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4.4 out of 5 stars
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4.4 out of 5 stars
A Devil's Chaplain: Selected Writings
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 29 March 2016
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.
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on 11 September 2016
Fascinating, extremely interesting although not easy reading but worth the effort. There is so much more information contained in and by his reviews of other writers than I think I expected. I have been reading a little each evening and on the last few pages!
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HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 9 June 2004
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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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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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 21 February 2004
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.
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HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 9 June 2004
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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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 24 August 2011
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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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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VINE VOICEon 8 June 2007
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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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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