Saturday, 30 December 2006

Book: A Devil's Chaplain by Richard Dawkins

Lowdown: Richard Dawkins' version of Broca's Brain - a collection of articles of personal interest, mostly to do with science and the philosophies behind it.
I noticed they have copies of the bible at the hospital day care center where we were recently going through IVF treatment. Thrown in between lots of cheap women's magazines in the waiting rooms, they do stand out from the crowd - for a start, they don't have glamor photos on their cover, making them look rather dull in comparison. It occurred to me that while anything would be a better read than a women's magazine, the concept of placing bible books at hospital waiting rooms has to be weird: do people really think this reading would help their loved ones? I would say that giving the doctor a good word to make them feel better would be a much more effective thing to do.
But the reason why people need bibles in hospital waiting rooms is pretty clear: people like to be consolidated with easy answers and cheap comforts all the time, so they would definitely go for such while at a hospital.
It is exactly those selfishly easy solutions to combat the hardships of life that Richard Dawkins is waging a war on in his excellent book A Devil's Chaplain. Dawkins claims to prefer the daemonic alternative offered by the devil's chaplain to the comforting truths of faith in immortality; he sets out to show what existence truly means according to the truths discovered by science, and how precious and exhilarating life can be. And he does it through a series of articles he has written over the years, collected in this book under several common threads.
First and foremost on Dawkins' list of targets for the book is the showing of the advantages of the scientific method over other methods that gained popularity over the years, namely tradition, authority and revelation. Being an evolutionary biologist by occupation, Dawkins uses evolution to provide most of the examples in the book.
Indeed, I have learnt a lot about genes and evolution by reading the book. Examples are aplenty: I did not know, for examples, that we are more closely related to Gorillas and Chimpanzees than Gorillas and Chimpanzees are related to other types of apes, such as the Orang Utans. Other gene related facts include the differences between various human races being so slight when compared to other differences that it renders the distinction on the basis of race quote a superficial thing to do.
There are many such additional examples, but their goal is similar: to show that we are all very chauvinistic and narrow minded in our views, and to show that science is the only proper tool we have for getting rid of that halo and seeing the world around us for what it truly is.
When talking about narrow mindedness, Richard Dawkins being Richard Dawkins cannot avoid pointing the finger at some of the authorities he blames for this narrow mindedness. On one hand we have religion, which is pretty thoroughly discussed as a major agent for viewing people not as the individuals they are but rather as belonging to a certain class, usually inferior to ours. Similar discussions evolve when Dawkins explains his views on why religion and science can not merge together the way many hope they would unless we change the way we define science or the way we define religion. As interesting as these discussions are, and I for one wholeheartedly agree with Dawkins' views, they are much better expressed and summarized in Dawkins' later book, The God Delusion.
Others who end up on the receiving end of Dawkin's wrath are the English monarchy, as the supporter and presenter of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion - an institution that tries to outwit the Noble Prize by offering larger money prizes. Prince Charles receives special mentioning as an advocate for "going back to living the way we always used to", with living off wheat as an example; Dawkins points out that wheat is just as natural to us as McDonald burgers are, given that the human race has only started eating wheat about 10,000 years ago - a minuscule period in evolutionary terms.
A significant portion of the book is devoted to Stephen Gould, a fellow/rival evolutionary biologist. Obviously, their constructive debate is important to Dawkins, but this part of the book is also the least interesting part of it; while I find evolution to be an interesting topic for discussion, I do not find it that interesting. Not that Dawkins cannot make evolution related discussions interesting: one of his arguments is that Darwin's theory of evolution could have been deducted by sitting in one's armchair and contemplating reality in economic like terms; yet he argues that Darwin's greatness comes from the fact no one managed to come up with this very sensible theory beforehand.
Overall: A Devil's Chaplain is an exhilarating yet imperfect book. If you are looking for a book to expand your horizons and make you enjoy it while at it, look no further. Personally, I know by now that Dawkins and I have a bright friendship ahead of us (sadly, only through his books): I simply agree with every line of his reasoning. I can only grant the book 4 stars, but I will add its main shortcoming is in the fact Dawkins wrote even better books.

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