Books: Why D H Lawrence needed tutorials in evolution

Dawkins is absolutely, uncontroversially right - so why is he so difficult to agree with?

Unweaving the Rainbow

by Richard Dawkins Allen Lane pounds 20

If Richard Dawkins ever gave up science writing - which heaven forfend - he could have a terrific career as an army drill instructor. I have in mind, in particular, the foul-mouthed sergeant of Marines in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket who ends up being murdered by Vincent d'Onofrio's bumbling conscript, driven to insanity by his vicious brand of discipline.

As far as I know, no one has tried to murder Richard Dawkins yet; but reading his description of life propelled by the competition of "selfish genes" has left people convinced, like the d'Onofrio character, that they are living in a "world of shit". At the start of this book, he recounts some reactions to his earlier work: "A foreign publisher of my first book confessed that he could not sleep for three nights after reading it, so troubled was he by what he saw as its cold, bleak message ... A teacher from a distant country wrote to me reproachfully that a pupil had come to him in tears after reading the same book, because it had persuaded her that life was empty and purposeless."

This book is Dawkins's riposte to what he calls the "complainers and naysayers" - not just the ones who miss the positive aspects of his own work, but all the whingers who complain that science is analysing away everything of charm and beauty in the world. The title comes from Keats's "Lamia": "Do not all Charms fly / at the mere touch of cold philosophy? ... Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings, / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, / Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine - / Unweave a rainbow ... "

Dawkins's claim is, on the contrary, that "The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver." More than this, he thinks that science could and should be a source of inspiration, not despair, for poets.

This is a powerful and optimistic message; and it is hard to think of anyone worse equipped to argue it than Dawkins. He has no interest in persuading, coaxing, honeying the reader along; he trudges through the argument by assertion, dismissal, contempt and ridicule. The aspect of the book that has attracted most attention so far is his attack on Stephen Jay Gould, whose central ideas on evolutionary thought Dawkins labels "bad poetic science". In fact, as Dawkins makes clear, there is nothing very new about slinging mud at Gould: fellow evolutionary biologists (including Simon Conway Morris, the hero of Gould's most influential book Wonderful Life) have for some time treated him with suspicion, even derision. Dawkins makes plain some of the muzziness in Gould's thinking; but his scornful tone (wrapped up in a flimsy disclaimer: "I am anxious that such critical concentration upon one individual shall not be taken as personally rancorous.") makes me more, not less, willing to see Gould's side of the argument. As does Dawkins's readiness to hold Gould to account for the views of his readers - or does he really want us to blame him for the despair of schoolgirls?

But let's leave aside bad poetic science: the one crime of which Dawkins is undoubtedly guilty is bad scientific poetry. This is evident in his attempts to evoke a sense of awe and wonder - at one point he cites Isaac Asimov's illustration of the size and emptiness of the universe: "It is as if all the matter of the universe were a single grain of sand, set in the middle of an empty room 20 miles long, 20 miles wide and 20 miles high. Yet, at the same time, it is as if that single grain of sand were pulverised into a thousand million million million fragments ..." Dawkins adds: "These are some of the sobering facts about the universe, and you can see that they are beautiful." Well, no, I can see that they are big and scary. He speaks of a sense of wonder, but reduces it to one great "Gorblimey, look at the size of that!" - or, when he moves on to the complexity of the biological world, "Ain't nature strange?" Gould, with all his faults, does this sort of thing far, far better.

It gets worse when Dawkins ventures into criticism, and takes poets to task for their unscientific attitude. He notes Lawrence, on the humming-bird ("I believe there were no flowers then, / In the world where the humming-bird flashed ahead of creation"). While berating him for inaccuracy he adds, encouragingly, that he "lacked only a couple of tutorials in evolution and taxonomy to bring his poem within the pale of accuracy, and it would be no less arresting and thought-provoking as a poem." Actually, it would cease to exist as a poem. In the most absurd passage, Dawkins explains why a nightingale's song might have a physiological effect analogous to the effects of a drug - "as though of hemlock I had drunk, / Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains". He concludes by asking "Should we feel indignant on Keats's behalf at such a comparison?", and answers: "I do not believe that Keats himself would have done so." What does he think that bit about unweaving the rainbow was all about, then?

The thing is, Dawkins's basic point is, as far as I am concerned, absolutely, uncontroversially right: science does not kill wonder. Most of us know that rainbows are created by refraction of sunlight through water-droplets, and most of us still feel our hearts leap up, a la Wordsworth, when we behold one in the sky. Likewise, when my 18-month-old daughter waddles into the room with a smile lighting up her chubby face and the sunlight glinting on her fringe of golden curls - this is nauseating, I know, but bear with me - the fact that I am in the middle of Dawkins's account of the development of eukaryotic cells (the ones we are made of) by mitochondrial invasion of bacteria doesn't make me recoil in horror; if anything, it adds to my sense of life's miracle.

This book, though, will persuade no one. But then, Dawkins doesn't care about persuasion; he only cares about being right for its own sake: "'Beauty is truth, truth Beauty,' - that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Perhaps Dawkins's view of things is nearer to Keats's than he would like to admit.

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