", Cornwell's is possibly the most slyly personal attack on Dawkins the man rather than on Dawkin's ideas.
Framed dishonestly as a caring lecture from a guardian angel, the book is little more than a collection of ad hominem digs about Dawkins' personality hung upon what appear to be willful misreadings of what Dawkins actually wrote.
Why it took Cornwell as long as 160 pages to produce an argument that is little more than "Dawkins is wrong because he appears arrogant" is a mystery.
6 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars lighten up,
A main point of this book - which i did enjoy and gain from - is simply asking the question why should we take Richard Dawkins so seriously on religion? I believe that he has a great mind and is an admirable scholar who has written quite a lousy book which we are treating as if it mattered!
35 of 58 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking and concise, with unexpected depths,
There are many ways of deconstructing Dawkins' arguments in "The God Delusion", and none of them require a terribly long book. Had Dawkins gone to the trouble of writing a serious scholarly work explaining why God almost certainly doesn't exist, a more substantive response might have been necessary. But he didn't.
Cornwell writes as though he were an angel addressing Dawkins - an outsider, looking on. The focus of his book is on highlighting particular areas of Dawkins' arguments that are flawed. So he picks up the uncritical deference to certain authorities - "I wondered about bringing in Russell from the outset, as if he were a self-evident expert on the matter [of intelligence]. Russell was surely an important figure in philosophy or mathematics, but didn't he also say some pernicious things outside his area of expertise...? For example: 'Women are on the average stupider than men.' Just because Bertrand Russell says something doesn't mean to say that it's true." - and his uncritical ignorance of other authorities - "Your book is as innocent of heavy scholarship as it is free of false modesty. I note that the author most often cited is yourself...." He also highlights some of the more over-the-top claims made by Dawkins - that religious education is child abuse, that he expects there to soon be a scientific "theory of everything", and that religious people are less clever than atheists - and shows how illconceived they are as notions.
At the end of the book, Cornwell makes his own case for the existence of God, in philosophical terms. Doubtless a dyed-in-the-wool empiricist would conclude that what Cornwell has done is unjustifiable - but as Cornwell points out, "The question 'Why is there anything rather than nothing?' is not a final bid for evidence but a quest for meaning or sense that has begun in a moment of wonder that there is anything at all. You ridicule the quest because you do not seem to understand it. If you understood it, you would not ridicule it even if you felt unable to go there yourself. That you do not understand it is shown by the fact that you actually think that this 'argument for God' is an argument for the ludicrous anthropomorphic deity that rightly appals you."
The book is eminently quotable, and yet it reaches surprising depths. Although I have already rejected Dawkins' arguments in TGD for various reasons (some of which I was pleased to see crop up in Cornwell's book), there were certain aspects of what Cornwell wrote which gave me pause for thought as well. I suspect that my own worldview has shifted somewhat as a consequence of reading this.
Doubtless some will regard this - along with other responses to Dawkins' book - as opportunistic publishing. Unfortunately, authors like Cornwell and McGrath (author of "The Dawkins Delusion?") are damned if they do, and damned if they don't - were such titles not published, then the general public would be left with the impression that Dawkins is actually unanswerable.
Most Helpful First | Newest First
Darwin's Angel: An angelic riposte to The God Delusion by John Cornwell (Paperback - 25 Sept. 2008)