Archive for January 12th, 2012
The Magic of Reality, Richard Dawkins (Ill. by Dave McKean), ISBN 978-1-4391-9281-8
Richard Dawkins is one of the world’s best known evolutionary biologists. He is also one of the great popularizers of science, especially biology, and has made an international reputation as a tireless advocate of evolution and atheism. It’s safe to say he is a creationist’s nightmare: intelligent, informed and articulate, and a fearsome debater. Too often, reviews of his books turn into ad hominem attacks on Dawkins.
But in The Magic of Reality [Amazon link] he strikes a more conciliatory note, only indirectly confronting religion. Instead, Dawkins describes a series of myths from a wide array of cultures, and then offers the scientific explanation as a counterpoint. Dave McKean’s illustrations are always insightful in support of Dawkins’ writing, and sometimes simply brilliant. An example is the discussion of earthquakes. Dawkins discusses the myths – including the Biblical claim that trumpets shook down the walls of Jericho – about the origins of earthquakes. The Japanese thought that the world rode on the back of a gigantic catfish called Namazu, and when Namazu flipped his tail, there were earthquakes. The Maoris thought the earth was pregnant, and earthquakes were her the baby’s kicking. Dawkins then talks about what earthquakes really are, discussing plate tectonics and why plate movement causes ‘quakes. Dawkins marshals the scientific evidence. The contrast between the silly myths and the logical science is strong, effective and persuasive.
Using the same technique, Dawkins demolishes myths that purport to explain the diversity of life, the sun, rainbows, origin of species and miracles. McKean’s drawings, especially his drawings to illustrate the myths, are spot-on and add a lot to the pleasure of the book. It’s a nice collaboration.
WC’s only criticism of the book is to ask, who is the intended audience? It’s not precisely a children’s book, although a bright kid would appreciate it. It’s not really aimed at adults, although the concepts are challenging enough. It doesn’t seem likely to change anyone’s mind, except in the unlikely event they approach the book with an open mind. But as a tool for contrasting the supernatural magic of mythology with the magical delight of discovery, the book is unsurpassed.