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Book Review

Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist (2017)

A far-ranging anthology of Dawkins’ recent writings on the power of science to stir the soul.

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At one point in Science in the Soul, author and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins asks: why not a real scientist for the Literature prize? Is the subject incapable of inspiring great literature, he wonders? Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most famous atheist, makes his case that science has already inspired bodies of work just as deserving for their inspirational value of stirring the soul.

For this, he draws distinctions between the “two souls”, and what the future possibly holds for both. The first being the ‘supernatural’ soul, the one that “survives the death of the brain and is capable of happiness or misery even when the neurones are dust and the hormones dry“; science will kill this one stone dead, Dawkins charges.

The second soul, one much harder to describe, could be the crux of the argument Dawkins is making throughout many of the 41 essays, speeches, and other bits contained in Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist, his first anthology of writings since 2003’s A Devil’s Chaplain. He argues for the “outward urge” science promotes, and its value in objective reasoning.

Those hoping for an entirely ‘new’ work from the author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion will be disappointed as this collection continues looking backward on a monumental career in science and of popularizing it. You’d have to go back to 2009’s The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution for a wholly original work (written expressly for adults). More recently, we’ve been treated to memoirs with An Appetite for Wonder (2013) and Brief Candle in the Dark (2015), both of which delighted those fans searching for biographical exegesis from Dawkins’ own childhood and academic experiences.

While ostensibly a compilation of older work, there’s still plenty ‘new’ here in the form of Dawkins’ commentary and explanatory notes on nearly every page. Those who’ve followed his career from a simple evolutionary biologist to one of the world’s preeminent ‘science popularizers’ will recognize a growing confidence in both his editorial voice and as a promoter, perhaps owing to his intervening years on the debating circuit and as host of several BBC documentaries.

At all times, this collection reinforces Dawkins’ fierce advocacy of science not just as a subject to be taught, but as a mechanism for change. For him, and many like-minded rationalists, that means casting out those educational blinders that hold back progress. In short, religion and its “profligate wastefulness, its extravagant display of baroque uselessness.” But, as many have charged, isn’t science itself a religion? You’ll have to read what Dawkins says for yourselves to find out (though you probably know the answer to that already).

More than anything, Dawkins remains an irresistibly readable scientist, able to break down complex and otherwise obtuse subject matter for plebes like myself in language that’s literate and often beautifully evocative. While I may not agree with everything he says, or often how he says it, rarely a page goes where I’m not learning something new, engaging with a topic from a new angle or forced to confront my own biases.

A quick note: I’d have axed the constant presence of Gillian Somerscales, Dawkins editor since The God Delusion, outside of a simple introduction. Her constant cheerleading throughout isn’t appropriate for a collection of science-based writings, especially when the author is still very much still alive and contributing to the same anthology.

When reviewing, or reading reviews, of Richard Dawkins or his work one typically comes across three three categories of analysis: Dawkins the scientist, Dawkins the atheist, Dawkins the public polemic, with a fourth combining all three on those rare occasions critics are united by their pure love/hatred of the man himself.

Perhaps you’ve experienced this yourself, maybe even instigated it. I imagine some readers will flip (or tap) through these pages, eager to find something, anything, that matches their preconceived notions on any of the given subjects; I’m happy to report there’s several to choose from here, including Dawkins’ views on kin selection, Doctor Doolittle, the essentialism of Plato, dinosaurs, how the internet changes our ways of thinking, or simply praising the merits of subtitles over dubbing.

Those seeking confirmation-bias of their own held beliefs will find them here, just as those hungry for ammunition against the ‘heretic’ will be more than satisfied. Several of the selections included showcase this versatility of Dawkins, running the gamut from the “blazingly angry, sometimes heartbreakingly poignant or breathtakingly impolite”, acknowledged by Somerscales in her introduction. I’m not sure it’s possible to represent any selection of his work in any other fashion.

There’s no doubt his caustic, often pugnacious attitude can – and often does – turn off those with fainter constitutions. But isn’t this always the case with passionate reasoning? Or of passionate reasoners? The laws of civil society and proper debate instruct us to ‘argue the opposite’, to show empathy and to give ‘equal consideration’ with those who might hold views and propositions we disagree with. To consider, yes, but not readily accept at face value. And certainly not in the face of a preponderance of evidence.

Dawkins argues, quite vehemently, that some ideas are plainly wrong, and often dangerous. The man who famously equated a supernatural creator with a Flying Spaghetti Monster ponders, when rebuked for his so-called ‘elitism’, on its value of the label: “A terrible word, but maybe not such a terrible thing?

Consider, then, that to kibosh any discussion or ‘uncomfortable’ research on the grounds that simply instigating the other is itself offensive. This is to misunderstand non-zero-sum dynamics as they apply to the world of replicable, verifiable science and rationality. That pursuing total egalitarianism usually involves a “calculated dumbing down” to swell numbers and claim both democratic and moral victory; rank at the expense of rigor.

Given all that, it’s refreshing to see what Dawkins still hasn’t lost his touch for challenging prevailing ‘wisdom’, if you can call it that. In recent years it seems he’s found himself a surprisingly new foe to combat with: P.C. culture. Never one to shy away from a good ideological tussle, Dawkins’ throwaway dismissals of modern courses like Afrocentric Science and Feminist Algebra as “drivel”, or mentioning Sandra Harding’s labeling Newton’s Principia Mathematica Philosophae Naturalis a “rape manual” certainly won’t win him any converts, which is unfortunate. Few have been as fierce an ally for diversity and gender equality in the field as Dawkins.

Slightly less successful are a pair of satirical yarns written in the style of Dawkin’s favorite comic author, P.G. Wodehouse. The first, “The Great Bus Mystery”, was published in Ariane Sherine’s 2009 anthology The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas. The follow-up, “Jarvis and the Family Tree”, remained unpublished until now. Don’t think I’m a stuffed-shirt; I love a good parody, but the joys of a good Wodehouse tale, especially those of the Jeeves and Wooster variety, is the interplay and dialectical reasoning between the two; Dawkin’s ‘Jarvis’ seems convinced a bit too easily for my taste.

The collection’s most endearing pieces are, understandably, those focusing on two of his late friends, Douglas Adams and Christopher Hitchens. “Farewell to a Digerati Dreamer” is taken from the 2009 print edition of Adams and Mark Carwardine’s Last Chance to See, which should be experienced in any of its many wonderful permutations. It might surprise some (though not probably all) to learn the creator of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy waxed so elegantly on the joys of nature, having contributed to the public consciousness on the need of conservation before the clock runs out.

I think we can all agree with Dawkins’ heartfelt elegy when paraphrasing Douglas’ great appeal to caring, a lament on what the loss of magnificent creatures like “rhinos, parakeets, kakapos and dolphins” would mean for all of us. “The world is a poorer, darker, lonelier place without Douglas Adams.

“Honouring Hitch”, the book’s final piece, compares Christopher Hitchens with the likes of “Bertrand Russell, Robert Ingersoll, Thomas Paine, David Hume.” Hitchens was the recipient of the 2011 Richard Dawkins Award at the Texas Freethought Convention, where this speech originates. Both timing and location are significant, as two months later Hitchens passed away at a hospital in Houston.

Like Dawkins, Hitchens was many things to many people, unique even among that particular fellowship of logical minds practicing what Einstein might have called “a somewhat new kind of religion.” Dawkins never possessed Hitchens’ gift for sweeping oratorical warmth and inclusion, a deficit he’d likely accept. Still, it’s telling when Somerscales calls the two men “soul brothers.”

Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist has the advantage of being looked on as both a primer and best-of selection of Dawkins’ more recent work. While it continues his recent trend of anthologizing his career and catalog, the amount of new material by way of commentary and explanatory notes should prove irresistible for some. There’s plenty of red meat here for admirers and detractors alike, and that alone is enough to get a solid recommendation from me.