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-- E.O. Wilson

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Dawkins On Display

Dawkins Dazzles... Mostly

A brief look today at Richard Dawkins' latest two books...

First let me say that what I like best about Richard Dawkins is his British accent ;-) and his videos are all over the internet so one can partake of that... but of course his writing ain't half-bad either.

Of his last two works however, I give "The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing," an anthology actually of other scientists' writings, the higher "A" mark. I like anthologies in general, and this is a particularly excellent volume of well-selected, modern scientific writing (in fact I'm tempted to deem it the best such anthology I've ever come across! --- an endorsement blurb from "New Scientist" on the back cover says, "A brilliant collection... If you could only ever read one science book, this should probably be it." I might agree.).

One might've expected Dawkins, a biologist, to weight biological writings heaviest in his selection, but really it is a very admirable, representative, and fair mix of scientists across a wide swathe of disciplines, including a variety of writing styles and content. Dawkins says his only regret is that so many good writers and pieces had to be left out, but his selections are superb within a 400 page framework --- the sole weakness is probably a shortage of cognitive science representation. Neuroscience has really come into its own in the last half century, but unfortunately not much of it found here. My other regret is simply that many of the pieces are so short (often 2 pages or less, and rarely more than 5) that you really wish they'd continue on. Just as you're getting some real meat to chew on, an entry is over and off to the next author. Dawkins' very short subjective intros to each writer, by the way, are also absolutely delightful gems, almost whimsical sometimes; not stuffy or mundane in the way people-introductions can sometimes be.  Also nice, is Dawkins' deliberate avoidance of very famous or well-quoted passages/essays of a given writer, in favor of pieces of lesser familiarity, but equally high caliber from said author.

 The book is organized in four parts: "What Scientists Study," "Who Scientists Are," "What Scientists Think," and "What Scientists Delight In." But it is the sort of work that can be read in any order; open to any page randomly and dive in to a fine reading experience. Indeed, I suspect I will be pulling this volume off my shelf every few months to randomly open it and re-read a few pages here and there to much satisfaction, like sipping fine wine. I highly recommend it to all lay science readers.

Moving on, I'll say up front that 'evolution' volumes in general somewhat bore me at this point (there are innumerable fine such volumes out there, and for most of us this debate was over a loooong time ago). I do still enjoy some of the anthologies in which the likes of Gould, Eldredge, Lewontin, Dawkins, Wilson, Pinker etc. wrestle the nuances and fine points of evolutionary theory through essays and excerpts, serving to show how much disagreement there is among the experts, despite agreement on basics. I'm less a fan of reading Dawkins in isolation. Having said that, it's good that he is around to keep fighting the good fight for those too tired and bored to do so.

Thusly, a brief overview of the 2009 edition of Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene".... no just kidding, rather, a look at his latest offering, "The Greatest Show On Earth"... But Dawkins has been accused from time-to-time of writing the same book over-and-over again, just changing the words around. He once responded to such criticism by saying that he HAD to keep writing the same book in different ways to try to get through to all those people who still don't 'get it.' He actually goes to pains early in this volume to maintain that this book IS different from his others because it focuses deliberately on "evidence" for evolution, whereas previous works focused moreso on the underlying theory and mechanisms of evolution.
It is true that this volume is heavy on the perceived evidence for evolution, to the point of sometimes being a tad more pedagogical than some of Dawkins' earlier writing, but only a tad. Still, he is as always a good explicator (one might almost contend he's more a writer than a scientist), even if the writing is slightly less engaging than some prior volumes.

I'm not sure though who this book is really for... Dawkins fans will of course read it, but may gain little from it they don't already know. Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates won't find it convincing (even if they're persuaded that yes, evolution happens, they won't go the extra mile of concluding that humans necessarily resulted therefrom), and there's nothing newly profound in Dawkins' arguments here that hasn't appeared in print elsewhere. It's as if he's expending his breath for a paycheck, or attempting a knock-out blow he can't achieve. I s'pose there are still some newbies out there, fresh to the whole debate who haven't made their minds up, and the book may be best targeted at them, as a good intro to the evolutionary view, but surely by now they are a small percentage.

Dawkins claims unconvincingly that there are not great gaps in the fossil evidence; that intermediate forms and 'missing links' as it were, abound. But of course there are large 'gaps' and millions of smaller ones --- he rightfully asserts that we are lucky to have any fossils at all, let alone the number we have (which is still not many) --- but for some reason he doesn't simply then acknowledge that this scarcity accounts for the large "gaps" in the evolutionary record; evolution stretches over unimaginable millions of years; there SHOULD BE millions of gaps (most transitional forms disappear, and the fossil history that does exist is often the result of concocting entire anatomies from but a very few bones or fragments and a whole lot of assumptions). Otherwise, Dawkins offers plenty of good, but always limited, examples and argumentation.

Remissfully, he doesn't even delve into epigenetics, one of the hotter topics in biology today, and one that any new book purporting to address evolution ought spend at least a few passages on, especially since it has the potential to alter some of the genetics 'facts' he is wedded to. 100 years from now we'll have a good handle on epigenetics, but by then something new, along the lines of epi-epigenetics will no doubt appear and require yet further understanding/elucidation --- that is the nature of science; peel off a layer of the onion and just as many layers still remain.

Scientists of each given age tend to think they have very advanced knowledge, just because they are on the cutting edge of science for their day --- but all is relative; in looking back, we snicker at the primitive beliefs from scientists of 1000 years ago, and similarly 1000 years from now, scientists will look back and chuckle at much of what today's Dawkinses have written (or Stephen Hawking for that matter). Some of today's inviolable "facts," in a 1000 years, will be seen as simple-mindedness and sophistry of another age; over the eons science is quite fluid; it just appears very static at any given point... and that is what Dawkins fails to comprehend, so spellbound and myopic is he on the accomplishments of present-day methods/theory/evidence/science. The variables and intervening factors on a process as broad as "evolution" are enormous, complex, and yes, still largely unknown (maybe even unknowable), but Dawkins writes with a blind acceptance and certainty of it all based on little more than 100 puny years of evidence, a miniscule blip in time and knowledge. Sometimes he reminds me of those who wrote at the turn of the 20th century that all the essential physical laws of science had been discovered and there was nothing left to learn except the application of those laws. There is likely an infinite amount left to learn.

In his final opus, "The Structure of Evolutionary Theory" Stephen Jay Gould took over 1300 pages (and probably knew he was leaving a lot out) to explain evolution. Dawkins gives us a Cliff Notes version, and seems to think it invincible, with his self-selected examples. I guess it is his tone moreso than his content that leaves me uneasy, though at the same time, I understand his frustration with the antagonists he is battling.

Having said all that, this is a very good book (Dawkins doesn't write bad books) and I give it a B+, easily recommending it as a popular science read, or as a good introduction to evolutionary theory for anyone needing such. But it does need to be read critically, not merely lapped up like honey. And for the general science reader, if I had to choose where to spend $20+ I'd spend it first on his Oxford anthology, and then maybe pick up a used copy of "The Selfish Gene" for 50 cents in the local used bookstore.

Dawkins personal webpage here:  http://richarddawkins.net/

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