A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love by Richard Dawkins

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A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love by Richard Dawkins

Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A collection of essays, articles and reviews on science and religion, Darwin and evolution, humans and animals, truth and relativism written in excellent style by Richard Dawkins of the 'Selfish Gene' fame. Newcomers to evolution theory might find it bit difficult at times, but everybody can admire the clarity of thought and the passion with which Dawkins champions scientific truths and rational thought. The attacks on religion seem slightly off-the-mark, though.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 263 Date: October 2004
Publisher: Mariner Books
ISBN: 0618485392

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Douglas Adams aficionado, cricket fan and one of the foremost biologists of our time, Richard Dawkins is amongst the staunchest defenders of reason against what some perceive as a raising flood of irrationality - and he does it in excellent style.

Dawkins maintains style throughout; he can be scathing, but he is also lucid, elegant and a joy to read. He respects his opponents - that is, the ones that are worth respecting. And he is marvellously ruthless towards the ones who are not. Not insulting to them as human beings, by no means; but scathing in the dismissal of arguments that are not even worth arguing with. You see, Richard Dawkins believes in truth being more than just a social, historical and cultural construct. He doesn't like blurring of the boundaries and false congruencies between differing world views; he relentlessly champions scientific truths and logical reasoning while at the same time remaining resolutely humane in his moral convictions.

Some themes naturally recur throughout the whole book: evolution of life on this planet, good and bad reasons for believing something is a fact, critique of relativism, and most of all a tremendous fascination and awe of the world and its inhabitants; intricacies and mechanics of life. There is also a certain amount of a healthy optimism regarding the power of science and a strong commitment to making the most of our life, as we only have this one.

'Science and Sensibility' is one of my favourite sections as it deals with general issues of science and beyond. It is here that Dawkins argues for existence of the objective truth: "It is simply true that the Sun is hotter than the Earth, that the desk at which I am writing is made of wood. These are not hypotheses awaiting verification, not local truths that can be denied in another culture. And the same can be safely said about may scientific truths" . There is a piece on the tendency of the human mind to classify objects into discontinuous categories: he concentrates on the human-animal distinction which is, apparently, so easy to make only because of accidents of extinction that got rid of all the 'semi-human' creatures of the past. Dawkins writes about how the science can inform our ethical deliberations and how it cannot decide them which I found moving an very stimulating. The final tour-de-force of the whole section is provided by two essays, one contrasting the new-age mumbo-jumbo of 'crystal power' with the real wonders of crystallography; the other debunking post-modernist mumble of pseudo-science.

'Infected Mind' concentrates on the concept of the meme (invented by Dawkins but developed by others) and the epidemiology of ideas, from clothes fashions to religions. It also contains several essays which attack the organised (and non-organised, for that matter) religion in a way that ranges from passionate to virulent and which I found refreshingly honest though perhaps slightly off the mark. I cannot believe a mind of Dawkins' stature would not realise that the reason that religious prejudice is respected nowadays is because it used to be the grounds for terrible persecutions in the past. Giving all religions an automatically guaranteed voice is a reaction to the times when there was only one held to be THE truth. On this score, although I agree with Dawkins' belief in generally negative effects of religion on the human affairs, I think that relativism is doing a grand job indeed. Most human beings do seem to need and want to have some kind of religion and accepting 'you keep your belief and I will keep mine' premise seems to me to be the best solution. This is of course only possible in a secular state in which all religions' teeth have been removed and strong arms disabled.

Other sections include one that explore the still amazingly current legacy of Darwin's work (including a debunking the creationists' arguments); one devoted to tributes to Douglas Adams, reviews of the work of the other great populariser and researcher in the field of evolution, Stephen Jay Gould; as well as travel pieces from Africa and a touching if a very rational letter to the author's ten year old daughter concerning good and bad reasons to believe in things (good reason is evidence, bad reasons include tradition and revelation).

I was tempted to say: read and be enlightened, but that would be contrary to Dawkins' good and bad reasons for believing in something. Rephrase then: read, think and let the evidence decide.

Booklists.jpg A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love by Richard Dawkins is in the List Of Books To Celebrate Charles Darwin's 200th Anniversary.
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Buy A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love by Richard Dawkins at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love by Richard Dawkins at Amazon.com.


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