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.
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