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My grandson gave me a copy of this book for Christmas. He said "I realize the book is intended for younger readers, but you should read it too, because it's so cool that we have scientists who can write and are on the best-seller list!"
He was right. It is a well written, interesting (for all readers of all ages), exciting book, that reveals in clear example and description the, well, the magic of reality. In a dozen chapters Dawkins answers a dozen questions that any parent has had to deal with at some time or other in raising their kids. For example, one of the funny stories told at our family gatherings is a story about the importance of getting the question right before providing an answer. It seems that when our two sons, Steve and Jim, were about six and five the older one came into the room where I was studying for a university exam and asked, "Where did Jim come from, Dad?"
That is a question a young parent has been waiting for and preparing to answer using the best parenting techniques available while being as close to biologically accurate as possible. So, I started with a story about storks and told my son that it was just a fanciful story and that the real explanation was much more interesting than the myth of storks or cabbage leaves. I started to introduce a biological vocabulary and, as the story is related now, I even had pictures and charts ready to go to show the "magic" of birth!
Before I got into the fifty minute lecture/discussion on birth Steve interrupted and said, "Dad, I just meant did he come from outside just now or was he hiding upstairs!"
Dawkins' book doesn't make my mistake. He knows the questions that come up in the growing child's mind (and are indeed questions many adults are puzzled by) and provides answers using the same formula that I had tried to employ: start with the current folk story and then show what the science of today tells us. Thus, he begins with the first concern: what is reality? and what is magic? Most of the answers offered by our early culture come in the form of magic or myth. Storks bring babies wrapped in a large diaper; some god or other brings the babies the way the tooth fairy brings prizes for baby teeth left under the pillow.
In fact, each of the chapters begins with a question and with the folk tale answer provided by myths or religions. That answer is then shown to be interesting or fun, but to miss the mark as far as the reality of the subject goes. "Who was the first person?" begins the second chapter. Several different origin myths are offered which show the many different stories we humans have told in order to try to explain the answer: a god came down or was thrown up into the sky and then animals were created, etc. The myth offered by the Hebrew tribes of the Middle East had only a single god, and he made the first man out of dust and called him Adam (man). After relating several different origin myths, Dawkins provides in a clear and understandable manner the current explanation provided by science. Using thought experiments he asks the reader to imagine deep time and the number of generations of humans going back to the beginning of time – and the gradual change of life over billions of years. It was "so gradual that you wouldn't notice any change as you walked back a thousand years; or even ten thousand years, which would bring you to somewhere around your 400-greats-grandfather." (p41) A brief discussion of DNA rounds out the chapter on origins showing that "Chimpanzees are our close cousins, mice are our more distant cousins." (p52) The "story" that evolutionary biology tells us is much more exciting than the myths of origin. And it is literally true!
The book is rich in examples, thought experiments, and simple experiments that could be carried out with others. Dawkins quotes from Earthsearch by John Cassidy:
1. Go out into a big field with a football and plonk it down to represent the sun.
2. Then walk 25 meters away and drop a peppercorn to represent the Earth's size and its distance from the sun.
3. The moon, to the same scale, would be a pinhead, and it would be only 5 centimeters away from the peppercorn.
4. But the nearest other star, Proxima Centauri, to the same scale, would be another (slightly smaller) football located about . . . wait for it . . . six and a half thousand kilometers away!
The chapters on the sun, on rainbows, on the big bang are first rate and informative, filled with history of science information, and more simple descriptions to help the reader understand. There is also a chapter, "Why do bad things happen?" that looks at theodicy and that I will use next week in a talk about the Book of Job for a Clemente class.
Many people seem to have a negative view of Richard Dawkins; they think of him as a raging atheist, a bulldog on the attack, and the like. I have discovered that often those people haven't read any of his books. There are more critics of his "The God Delusion" than there are readers! If you are new to Dawkins start with this book and then read "The Selfish Gene" and "The Blind Watchmaker".
© 2015 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.