Reality Conditions

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Quite a book review of A Devil's Chaplain, by Richard Dawkins

So, finally, here is the book review that I failed to compose last week.

A Devil’s Chaplain is the third complete book by Dawkins I have read, after The Selfish Gene and Unweaving the Rainbow, plus some scattered articles and pieces. It does not reach the superb quality of TSG, but I enjoyed it more than UTR. It is a collection of 32 essays divided in 7 sections, originally published over a long period of time and covering a wide range of subjects. The quality ranges from the “pretty averagely good” to the “amazingly outstanding”.

The first section, entitled “Science and Sensibility”, has pieces which can broadly be defined as “philosophical”, or better, “meta-scientific”. Dawkins lampoons relativism about truth, warmly reviews Sokal’s Fashionable Nonsense, ridicules the pseudoscience of crystals, and reflects on some issues relating science and ethics, like animal rights. These essays are generally good and worth reading for Dawkins elegant style and wit, but do not make any remarkable original points. An exception for me was the piece on trial by jury, which makes a good case that the procedure is flawed; although perhaps all the arguments he uses are in fact old and trite, and it’s just that I had never read or reflected on the topic before.

The second section, ”Light Will Be Thrown”, groups five essays on Darwin and evolution, some of which are among the best in the book. The essay that gives its title to the section is a foreword to an edition of The Descent of Man highlighting many interesting aspects of the book and how “alive” it still is. The next essay “Darwin Triumphant” is a brilliant summary of what Dawkins calls “core Darwinism” and defines as

the minimal theory that evolution is guided in adaptively nonrandom directions by the nonrandom survival of small random hereditary changes


Dawkins explores the huge power of this simple idea, explaining how it implies gradualism and how it can give an explanation for evolution when Lamarckism cannot –the refutation of Lamarckism by pure a priori reasoning without mentioning the particular facts about genetics is a beautiful tour de force. Another essay in this section “Son of Moore’s Law” contains the exciting argument that I outlined at the end of my previous post on this book.

The third section “Virus of the Mind”, is –as you might guess from its title- on memes. Dawkins gives the expected clear and entretaining explanations of what memes are, expresses his pleasure at the popularity of the idea and the uses Blackmore, Dennett and others have made of it, but without endorsing their particular theories, something wise in my opinion; I am a geat fan of Dennett but find his reliance on “memes” as explanatory devices in philosophy of mind one of his weakest points. The section also contains a couple of strong attacks on religion, one of them blaming it for 9/11 and other calamities, and one taking issue with Stephen Jay Gould’s conciliatory “nonverlapping magisteria” position on religion and science. I would like to digress into an exposition and evaluation of these opinions (you know how much I like to reflect on the subject) but to keep this review at readable length I resist the temptation and leave it for another day.

Next comes the section “They told me, Heraclitus” with four eulogies on dead people: two on Douglas Adams, a great friend of Dawkins, one on the biologist W.D. Hamilton and one on journalist John Diamond. It is followed by one of the great treats of the book: “Even the Ranks of Tuscany”, a whole section dedicated to reviews of books by Stephen Jay Gould. They show Dawkins’ admiration for Gould’s qualities as a scientist and a writer, together with his merciless criticism of those places where he thought Gould was wrong –most noticeably in the review of Wonderful Life. It also contains the story of the project for signing a joint letter against creationism that they were planning when Gould sadly died.

At the end of this section there is a summary of the disagreement between them on their interpretation of evolution: Dawkins focused on gene selection as the only kind of selection that has explanatory power, while Gould rejected this “reductionism” and emphasized selection and other mechanisms operating at many levels. From my outsider to biology and probably misinformed position, I would like to see the disagreement as more of perspective than substantial. I would like to think that Gould was fascinated by the actual living beings in their wonderful complexity, seeing them as the true subject of study of biology, which led him to speak of genes as mere “book-keeping” devices; while Dawkins feels more the fascination of the explanatory power of the concept of natural selection, and saw that literally it only can be explanatory when applied to genes, thereby viewing Gould’s talk of “book-keeping” as getting things backwards as the “primary movers” are the genes. Perhaps someone with more knowledge of biology can tell me if this interpretation of the controversy is viable, or if there was a more substantial disagreement?

After this climax the next two sections are something of a disappointment. The sixth one, “There is ll Africa and her Prodigies in Us” contains essays on Africa and Dawkins’ relation to the continent, including one with memories of the Leakeys. The last section consists of only one piece, a letter called “Good and Bad Reasons for Believing” that Dawkins wrote for his ten-year old daughter and explains in simple terms the scientific method contrasting it to belief based on authority, tradition or revelation, with the expected examples taken from religion. The girl is twenty-one years old now; I wonder if she has become religious or has followed his father’s exhortations? Dawkins doesn’t say.

In summary, I strongly recommend the book for the second and fifth sections, and mildly recommend it for the rest of them. If you are reluctant to buy the book, many of the essays can be found online here.

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