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 AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…