Skip to main content

The Selfish Genius – Fern Elsdon-Baker ****

Those who have only come across Richard Dawkins from his books or TV shows may not be aware just how much mixed feeling he generates in the scientific community. There is a respected scientific journal editor who refers to Dawkins as HWMNBN (he who must not be named), likening him to the scientific equivalent of Voldemort in the Harry Potter books.
The reason for these mixed feelings is that, while Dawkins is very good at writing accessibly on science, he sometimes presents his personal views on evolution as if they were the pure scientific truth, rather than one interpretation of the science, which isn’t held by everyone in the field. Equally, Dawkins tends to tie his loud and scathing attacks on religion into evolution and science, as if it were not possible to accept evolution and a scientific viewpoint without being an atheist.
What Fern Elsdon-Baker sets out to do – and does brilliantly – is to identify just how Dawkins’ views sit within the latest scientific theories on evolution, and to separate the science from the atheism in Dawkins’ rhetoric. She starts by emphasising that the title of the book is just a play on the name of Dawkins’ most famous title, The Selfish Gene – in practice she regards him as neither selfish nor a genius. She goes on to explore the development of evolutionary theory, and how Dawkins’ ideas don’t in fact reflect the best fit with Darwin’s own stance, showing how different theories around the mechanisms by which evolution operates have developed over time.
I ought to stress that this is in no sense an apologetic for creationism or intelligent design, both of which Elsdon-Baker has no truck with. Instead it’s an attack on taking the same fundamentalist approach in science that Dawkins so rightly despises in religion.
It’s not perfect. Elsdon-Baker is sometimes so enthusiastic to ensure she comes across as fair and even handed that she can spend rather too long explaining why she’s not supporting one thing or another. And she can get a trifle repetitious in her statements of what she’s suggesting, and perhaps over-technical on some of the fine points of evolutionary biology. Yet the book is far and above the best one I’ve seen that explains to the general reader just what is going on in the sort of intellectual battles we’ve seen the likes of Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Stephen Jay Gould engage in, and is particularly effective in its dissection and dismissal of Dawkins’ most extreme outpourings and anti-religious tracts.
This is much more than a book on Dawkins, it’s a good way to get a better understanding of the position of science in society and how Dawkins’ approach to enhancing the public understanding of science can be counter-productive. Thought provoking and engaging reading.
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…