Unweaving the Rainbow

by Richard Dawkins
Penguin: £8.99
ISBN 0140264086
[Image: cover of the book]

Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, first holder of the Simonyi Chair of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University since 1995, is well known for his vigorous defence of science, in particular evolutionary biology, and his combative approach to the irrational — religion, pseudoscience, and the so-called paranormal. This book, he says, could be seen as his inaugural statement in the professorship. The title is from a poem by Keats:

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—

Unweave a rainbow…

Artists and other non-scientists, Dawkins says, often feel that science has robbed the world of its beauty and mystery. Dawkins believes this is because they don’t understand the beauty of what science reveals, and admits that scientists have not always been good at communicating this. One aim of this book is to attempt to show areas in which this might be remedied.

The book is not explicitly divided into sections, but it does logically fall into sections. The first couple of chapters are a sort of overview of the dichotomy between the scientists’ and nonscientists’ world views. The problem here is that Dawkins sometimes assumes that the reader will understand his point without explanation:

Listen to the novelist and feminist Fay Weldon’s hymn of hate against ‘the scientists’…:

Don’t expect us to like you. You promised us too much and failed to deliver. You never even tried to answer the questions we all asked when we were six. Where did Aunt Maud go when she died? Where was she before she was born? …

You think these questions are simplistic and embarrassing, but they’re the ones which interest us. And who cares about half a second after the Big Bang; what about a half a second before? And what about crop circles? … The scientists just can’t face the notion of a variable universe. We can.

Dawkin’s response is to suggest that if he attempted to give “a simple and direct best guess answer to both those Aunt Maud questions” he would be called arrogant and presumptuous, “going beyond the limits of science”; he also notes that Fay Weldon’s assumption that she speaks for a large, undefined “We” is nowhere justified by her.

Both these points are true, but it does not seem to occur to him that readers, if there be any, with no knowledge whatever of science may not grasp why her Aunt Maud questions are beyond the limits of science, nor for that matter why the very notion of “half a second before” the Big Bang is meaningless.

Anyone with even a half-decent education in science may well see this immediately, but to someone without any clear knowledge at all of what science is — and from her remarks, Fay Weldon clearly falls into that category — it really may not be obvious that the problem is not that the questions are “simplistic and embarrassing”, it is that they have, and can have, absolutely nothing to do with science.

The fact is that Dawkins is a scientist, and one who really does not understand how someone without his training responds to his arguments. It comes across as a brush-off, because Dawkins has not seen the necessity of explaining clearly why he can dismiss such questions. It seems to me that this is something of a handicap in someone whose job is to increase the public’s understanding of science.

The next three chapters are “Barcodes in the Stars”, which shows how the unweaving of the rainbow has enormously increased our knowledge of the Universe; “Barcodes on the Air”, which discusses sound and how it is perceived by our ears and brains; and Barcodes at the Bar”, which looks at DNA fingerprinting. The third of these chapters should, really, be required reading for all lawyers and jurors.

As it happened, two days after finishing this book, I heard Any Answers on which a policeman referred to a case in which someone with a previous conviction whose DNA “fingerprint” was on file was identified as the culprit of an assault solely on the basis of that DNA sample. To the policeman’s disgust, the case was thrown out on what he considered a legal technicality.

However, if he and Jonathan Dimbleby had read “Barcodes at the Bar” they would have understood that a DNA match with no other evidence linking the suspect to the case is a wholly different case to one in which someone is a suspect on other grounds and then their DNA is tested. The latter would be a safe identification, the former is not.

The other two “barcode” chapters are interesting, and do go some way to suggesting the awesome splendours revealed to us by science, but, as Dawkins himself admits, he is no poet. I wondered if anyone totally unversed in science would see the splendour through the dry text.

After these chapters are two which Dawkins refers to as the “Delusion” section of the book. Although he has drawn some fire on the Net from Christian fundies, organised religion is not his target here. Rather, he is concerned that

In so far as traditional religions are in decline in the West, their place seems to be taken not by science, with its clearer-sighted, grander vision of the cosmos, so much as by the paranormal and astrology.

As an aside, it might be worth noting that not all religions are wedded to a world view of a Universe in which humans are the most important feature and with a history of only a few thousand years — but Dawkins always seems to consider “religious” as meaning exclusively Judeao-Christian-Islamic fundamentalism. (Perhaps that is understandable, but there are many people of all religious who see no difficulty in accepting all the findings of science, including adherents of these book-centred faiths.) Dawkins sees religion as a psychological support with no basis in reality, full stop, so he considers such people to be to a greater or lesser extent deluded.

I think he has no clear concept of the functions of religion in adherents’ lives. It has never been primarily about explaining the way the world works, and now most people would not look to religion for such explanations. Religious faith is about how we relate to the world, how we live; it forms a bond within communities and gives a sense of continuity with our forebears. Not all of us need or feel drawn to religion, but a lot of us do. Dawkins, clearly, does not.

Again, he does not seem to understand that most adherents, for instance, do not remain Christians because they ignore the findings of physicists and biologists; on the contrary, most of them happily accept these findings and have no difficulty in admitting that the Bible is not a science textbook.

To such adherents, all of Dawkin’s dismissal of religion as a meagre, deluded view of the cosmos is as beside the point as the Soviet cosmonaut’s declaration that he had been in space and seen no evidence of God.

Although his focus is not on religion here, this is relevant because I am convinced that some of the willingness of people to turn to “the paranormal and astrology” is because they have been convinced that science has in some way disproved the Bible, but it has provided nothing compensatory for their lives.

It is for some too difficult to understand; for others, perhaps, scientists have failed to show the beauty and poetry of their world view. Wrongly convinced that the choice of religion and science is either-or, they seek mystery and deeper meaning in crop circles, spoon-bending and newspaper astrology.

Even assuming Dawkins is absolutely and in every respect correct, his lack of comprehension of the function of religion in people’s lives cripples his ability to make his case. In military terms: your best chance of defeating an enemy is to understand the way he thinks, and Dawkins can’t do that.

There is some useful description in these chapters of how some supposedly paranormal effects may be produced, and how readily we can wrongly detect patterns in events which do not exist. The problem is that the descriptions are fairly dense, and I am not sure how far someone with no real scientific education would be able to follow the argument.

Those with such an education, even if only at secondary school level, should be able to do so, but as I understand it they are not the target readership for this book. It is possible to have statistics explained in a light and readable manner, but Dawkins — who, to be fair, is not a statistician — does not seem to have that gift.

Throughout the book, Dawkins is calling for more poetic science, i.e. explanations of science which can do justice to the majesty and beauty of its findings. In the next chapter, he tackles what he calls bad poetic science.

In particular, he attacks Stephen Jay Gould for giving Americans in particular a misunderstanding of some aspects of evolution. His justification is that it is “Gould’s excellence as a writer that makes his errors, when they occur, so eminently worth rebutting”. I found that some of the misunderstandings he talks of were a surprise to me, despite having read quite a lot of Gould’s essays.

I have never, for instance, thought that mass extinctions caused by, say, the dinosaur-killer asteroid, assuming that was the cause, have any bearing on whether the punctuated equilibrium view of evolution is correct or the “gradualist” view is correct. Nor did I come away from Wonderful Life with the notion that evolution operated differently in the Cambrian era.

On the other hand, I have been reminded that I’m probably not the average reader, which I reluctantly admit. Perhaps Dawkins is right, and there are widespread misconceptions because Gould writes very well about confused notions of how evolution works. It may well be that he is entirely justified in saying

Excellence in writing is a double-edged sword as the distinguished evolutionary scientist John Maynard smith has noted …:

Gould occupies a rather curious position, particularly on [the American] side of the Atlantic. Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by non-biologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist. In contrast, the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists. All this would not matter, were it not that he is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory.

Certainly there is a ring of truth to Maynard Smith’s comments, but it does seem quixotic to devote much of a chapter to this matter. Dawkins assures us that he has a sound basis from which to dismiss, even ridicule, the misconceptions Gould peddles, and, again, anyone with some understanding of science will probably go along with this; but surely the book is being directed at those who do not understand science — after all, Dawkins is not the professor of Scientists’ Understanding of Science!

Really, if Gould is disseminating confusing notions of evolutionary theory, this needs to be thoroughly dealt with at length. Dawkins does say that Daniel C. Dennett deals devastatingly with Gould’s influence on evolutionary thinking in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and that Simon Conway Morris’s The Crucible of Creation is “critical of almost every aspect of Gould’s view” of what the Burgess Shale reveals about evolution in the Cambrian. So why discuss it here?

An answer suggests itself in the final section of the book, four chapters which “hint at what might be done by poetically inspired scientists more talented than I am”. He considers genes as being part of the environment for other genes; the genome of a species as a description of ancestral environments; the way the brain takes sensory information and forms a sort of internal “virtual reality”; and finally speculates on the forces which drove the evolution of our intellect.

He is, in fact, writing for two different audiences: some of the book is clearly aimed at the public, especially that large group not very conversant with scientific fact and method; some, however, is aimed at other scientists, to say, If you have the talent, this is what you should be writing about! When I realised this, I began to understand, partly, the feeling I had been getting all through the book that I was reading an agglomeration of material from three or four different books.

There is certainly room for a book or books evoking the wonder of the world revealed by science. There is room for books about the implications of science for life in the modern world. There is room for more books demonstrating the deceits and fallacies underlying pseudoscience, the nonsense talked about “the paranormal”, and so on. There is definitely room for any number of books which deal decisively with misconceptions about science and its findings. There may be a point in a book which suggests topics for awe-inspiring yet accurate scientific exposition, although my impression is that there is an increasing amount of truly excellent science writing.

This book, however, tries to do all of these things and because it tries to do all of these things it does none of them well. It is a diffuse book, jumping away from a topic almost as soon as interest is growing in it.

Additionally, everything I have been saying about Dawkin’s evident inability to put himself in the place of someone with no training in science or logic cripples the chapters on the relationships between science and art and between science and the so-called paranormal. I have come away with the nagging feeling that he is perhaps not the best person to hold a chair of Public Understanding of Science, since he shows no sign of empathy with the viewpoint of the general public.

On the other hand, there are things in this book which are very much worth reading, in particular the chapter on DNA fingerprinting. It is difficult, though, to recommend buying the hardback; I suspect the paperback is available by now, or shall soon be available — and there is always the library. A half-hearted recommendation of some of the book is the best I can bring myself to make. However, if this is the first book by Dawkins you have encountered, don’t be put off: read, at least, The Blind Watchmaker, which is excellent, straightforward science writing at its best.

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