In 1976, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins came to international prominence with the publication of his book The Selfish Gene—which, among other things, introduced readers to the concept of the “meme.” Since, he has published such popular science books as The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable, to say nothing of his bestselling and thoroughly controversial book The God Delusion.
Read more new and notable nonfiction out this October.
His newest, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, finds Dawkins writing for a younger audience in a graphic book illustrated by Dave McKean. Here, he talks to us about the book:
In The Magic of Reality, you ask such basic questions as why there are night and day, winter and summer. Is it a comment on the poor state of scientific education that such basic questions would need to be raised?
The book was written primarily for young people, although of course I’d be delighted if grownups read it [including reading it to their children]. You might, in any case, be surprised at the level of ignorance of such matters shown by grownups. A recent poll suggested that 19 percent of British people think it takes one month for the Earth to orbit the sun, and you might find similar ignorance with respect to night and day.
The American politician Pat Moynihan famously remarked that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but not his or her facts. The general mood in this country, if not elsewhere, seems to be that you can have your facts and eat them too. Given this, is your appeal to the scientific method likely to sway the unconverted? I’m thinking of that wonderful zinger in your book The Greatest Show on Earth: “Evolution is a fact in the same sense as it is a fact that Paris is in the Northern Hemisphere.”
He hit the nail on the head with that remark about opinions and facts. It is deplorable how fashionable is the view that all opinions are equally valid and we have to respect those that hold them. I love the statement of the British journalist Johann Hari: “I respect you as a person too much to respect your ridiculous opinions.” Evolution is indeed a fact in just the same sense as it is a fact that Paris is in the Northern Hemisphere.
Anti-scientific thinking goes hand in hand with other kinds of magical thinking. Do you see this book as a natural complement in any way to the work you’ve been doing with The God Delusion?
Unlike The God Delusion, which is all about religion, The Magic of Reality confines religion to the myth sections that begin each chapter before we get on to the truth—the science. The Judeo-Christian myths are given no more special treatment than myths from Aztecs, Australian aborigines, Polynesians, ancient Egyptians or African tribesmen. That puts religion in its proper place, and I hope the message will not be lost on my readers.
What book might we expect to see from you next?
I seldom look more than one book ahead. At present my whole attention is focused on The Magic of Reality.