Skip to main content

Thank God for Evolution – Michael Dowd ***

This book is hard to review, because it’s the wrong book on the right subject. The thesis of the book is excellent, but unfortunately the way it’s written won’t easily get that thesis across – at least, not to the science book reading community.
Michael Dowd achieves the remarkable feat of being able to quote Richard Dawkins in support of his religious idea. Dowd proposes an approach to religion that absolutely accepts evolution. More than that – he proposes that our starting point of religious revelation should be scientific data, rather than the sort of personal revelation that has shaped religions to date. Yet this is no ‘God of the gaps’ he proposes, dealing with the bits that scientific theory hasn’t rendered unnecessary. Instead, Dowd suggests that we should draw a parallel with the way complex and intelligent systems – like an ant colony or a human being – are built from small, simple structures which of themselves have no intelligence. God, he suggests, is the synergetic sum of the whole universe.
To an extent this sounds like pantheism, but Dowd takes it further, putting scientific theories at the heart of his religious exposition. However, he doesn’t suggest throwing away existing religions, suggesting that they give us the kind of metaphorical story-based understanding humans need – but that we should always be aware we are dealing with metaphor, rather than literal truth.
This is a version of religion that I suspect is more likely to appeal to those in (or interested in) science than creationists or other fundamentalist believers, as it requires them to throw away their belief that religious texts are literal – which is why I say it’s the wrong book, because it is written very much in the style of books aimed at religious believers. Dowd’s language veers between syrupy and overblown, and the whole feel is wrong for a title that should really appeal to the popular science audience if it were only written right. But because the ideas are so interesting, I would encourage the reader to persevere, even though it can be hard going.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…