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A Devil's Chaplain by Richard Dawkins

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

Most scientists write turgidly, allowing no sense of personal style or an inkling of literary metaphor into their works.  This is to be expected in refereed journal articles, which have strict conventions and the burden of reproduceability to bear, but the same phenomenon also occurs when scientists decide to write a book aimed at the lay public (whose taxes, of course, fund many of their investigations).  Instead of embarrassing the usual suspects, the literarily-challenged writers, I'll mention the notable exceptions: Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Loren Eiseley, and Jared Diamond.

Add Richard Dawkins to this short list.  His latest book is a collection of essays, introductions, reviews, and eulogies collected over the last decade.

A Devil's Chaplain  is organized in seven sections, but almost all of its essays are informed by the encyclopedia knowledge of evolution and the particularized point of view that Dawkins has developed.  Dawkins is a militant atheist who takes on the creationists in a few of these pieces.  His most chilling anecdote involves creationist television producers who misrepresented their intentions and inveigled Dawkins to participate in a taped interview.  Only when Dawkins sees the finished product does he realize that his answers have been taken out of context and arrayed behind misleading questions, so he seems to advocate portions of their propagandistic agenda.  Duplicity aside, Dawkins also challenges the very notions on which religions are founded, fairly but firmly.  He carefully distinguishes knowledge derived from the scientific method from knowledge derived from revelation or other non-testable sources.  He saves his greatest scorn for the three monotheistic faiths that sprang from the Middle
East, especially in an essay he writes after the 9/11 attacks.

Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould were the two most prominent neo-Darwinians, but they had substantial scientific and interpretational differences which they debated civilly in print before Gould died.  They shared an abiding respect for each other and a mutual recognition that they were two of the greatest scientific stylists of the day.  In a couple of reviews and a memoir written upon the occasion of Gould's death, Dawkins demonstrates how disputes should be handled within the world of science.  He does not hesitate to explain how and why he thinks Gould is wrong, but he also asserts that evolutionary studies are the better for Gould having joined the debate.

Dawkins was one of the first to develop the idea of the meme, "a self-replicating element of culture passed on by imitation."  While some memes, like religions, are viruses of the mind in Dawkins's view, others are less pernicious, and all are useful ways of mapping the new phenomenon that humans brought to the evolutionary process, the notion of cultural change.  Dawkins summarizes the growing complexities of memetic scholarship that have occurred since he first introduced the concept in the 1970s.

Whatever his topic, Dawkins writes with a lively erudite style that rewards the attentive reader.  Commenting on the mumbo-jumbo of post-modern deconstructionism, he adduces the Dawkins Law of Conservation of Difficulty, which states that "obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic simplicity."  Dawkins distinguishes his science from his politics in another passage condemning Social Darwinism: "There is no inconsistency in favouring Darwinism as an academic scientist while opposing it as a human being; any more than there is inconsistency in explaining cancer as an academic doctor while fighting it as a practising one."  He forever remains a champion of true science, and explains why as clearly as anyone: "Science boosts its claim to truth by its spectacular ability to
make matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and to predict what will happen and when."  Would that the religionists could state their aims and base assumptions with comparable common sense and clarity.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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