Tuesday, 12 April 2005

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.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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