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21 April 2010

Book Review: Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder

Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder
by Richard Dawkins 


One of the Goodreads reviews on this book relates, simply, that the writer of the review had been on a cruise ship with the author prior to reading the book. When she DID read the book, she regretted that she didn't "do some kind of small violence to his person" while on the cruise with him.

In many ways, that sums up my take beautifully. This was the most interesting book I've ever despised. Certainly, I have a brain not suited to the exigencies of science. But when he wasn't losing me in a web of convoluted explanation, he was was looking down his nose at me like a curmudgeonly professor who is inordinately piqued that an average undergraduate had the audacity to drop by during office hours and ask a stupid question.

That said, I learned a lot and, while I did not become a convert to his thesis that science can be as beautiful as poetry, I will admit that, were my brain more suited to the beauty of, say, probability, I would have been in ecstasy while perusing the pages of this tome. In discussing how we discover our world; "... we arrived by being born, and we didn't burst conscious into the world but accumulated awareness gradually through babyhood. The fact that we slowly apprehend our world, rather than suddenly discover it, should not subtract from its wonder." And maybe that's where he lost me. I haven't accumulated enough awareness to see what he sees. And to believe what he believes. But condescension does not encourage me to become more aware. It encourages me to shrug and go back to my music, or my poetry, or my philosophy.

All of that said, there were several "aha" moments; some "I-never-knew-that-before!" aha, some "I-never-thought-about-it-that-way-before!" aha and some "I-had-totally-forgotten-about-that!" aha.

Like his analogy about how expansive the earth's past is; "Fling your arms wide in an expansive gesture to span all of evolution from its origin at your left fingertip to today at your right fingertip. All the way across your midline to well past your right shoulder, life consists of nothing but bacteria. Many-celled, invertebrate life flowers somewhere around your right elbow. The dinosaurs originate in the middle of your right palm, and go extinct around your last finger joint. The whole story of Homo sapiens and our predecessor Homo erectus is contained in the thickness of one nail-clipping. As for recorded history; as for the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Jewish patriarchs, the dynasties of Pharohs, the legions of Rome, the Christian Fathers, the Laws of the Medes and Persians which never change; as for Troy and the Greeks, Helen and Achilles and Agamemnon dead; as for Napolean and Hitler, the Beatles and Bill Clinton, they and everyone that knew them are blown away in the dust from one light stroke of a nail file."

In my opinion, that qualifies as scientific poetry. But that's because it takes an idea and sketches it with metaphor and examples that are accessible and understandable to my way of thinking. And Dawkins, too often, refuses to "stoop" to "that level."

For example, consider this quote from astrophysicist Chandrasekhar; "... beauty is that to which the human mind responds at its deepest and most profound." Indeed. Of course, I left out the beginning of the quote which talks about math and how it relates to nature. That's not beautiful to me. I understand why it's beautiful to those whose brains process math differently. But my brain does not work that way. My mind responds to a different beauty. Does that make my idea of beauty any less valid? Dawkins would undoubtedly say, "Yes." Then he'd kick me out of his office and grumble discontentedly as he adjusted his suspenders and wandered back to his desk.

But when Dawkins DOES lower himself to my level and speak my language, he pulls me right in; his discussion on coincidence and how, in our multi-media age, we are more likely to see a pattern where there is none, was eye-opening. And his fascinating riff on the fact that science is an affront to common sense made me smile in satisfaction; "For example, every time you drink a glass of water you are imbibing at least one molecule that passed through the bladder of Oliver Cromwell ... there are many more molecules in a glass of water than there are glasses of water in the sea ... solid matter, even a hard diamond, consists almost entirely of empty space."

Another riff that gave me pause was Dawkins' take on God's covenant with Abraham; "He didn't promise Abraham eternal life as an individual ... But he did promise something else. 'And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly ... and thou shalt be a father of many nations ... And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee.' Abraham was left in no doubt that the future lay with his seed, not his individuality. God knew his Darwinism."

That is what I was looking for in this book. Someone with the title " Professor of the Public Understanding of Science" should really like average, thoughtful humans a bit more than Dawkins seems to. And if one is going to celebrate the diversity of life, one should also celebrate the diversity of ways of looking at life. We can't all think like Dawkins. It is hubris of Dawkins to expect all of us to try. And to belittle us when we fail.

Rather, he could have made his case for why his way of thinking is a valid and valuable addition to the layers of awareness that allow us to continually find beauty in our universe. But to discount and belittle the other ways of finding beauty was a mistake. He should have calculated that in some sort of equation before he published.