Skip to main content

A Devil’s Chaplain – Richard Dawkins *****

The great thing about A Devil’s Chaplain – that makes it arguably Richard Dawkins’ best book – is that it’s a collection of essays. His full length books, clever though they indubitably are, have a tendency to fall off in quality in some chapters and can be a little repetitious. Here, every piece is a neatly crafted gem.
It isn’t necessary always to agree with Dawkins to admire this book. In places, as usual, he is rude, intolerant and unpleasant (though in an entertaining way – for UK readers, he’s the Jeremy Paxman of science). In others he carefully weaves his argument to produce a result that arguably isn’t justified. For example, in the essay Science, Genetics and Ethics he comments “you may be being inconsistent if you think that abortion is murder but killing chimpanzees is not.” He argues this because we are on an evolutionary continuum with the chimpanzee, just as the non-sentient foetus is on a continuum with the sentient adult. But this entirely misses the point. The time-based relationship is entirely different. Fail to kill a chimpanzee and it will continue to be a chimpanzee. Fail to kill a foetus and it will (on the whole) become a sentient adult, who presumably Dawkins does consider it murder to kill. Similarly he argues that because a placenta is a true clone of a baby it’s surprising that eating placentas isn’t covered by our cannibalism taboos – but again, however long you leave that placenta it won’t turn into a sentient human being – nothing is being excluded from existence.
Wonderfully, the fact that some of the writing here is possibly wrong and definitely irritating doesn’t detract from the readability of the book – rather the reverse, it’s fun to get involved enough to want to dispute. I’d much rather read a book that makes me want to have a debate with the author than one that I agree with totally, but can’t really get excited about.
Don’t get the impression that all the content is likely to cause concerns. Much of it is hard to disagree with from Dawkins’s distaste for postmodernism to his preference to education that is driven by exploration rather than the exam regime. It’s a great book with something for everyone who has an interest in our world. Inevitably there’s rather more of biology, Darwinism and genetics than other aspects of the sciences, and you might want to skip over one or two of the pieces like eulogies for people you may never have heard of, but it doesn’t spoil the overall effect.
If you like Dawkins you’ll definitely want this book – and amazingly if you don’t like Dawkins you’ll still enjoy it. What can I say – it’s an essential.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…