A Devil’s Chaplain (Selected essays)

A Devil’s Chaplain (Selected essays)A Devil’s Chaplain: Selected Writings
by Richard Dawkins
Weidenfeld and Nicholson, £16.99, ISBN 0297829734

Dawkins has done so much to promote the scientific and sceptical outlook that a new book from him should automatically be of interest to readers of this journal. This is a collection of short essays, reviews and articles that ranges beyond discussions of evolutionary theory to consider education, belief, religion, and Africa.

The consistent effort to make important and subtle ideas crystal-clear shines from every page, and elevates what might otherwise be mere didacticism to the level of literature. This is further enlivened by a wonderful bluntness and belligerence, as, for instance, when he discusses the vogue for claiming that religion and science are somehow partners in understanding the universe: “Convergence? Only when it suits. To an honest judge, the alleged convergence between religion and science is a shallow, empty, hollow, spin-doctored sham.”

There are writings on the meme, Dawkins’ putative cultural replicator, including an essay on religion entitled Viruses of the Mind, but we may not be ready for memes if we haven’t yet fully taken on board the original Darwinian message about our own biology: “We admit that we are like apes, but we seldom realize that we are apes … There is no natural category that includes chimpanzees, gorillas and orangs but excludes humans.”

Dawkins waspishly applies the evolutionary theory of ‘costly signaling’, put forward to explain the metabolically expensive displays of courting creatures, to the somewhat less charming case of extravagant religious beliefs: “Is it possible that some religious doctrines are favoured not in spite of being ridiculous but precisely because they are ridiculous? Any wimp in religion could believe that bread symbolically represents the body of Christ, but it takes a real, red-blooded Catholic to believe something as daft as the transubstantiation.”

Shape-shifting lizards, anyone?

Paul Taylor