Most science popularizers are not controversialists. Most see their task as a simple explanation of science that already sits, tedious and unread, in textbooks. The job of making science appealing to the layman often encour-ages breathless tales of high-tech adventure (a genome project, say) and almost always entails a good deal of dumbing down. Richard Dawkins’s work has never fit this mold. His books on evolution have featured ideas that were only then making their way into textbooks and he has never hesitated to offer his own (sometimes radical) extensions of these ideas. But most important, his books have emphasized ideas, and they have been offered in their fullness, without dumbing down. In the course of his work, Dawkins has also not shied from controversy. He has publicly battled both fellow scientists and religious leaders, and he has made enemies.
Although Dawkins is an extraordinarily popular and prolific writer—his books include The Selfish Gene (1976), The Extended Phenotype (1982), The Blind Watchmaker (1986), and Climbing Mount Improbable (1996)—his shorter pieces have never been collected until now. The thirty-two essays bundled in A Devil’s Chaplain appeared originally in newspapers or magazines, or as forewords to books or as eulogies; a few are previously unpublished. Because these essays span nearly all of Dawkins’s career so far—the earliest appeared in 1978 and the latest in 2003—they provide a sort of chronicle of his thinking. And because each group of related essays is preceded by a short new introduction, we learn where Dawkins now stands on a number of issues.
A Devil’s Chaplain reveals several things about Dawkins, some surprising and some not. Not surprisingly, the book confirms his reputation as a superb prose stylist, perhaps the best popularizer of science working. Whether you agree with him or not, you are never unsure of his meaning and his writing is, in places, stunning. Also not surprisingly, A Devil’s Chaplain includes hard-hitting pieces that attack several of Dawkins’s traditional targets: pseudoscience (New Age crystals get it here), postmodernist obscurantism (he’s fond of Alan Sokal’s Social Text hoax), and religion.
As for the surprises, the biggest is Dawkins’s breadth. For those who know him only as a champion of Darwinism, it’s news to see that he has written a number of beautiful pieces on the Africa of his youth, as well as passionate essays decrying educational systems that sacrifice love of learning for test performance. And his position on several controversial issues may not be what you expect. Though Dawkins is sometimes viewed as soft on sociobiology, A Devil’s Chaplain includes a superb polemic against the errors inherent in human genetic determinism and another against the evils of social Darwinism. The book also features several surprisingly moving eulogies to departed colleagues, including one to Stephen Jay Gould, with whom Dawkins often sparred.
Despite his breadth, Dawkins is surely best known for three things: his defense of the selfish…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.