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

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…