Books

Short works

Books : reviews

Richard Dawkins.
The Selfish Gene.
OUP. 1976

rating : 2 : great stuff

Richard Dawkins.
The Blind Watchmaker.
Penguin. 1986

rating : 2.5 : great stuff

Richard Dawkins.
River Out of Eden.
Phoenix. 1995

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 7 September 1996

In this slim volume (fewer than 200 pages, of widely spaced type) Dawkins attacks his usual targets - the anti-science brigade, who believe in Creationism not evolution - demolishing them with his usual persuasive prose, taking no prisoners.

If you've never read Dawkins before, this is a good start; if you have, it make a lighter alternative to his other, meatier works.

The Digital River
Dawkins uses the metaphor of genes swimming in a digital river to describe selection and evolution. Genes in different branches (different species) don't mix. Genes confined between the same river banks mix and combine in individuals of a given species.
...the genes that survive in the river will be the ones that are good at surviving in the average environment of the species, and perhaps the most important aspect of this average environment is the other genes of the species; the other genes with which a gene is likely to have to share a body...
All Africa and her Progenies
Mitochondrial Eve certainly existed; whether she lived in Africa is less well established, but relatively unimportant; she is almost certainly not our most recent common ancestor, just our most recent common ancestor through the female line.
Do Good by Stealth
The argument against evolution that "half an X would not work at all" is fallacious. A highly evolved organ, sense or behaviour does not have to be 'complete' before it is worth having. There are plausible pathways building towards eyes, towards bee dances, towards wasp-shaped orchids, where each step is better than the previous one. [And no doubt a geological future perspective will show that what we have now is not 'complete', but merely 'a step on the way' to something else.]
Never say, and never take seriously anybody who says, "I cannot believe that so-and-so could have evolved by gradual selection." I have dubbed this kind of fallacy "the Argument from Personal Incredulity."
God's Utility Function
If we look at a cheetah, we might decide its 'purpose' is to kill antelope. But if we look at an antelope, we might decide its 'purpose' is to starve cheetahs! In truth, the common purpose of both is to replicate their own DNA.
Before Darwin, even educate people who had abandoned "Why" questions for rocks, streams and eclipses still implicitly accepted the legitimacy of the "Why" question where living creatures were concerned. Now only the scientifically illiterate do. But "only" conceals the unpalatable truth that we are still talking about an absolute majority.
The Replication Bomb
Three to four billion years ago, a 'replication bomb', life, was set off on our planet, and its effects have recently reached the stars. It has passed several thresholds on the way:
  1. Replicator Threshold - origin of life
  2. Phenotype Threshold - "replicators survive not by virtue of their own properties but by virtue of causal effects on something else, which we call the phenotype"
  3. Replicator Team Threshold - "Each gene contributes to the environment, which they all then exploit in order to survive. The genes work in teams."
  4. Many Cell Threshold - "phenotypes can arise whose shapes and functions are appreciated only on a scale hugely greater than the scale of the single cell"
  5. Nervous System Threshold - "action can be taken on a timescale much faster than the one that genes ... can achieve directly"
  6. Consciousness Threshold
  7. Language Threshold
  8. Cooperative Technology Threshold
  9. Radio Threshold - "it now becomes possible for external observers to notice [us]"
  10. Space Travel Threshold

Richard Dawkins.
Unweaving the Rainbow: science, delusion, and the appetite for wonder.
Penguin. 1998

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 2 December 1999

Dawkins, in his official persona as Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, continues his diatribe against the forces of scientific ignorance and unreason. He purpose is to refute the kind of thinking exemplified by Keats' contention that Newton had destroyed the poetry of the rainbow when he unwove its colours with a prism. Dawkins argues that deeper understanding can only enhance and deepen such beauty. He does this through specific examples -- initially to do with the deep simplicity of the physics of rainbows and spectra and stars, later with the fascinating and boggling baroque diversity and intricacies of biology -- with the aim of invoking the reader's sense of wonder. And he takes the odd pot shot at the cranks and charlatans on the way.

I found the work rather choppy and episodic, as Dawkins attempts to cover a wide range of scientific subjects to expose their beauty. However, the sheer range means that there is probably something new for everybody here -- although the physics of spectra may be well known to many, Dawkins can surely display for every occasion yet another obscure and fascinating factoid about a curious biological adaptation. And, as usual, he pulls no punches condemning the fraudsters and wooly thinkers. In the later chapters he also brings out the idea of "good poetry", that is illuminated by, and in turn illuminates, good science -- as opposed the the kind of "bad poetry" that either confuses the science -- or, like that of Keats, unfairly decries it.

Richard Dawkins.
A Devil's Chaplain: selected essays.
Phoenix. 2003

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 24 May 2004

A lovely collection of reviews, book forewords, essays, and rants from Dawkins, written over the past decade. They cover a wide range, but are mostly about evolution, religion, and Africa, all reasonably argued in Dawkins' clear style. I won't attempt to summarise any of the careful arguments -- go and read Dawkins and find out for yourself.

Contents

Son of Moore's Law. 2002
The ever-increasing cheapness of sequencing genomes, and what it might lead to.
A Devil's Chaplain. 2003
Acceptance of the message of evolution does not mean acceptance of a bleak sterile existence.
What is True?. == Hall of Mirrors. 2000
Scientific truth versus cultural relativism.
Gaps in the Mind. 1993
Our specieist double standards, particularly in relation to the (other) great apes.
Science, Genetics and Ethics: Memo for Tony Blair. 2003
On the positive sides of science.
Trial By Jury. 1997
Is being judged by our peers a scientifically valid choice?
Crystalline Truth and Crystal Balls. 1998
Debunking crystalline NewAge clap-trap.
Postmodernism Disrobed. Nature, 394, 141-143. 1998
A review of Intellectual Impostures and the Sokal Hoax.
The Joy of Living Dangerously: Sanderson of Oundle. 2002
How modern syllabuses and standardisation are destroying true education in our schools today.
Light Will Be Thrown. 2003
A foreword to a new edition of Darwin's Descent of Man, covering the section on sexual selection.
Darwin Triumphant. 1991
Darwinism as a universal truth
The 'Information Challenge'. The Skeptic, 18:4. 1998
On being tricked by creationists, and on what it means to consider the amount of "information" in a genome.
Genes Aren't Us. 1993
On genetic determinism, or lack of it.
Chinese Junk and Chinese Whispers. 1999
The Forward to The Meme Machine
Viruses of the Mind. 1993
On memes, crazes, and religions
The Great Convergence. == Snake Oil and Holy Water. 2002
Are science and religion converging? No.
Dolly and the Cloth Heads. 1997
Why are the opinions of the religious lobby automatically given respect?
Time to Stand Up. 2001
After September 11, time to get angry about religion, all religion.
Lament for Douglas. 2001
Written on learning of Douglas Adams' death.
Eulogy for Douglas Adams. 2001
Eulogy delivered at Douglas Adams' memorial.
Eulogy for W. D. Hamilton. 2000
Eulogy delivered at the memorial of one of the greatest evolutionary biologists of the 20th century.
Snake Oil. 2001
Forward to John Diamond's posthumous book Snake Oil and other preoccupations -- about "alternative" medicine.
Rejoicing in Multifarious Nature. Nature, 276, 121-123. 1978
Review of Gould's Ever Since Darwin.
The Art of the Developable. 2003
Written in 1983, a previously unpublished joint review of Medawar's Pluto's Republic and Gould's Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes.
Hallucigenia, Wiwaxia and Friends. 1990
Review of Gould's Wonderful Life, pointing out some deep flaws in the arguments about the appearance of new phyla versus new species.
Human Chauvinism and Evolutionary Progress. Evolution, 51:3, 1015-20. 1997
Review of Gould's Full House (aka Life's Grandeur), including a plea for less baseball, and a plea for consistent book titles on either side of the Atlantic.
Unfinished Correspondence with a Darwinian Heavyweight. 2003
Gould's reasons for denying creationists the respectability of a debating platform.
Ecology of Genes. 2000
Forward to Pyramids of Life by Croze and Reader. A well balanced ecosystem is an economy, not an adaptation.
Out of the Soul of Africa. 1998
Forward to Red Strangers by Elspeth Huxley, a novel written from the point of view of the Kikuyu, that manages to make white Europeans look alien.
I Speak of Africa and Golden Joys. 2001
Forward to The Lion Children by the McNeice children, chronicling their upbringing in the bush.
Heroes and Ancestors. == All Our Yesterdays. 1995
A travel piece, on returning to his African childhood home, and meeting Richard Leakey.
Good and Bad Reasons for Believing. 1995
An open letter to his ten-year-old daughter, explaining the difference between science and faith.

Richard Dawkins.
The Ancestor's Tale: a pilgrimage to the dawn of life.
Phoenix. 2004

Richard Dawkins.
The God Delusion.
Bantam. 2006

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 28 October 2006

Dawkins argues that religion (any religion -- he's an equal opportunity disbeliever) doesn't deliver on any of its advertised fronts: not truth, not morality, not consolation. Not only that, he argues that it is actually dangerous, even in moderation, because it teaches that faith (ie, unquestioning belief without evidence, or even in the teeth of the evidence) is a good thing, and it is this very mindset that can so easily lead to bad things.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -- Voltaire

It's strange: much of what Dawkins says here seems shocking. (For example: teaching a religion to children is a serious form of child abuse.) Yet, in any other domain of discourse, be it Science, Philosophy, Politics, Art, Football, such arguments wouldn't be shocking at all: they would be ordinary, every-day lively debate. Why this special protection for religion? Which just goes to prove his point, really.

Yet beyond the shock is relief -- relief that it's okay to engage in this kind of debate. Throw off that stifling self-censorship, let the clean crisp winds of rational argument blow, and see the fog of old falsehoods disappear. The journey is a refreshing one, sometimes jaw-dropping, often funny, even if Dawkins' fizzing indignation does occasionally dominate -- but then again, there's much to be indignant about!

This isn't a book for the true believer (they mostly won't read it anyway -- except for that small subset who will be looking for something to quote out of context): it's a book for people who didn't know how very reasonable it is be an atheist. Read, think, question, enjoy.

Richard Dawkins.
The Greatest Show on Earth: the evidence for evolution.
Bantam. 2009

Richard Dawkins.
An Appetite for Wonder: the making of a scientist.
Black Swan. 2013

Born to parents who were enthusiastic naturalists, and linked through his wider family to a clutch of accomplished scientists, Richard Dawkins was bound to have biology in his genes. But what were the influences that shaped his life? And who inspired him to become the pioneering scientist and public thinker now famous (and infamous to some) around the world?

In An Appetite for Wonder we join him on a personal journey from an enchanting childhood in colonial Africa, through the eccentricities of boarding school in England, to his studies at the University of Oxford’s dynamic Zoology Department, which sparked his radical new vision of Darwinism, The Selfish Gene. Through Dawkins’s honest self-reflection, touching reminiscences and witty anecdotes, we are finally able to understand the private influences that shaped the public man who, more than anyone else in his generation, explained our own origins.

Richard Dawkins.
Brief Candle in the Dark: more reflections on a life in science.
Black Swan. 2015

In An Appetite for Wonder Richard Dawkins brought us his engaging memoir of his first thirty-five years. In Brief Candle in the Dark he continues his autobiography, following the threads that have run through the second half of his life so far.

He paints a vivid picture, coloured with wit, anecdote and digression, of the twenty-five postgraduate years he spent teaching at Oxford. He pays affectionate tribute to past colleagues and students, recalling with characteristic wry humour the idiosyncrasies of an establishment steeped in tradition and ritual. He invites us to share the life of a travelling scientist, from fieldwork on the Panama Canal to conferences in the company of some of the most prominent – and most eccentric – of the world’s scientific luminaries.

Most important of all, for the first time he reviews with fresh and stimulating insights the evolving narrative of his ideas about science over the course of his highly distinguished career as thinker, teacher and writer.