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A DEVIL’S CHAPLAIN by Richard Dawkins Kirkus Star


Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love

by Richard Dawkins

Pub Date: Sept. 29th, 2003
ISBN: 0-618-33540-4
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Collection of mostly previously published pieces that’s no déjà vu trip, but a pleasure-inducing voyage into scientific principles.

To be sure, there are familiar essays on the meme (the word Dawkins coined to describe how cultural phenomena are transmitted from mind to mind like viruses able to infect and replicate) and in celebration of Darwinism. But the title piece, derived from Darwin’s comment on the “book a Devil’s chaplain might write” about the clumsy, wasteful, and cruel works of nature, has inspired Dawkins (Unweaving the Rainbow, 1998, etc.; Science/Oxford). Yes, nature is cruel, he writes, but we have the capacity to combat it, using our brains and science to make things better and overcome delusions. And so he does, in essays attacking genetic determinism, homeopathy, and postmodernism; a particularly splenetic section excoriates religions as the root cause of war. Halfway through, and the pace and tone change. Dawkins gives moving eulogies for friends and mentors: Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; evolutionary biologist W.D. Hamilton, who wanted to be buried where dung beetles could transform his corpse into new life; and Stephen Jay Gould, subject of an entire section that includes Dawkins’s reviews of his books as well as commentary revealing the mutual respect that transcended their differences. The collection ends with a section on Africa, where Dawkins was born, with visits to Richard and Maeve Leakey, adventures with a couple devoted to saving wildlife, and descriptions of two exceptional books about Africa, one written by the three children of an Englishwoman who decamped to Botswana to bring them up in the wild. As a last word, there is a letter Dawkins wrote to his daughter when she was ten admonishing her not to take anything on faith or tradition—but to ask for the evidence.

And evidence, brilliantly presented and celebrated, is what readers will find here.