Bantam Press £20
The Magic of Reality, By Richard Dawkins (Illustrated by Dave McKean)
A world so odd, you couldn't make it up
Sunday 09 October 2011
Richard Dawkins's latest book covers some familiar ground, but for an unfamiliar audience.
It is his first book for children, or at least, for a family readership. His aim is to prove that scientific explanations are not only truer than myths, but more magical. He succeeds triumphantly.
Each chapter begins with examples of myths, followed by a lucid, impassioned explanation of the latest scientific knowledge in that area. Thus, the chapter "Who was the first man?" kicks off with a Tasmanian creation myth involving people with kangaroo tails and no knees, as well as the Genesis myth of Adam and Eve. The account that follows of the evolution by natural selection of homo sapiens is more detailed, more colourful, and much more fun. And, what's more, it's true. Dawkins dramatises the mind-boggling fact of evolution with the image of a three-mile-high pile of photographs; the top photo represents you, and each photo below it the previous generation. There would be no discernible difference between any two adjacent photos; but by the time you reached the bottom of the pile you'd be looking at a picture of a fish.
Dave MacKean's funky, graphic-novel style illustrations perfectly convey the weirdness of the myths, and the far more compelling weirdness of the scientific theories.
Dawkins does not confine himself to his own specialism, biology. The chapter entitled "What really changes night to day, winter to summer?" includes the best explanation of the difference between weight and mass I have ever come across (imagine heading a ping-pong ball and a cannonball in zero gravity). The chapter on the life of a star is sublime.
Dawkins is not without his detractors, to put it mildly. Recently, in this newspaper he was accused of "fundamental intolerance". But intolerance does not mean questioning people's beliefs. It means denying their right to hold them, and Dawkins has never done that. Far from attempting to stifle debate, he goes out of his way to invite it.
Some will be affronted by the subtitle, "How we know what's really true". But if "true" is taken in the scientific sense – the theory with the most explanatory and predictive power to date – I can't see the problem. Nor do I see why people so resent Dawkins's confidence that scientific knowledge will continue to grow. This is a splendid book from a public intellectual of whom we ought to be proud.
tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Planes go hybrid-electric in important step to greener flight
- 2 Antonio Martin shooting: Police and protesters clash over teenager's death just five miles from Ferguson, Missouri
- 3 Northern Lights above Britain: Stunning Aurora Borealis illuminates Northumberland sky on Christmas Eve
- 4 British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
- 5 Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting
Christmas Day TV guide 2014: What to watch from Strictly Come Dancing to the story of Frozen
Best underrated Christmas movies: From Trading Places to While You Were Sleeping
Felicity Jones on being Stephen Hawking's wife in The Theory of Everything: 'I didn't want her to be a saint'
Game of Thrones season five: First preview clip shows a beardy Tyrion, a moody Cersei and a distressed Arya
The Interview finally gets US release after Sony hack and terror threats – but reviews of North Korea satire are mixed
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever
Alex Salmond has 'broken his word to the Scottish people' says Scottish Lib Dem leader