A fine collection of essays by Dawkins, in which he discusses his views on evolutionary theory.
While I fully accept the validity of the theory of evolution by natural selection, I do not myself believe in the selfish gene theory. I'm more in favour of the mutual aid theory. Nonetheless, I enjoy reading Dawkins. He's clear and articulate.
Well worth a read.
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.
on 18 March 2004
I was given this book as a gift sometime last year and from the moment I began reading it I felt more inteligent! Dawkins even convinced me to take Higher Philosophy, which I now plan to do at university. My point is that if this book can persude me what to take at uni it must be good. Hell, I carry it with me and read it whenever I get a spare moment. Im not going to write an evalutation of the book in full as you probably are looking for a breif overview.
I have no background knowledge of biology but Dawkins writes with such skill that I didnt need any to understand what he meant when talking about genetics, he has a way of putting ideas forward without the language getting in the way.
In his memo for Tony Blair he address the ethics of cloning and by the end of it I felt as though I'd been given a very good overview of the main issues. The next essay, Trial by Jury, at first seemed out of place to me but I must confess it has one of my favourite lines, "If I know myself to be guilty ill go witht he loose cannon of a jury, the more ignorant, predujiced and capricious the better."
To say this is the only worthy of mentioning would be a severe crime on my part, for as soon as hes done with tearing down the legal system he attacks a pet hate. Crytals, star signs and all that other new-age, postermodern junk. If you believe that "pseudoscientific drivel", that you can program crystals and they will help you then you need this book more than I. Dawkins will help you.
Dont think for a minute this help will ruin your illusion of beity inthe world around you, in fact Dawkins points out true beauty. I knew about energy and atoms etc from physics but id never seen the beauty in it before, now even expanding and contracting materials seems to have an appeal. Read it.
The following section is in support of Darwin, one essay aptly titled "Darwin triumphant". If youre new to Darwin, like I was, or think you know a bit about it this section has a lot to offer you. However in this section my favourite essay would have to be "Son of Moores Law". Here Dawkins forms a new 'law', based slightly upon Moores Law (speed of processors), to do with gentic research. I wouldnt even attempt to take the pleasure from Dawkins of telling you about it.
Where I work we all have the same sense of humour, manerisms and lexical choice. At least when on shift. After reading about memes which were introduced to me here I an understanding of why. While I could praise the "Chinese Junk and Chinese Whispers" I wont, as though it is excelent, instead I hold "Dolly and the Cloth Heads" to be perhaps the best in the whole book.
It may not teach me as much as the other essays or have the same passion as the next, "Time to stand up" (2nd fav), but I found myself laughing outloud during this more than any other. It would impossiable for me to agree more with Dawkins view on religion as he puts in forward within those pages.
Just as you are thinking theres none of those emotional parts you love so much I hit you with this: eulogy for Douglas Adams. I challenge anyone to read this without the hairs on their neck standing. Read this one with respect, people.
In short this is a fantastic book and one EVERYONE should have in their collection. Unless you are closed minded and prejuced against truth you will find this book one of your favourites. Excelent writter (excelent man) and an excelent book.
on 20 November 2004
This book is the comfort blanket of the modern thinking individual, like a child I take it everywhere, and so I should.
Inside is some of the most interesting and powerful thinking on not only Evolution but a range of scientific subjects.
Thank you Richard for this and long may you go on keeping us up to date with your thinking.
On a final note this book is not only for the academics but for EVERYBODY !!!
One of the wonderful things about this book is the sense that one gets of a distinguished scientist letting his hair down, as it were, and discoursing informally on a number of interesting subjects including some outside his area of expertise. In the game of "Who would you invite to dinner if you could choose anybody?" Oxford University Professor Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, and other important works on evolution, would be near the top of my list.
Not that I agree with everything he says. Indeed, that is part of the fun. Dawkins is adamant on some subjects, religion being one of them. A goodly portion of this book is devoted to letting us know exactly how he feels about the "God hypothesis," "liberal agnostics," and the so-called miracles recognized by especially the Catholic Church. The title of Chapter 3.3, "The Great Convergence" (of science and religion), for example, is used ironically. He sees no convergence; in fact, he calls such a notion "a shallow, empty, hollow, spin-doctored sham." (p. 151)
Clearly Dawkins is not a man to mince words. But his insistence on a restrictive definition of "God" as "a hypothetical being who answers prayers; intervenes to save cancer patients...forgives sin," etc., is really the problem. He considers the "religion" attributed to scientists like Einstein, Carl Sagan, Paul Davies and others (and even himself!) to involve a misuse of the term, calling such a definition "flabbily elastic" and not religion as experienced by "the ordinary person in the pew." (p. 147)
But what Dawkins is really railing against is the illegitimacy of believing in the supernatural and science at the same time.
While I think Dawkins makes a good point with this argument, I think it would be better to make a distinction between fundamentalist religion, which has been, and continues to be, the root cause of much of the horror in the world, and the more progressive varieties which recognize the limitations of the barbaric "Bronze-Age God of Battles." See Chapter 3.5 "Time to Stand Up" in which Dawkins rightly condemns the hatreds and violent history of the three middle eastern religions. At the same time I think he needs to realize that it is legitimate to define "God" as God is defined in, for example, the Vedas; that is, as The Ineffable, which has no attributes, about which nothing can be said.
However it is exactly his point that there is no evidence for the God hypothesis and that to partially accept such a notion, or even to be "agnostic" is to depart from a purely scientific viewpoint. In this I think the atheistic Dawkins is mistaken. Absence of proof is not proof of absence, period. And as far as religion, per se, goes, I would add that not only is religion part of human culture (for better or for worse), but is also part of the so-called "extended phenotype" of human beings, and not something that is going to be argued away.
I also have some reservations about his reasons for not debating with creationists. He believes that to debate with them gives them a legitimacy they don't deserve. In Chapter 5.5, he reveals a letter he wrote to Steven Jay Gould expressing such a view. I don't debate creationists either, but my reason is that creationists don't really debate. They have already made up their minds and are not capable of being influenced by evidence. Theirs is purely an exercise in propaganda. Furthermore, as Dawkins discovered himself (in Chapter 2.3 on the Australian film crew that he allowed into his house for an interview), it is often the case that creationists don't play fair.
In Chapter 1.5 "Trial by Jury" Dawkins presents his reservations about "one of the most conspicuously bad good ideas anyone ever had." I understand his demurral, but would like to point out that juries dispense a social justice; that the tribe makes its decisions based on what it perceives as good for the tribe now, not necessarily what's true in an objective or scientific sense.
Interesting enough, Dawkins demonstrates his knowledge of other scientific subjects, including physics, and he does it very well. I was particularly impressed with his explanation of entropy and how it effects the evolutionary process in Chapter 2.2. (See especially page 85.) He also does a fine job of elucidating why Lamarckism cannot work without a "Darwinian underpinning" since there must be a mechanism for selecting between the acquired characteristics that are improvements and those that are not. (p. 90) Good too is his characterization of genes as constituting "a kind of description of the ancestral environments through which those genes have survived." (p. 113)
On his tiff with Gould, Dawkins attempts to make amends by reprinting some semi-gracious and mostly positive reviews of some of Gould's books; however it is obvious that his professional and emotional differences with Gould remain.
One of the most important points that Dawkins reaffirms here is his belief that we humans, because of our unique insight into ourselves and our predicament, "can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators." (p. 11) What Dawkins means is that we do not have to take biology as destiny or to take Darwinism as a template for our morality--a point often missed by his critics.
There is much, much more of interest in this refreshingly personal collection of essays by one of our most original evolutionary thinkers, some of it first rate, and some of it rather ordinary; yet taken in total reveals a lot about Richard Dawkins, scientist, science writer, teacher, and human being that I was pleased to learn.
Incidentally, the title is from Charles Darwin who speculated on how such a personage might regard "the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature." (p. 8)
That "devil's chaplain" here is Richard Dawkins himself who mostly directs his ire toward the stupidities of human beings.
on 18 March 2013
Richard Dawkins is able to explain science better than anyone. Why is Brian Cox so famous when Richard Dawkins could do his job so much better? Because he's supposedly controversial. It should not be controversial to express evidence and it's philosophical consequences. This is a very readable science book.
on 23 August 2007
Some excellent essays. A touch too close to being a bit racist here and there, but perhaps that was inaccuracy of language. For the first time I think I actually understand something about evolution. His point about the 98% figure of genetic similarity with chimps was well made. He cited the fact that if you compare two books, there will be a lot of common letters and the figure would suggest similarity. But if you were to compare them sentence by sentence, they would probably share only a tiny fraction of commonality.
What I still don't understand about theorists on evolution is how they still discuss superiority or desirability for breeding in terms of strength, speed, size etc. After many hundreds of thousands of years during which human cooperation in agriculture, shared civilisation and eventually technological change has transformed the success rate of the species, why are qualities of cooperation, constancy or intellect now not also included in the factors that influence natural selection? Perhaps they are. Maybe I should read late Darwin.
The idea that atheists just go one God further was also a point well made. Many of us would admit to being atheists when it comes to Mithras, Zeus, Thor, etc etc. Of all the Gods, most people who claim not to be atheists probably only admit a belief in one and thus reject thousands of other. It's a bit like claiming to be a vegetarian on the grounds that you don't eat duck, but do eat all the rest of the animal world.
The point about cloning and identical twins was made a few too many times, I think, but then it was a collection of essays. It is a point, however, that the non-scientist would find it hard to relate to, since for someone from that starting position the twins are "natural" and the "clone" is not, despite the fact that genetically they represent identical concepts. The position would be really interesting, however, if the twins, or triplets or quads etc arose as a result of in vitro fertilisation and then implantation, and hence were not "natural".
And in one essay we are invited to share the experience of meeting one religious leader who refused to shake hands with a woman on the grounds that she might be menstruating. If this view were expressed alone, without the religious justification, what would have been an appropriate reaction? And if it is "justified" by the religious perspective, why should that reaction be different?
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.
on 12 September 2009
I'll first off say that I'm a huge Dawkings fan. Even so, this book was not his best. There are some really gems in the earlier chapters and I ploughed my way through those pretty quickly.
The latter chapters are really not to my liking. A large section is devoted to Eulogies of his friends and another section to book reviews. These are all well written but I'm not personally particularly interested in reading Funeral speeches and book reviews. The cynic in me says that this books has been padded somewhat with anything they could find, book reviews, prefaces to other's books and newspaper articles.
It's still worth reading...the first half at least!
on 20 December 2009
Unlike Dawkins's other works, this book is the sum of its parts. Presented here is a collection of essays, reviews and other writings gathered under seven headings. They were selected and edited by the Astrophysicist and writer Latha Menon. The range of coverage is what one would expect for Dawkins, with a few surprises thrown in.
The first section, Science and Sensibility, has a philosophical undertone. The origin of the book's title is explained. There is a dismissal of relativism, such that all explanations for phenomena have equal validity. For example, young earth creationism contradicts all observable evidence, so is not equal in validity to current cosmological theories and the theory of evolution. We are again warned of the dangers of the discontinuous mind. There is an interesting essay on jury trials, and how a jury of 12 people have a tendency to act in a non-independent fashion, effectively as a single entity. It is suggested that the jury should split into three or four groups that are independent. "Crystal Healing" and other nonsense is roundly debunked. On "Postmodernism", I need only quote Dawkins: "anyone who is caught equating the erectile organ to the square root of minus 1 has, for my money, blown his credentials when it comes to things I DON'T know anything about" (Dawkins's emphasis).
The second section, Light will be Thrown, brings Dawkins back to familiar ground. We have a discussion of the central role of Darwin and his essential correctness. Sexual selection and the role of DNA mutations is mentioned. Dawkins reminds us that although we are the productions of evolution, we need not be dominated by them. People often assume that Dawkins is amoral, believing only in genetic determinism. They are wrong. I enjoyed the essay on information theory and its application to genome biology. One "bit" of information reduces our previous uncertainly by half. We are reminded that a large genome is not necessarily an information-rich genome. This is important to consider when asked how does the amount of DNA in organisms increase though evolution. It is better to consider how the information in a genome increases. This section ends with a discussion on the applicability of Moore's Law in molecular biology, i.e. how many base pairs of a genome can be sequenced for a given amount of money. This is, and well be of great importance for biology in the next decades.
The third section, The Infected Mind.begins by discussing memes. Personally, I am not convinced by memes. I think it is too easily to compare the idea of memes to the science of genetics. There is certainly something in the idea, but will need careful study by neuroscientists. Dawkins mentions that the term "cultigens" was used before memes. I think that this is actually the better word, as it avoids the baggage associated with memes, i.e. the intellectual laziness associated with words such as "memetics", "memome", "meme pool" ad nauseam. Dawkins posits that religions can seem to act as mind viruses (small numbers of "memes" together in the an infective package). The Satanic Verses affair is an example of this as mentioned in the book. It is highly unlikely that many, if not the majority, of those calling for the murder of Rushdie had not even read the book. The more recent Mohammed cartoons affair is another good example of how religion can seem to act as a mind virus. I think this is an over-simplication. It is more likely that humans have a strong group identity, perhaps evolved from earlier in human evolution as a way of maintaining group integrity, critical for survival. This may be currently manifested in religion - an attack or perceived attack on religion could be seen as an attack on the group. Although this too of course is a simplification, there is an attack on "cloth-headed" though, as exemplified by the discussion on Dolly the sheep Dawkins mentioned. This a strong and just attack on the religious motivation for the 9/11 events.
In section 4, the softer side of Dawkins is revealed. Dawkins was a friend of Douglas Adams, and the lament and eulogy for the latter was touching. I found the eulogy for WD Hamilton, an Oxford biologist of some note greatly moving, especially the quotation from Hamilton's wife and the quotation from A Shropshire Lad. Included also is Dawkins's forward to Snake Oil, the sadly unfinished book by John Diamond on the potential dangers of the alternative "medicine" movement.
The fifth section, Even the Ranks of Tuscany, is on the relationship between Stephen Jay Gould and Dawkins. Being not familiar with this debate, I vowed to read some of Gould's work to bring myself up to speed. It is essentially a series of reviews of Gould's books and ends with the unfinished correspondence between the two, shortened, sadly, due to Gould's final illness.
The sixth section: There is all Africa and her Prodigies in us reminds us that we are all originally from Africa. Two books are mention that I now must read! Firstly, Elspeth Huxley's Red Strangers and The Lion Children, about a family growing up with their amazing mother in Botswana studying lions (the book was written by the children). Kate Nicholls, the mother, was an actress who studied evolution as an "amateur" who commuted from the Cotswolds to Oxford to study evolutionary theory with only a small amount of tutoring from Dawkins. Dawkins discusses his visit to the great Richard Leakey and others in Kenya.
The final section is a letter by Dawkins to his daughter which is rather sweet. The key message here is not to indoctrinate ones children, but to guide them in being inquisitive and open minded.
Overall, this a fascinating collection of writings, and I can recommend it to the reader.