In his previous essay collection, Science in the Soul, Richard Dawkins ponders why a scientist has never received the Nobel Prize in Literature—the only possible exception, Henri Bergson, was “more of a mystic than a true scientist”—since science, he argues, is a subject more than capable of sparking the imagination and inspiring talented penmanship: “who would deny that Carl Sagan’s writing is of Nobel literary quality, up there with the great novelists, historians, and poets? How about Loren Eiseley? Lewis Thomas? Peter Medawar? Stephen Jay Gould? Jacob Bronowski? D’Arcy Thompson?” Note Dawkins’s generosity in placing his old enemy Stephen Jay Gould on this list—and also, an understandable but glaring omission—Dawkins himself, who, in my opinion, should be at the very top.
The literary science theme is continued in his new collection, Books Do Furnish a Life, which is a sort of companion volume to Science in the Soul (both edited by Gillian Somerscales). The collection—evincing once more the author’s generosity of spirit—is mostly devoted to other peoples’ books, from scientific works to atheist memoirs, to which Dawkins has provided forewords, afterwords and other material. Also included are book reviews and transcripts of conversations with eminent writers and thinkers.
In the introduction, “The Literature of Science,” Dawkins makes the case for science as literature at greater length. Who could fail to be stirred by Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot or Loren Eiseley’s “tenuous thread of living protoplasm”? Plenty of scientists write dully and more opaquely than necessary. But the ones who combine intellectual rigour and stimulating subject matter with elegant imagery and poised prose demand much more celebration than they usually receive from the literati.
Peerless among these is Richard Dawkins. In the introduction, he quotes Peter Medawar on the brilliance of the great Scottish biologist (and classicist) D’Arcy Thompson, and wonders of Medawar, his role model and the dedicatee of the book: “Did Peter know how much of himself was in that description?” This is something I constantly found myself thinking about Dawkins as I read Books Do Furnish a Life.
For example, Dawkins describes Peter Atkins as “perhaps the finest English stylist among living scientists … a prose poet,” says of Jacob Bronowski that he uses his pen “as a painter uses his brush, with mastery all the way from broad canvas to exquisite miniature,” and of another great evolutionist that “few people in the world are better qualified than John Maynard Smith to explain evolution to us, and no subject more than evolution deserves such a talented teacher.” Despite his reputation among some for cold arrogance, Dawkins has never praised himself in such words, although his books are full of passion as well as reason, human warmth as well as rational detachment, literature as well as science.
Richard Dawkins is one of the finest English prose stylists of the past fifty years. Plenty of other scientists write well, but no one writes like Dawkins. I doubt the Nobel committee will ever consider science from a literary viewpoint. But, given that they have overlooked Salman Rushdie for decades while awarding a prize to the odious Peter Handke, perhaps their approval is not something one should wish to seek in any case.
This collection is mostly made up of reviews, introductions and the like—and anyone who writes at a virtuoso level for such ephemera is a wordsmith to be reckoned with. (Compare Samuel Johnson’s masterpieces in similar genres.) Even the shortest pieces are not one-line, workaday reviews, but full of originality and insight. As Dawkins writes in the introduction, literary science is not strictly necessary: the facts in themselves do not entail or necessitate the imagery. But literary craftsmanship can aid understanding and make us see things anew—even for professional scientists, as with Dawkins’s concept of the extended phenotype, though that is more than just a literary image.
But Dawkins’ mastery of prose is best appreciated by showing him in action:
Biology, like physics, anchors itself in uniformitarianism. Its defining engine—evolution—is change, change par excellence. But evolution is the same kind of change now as it was in the Cretaceous, and as it will be in all futures we can imagine. The play’s the same, though the players that walk the stage are different.
The theatrical imagery is not necessary to the point being made, but it is neat, concise and evocative, and adds to the reader’s understanding. Of the Florida panther, he writes that, “its parts are choreographed in a dance of carnivorous unity,” displaying the mind of a skilled poet as well as that of a rigorous scientist since the image is in the service of a serious scientific argument.
Pondering the extinction of species, Dawkins writes: “evolutionary thinking can give our aesthetic a new depth. We are not just looking at an animal as if it were an ordinary work of art. If it is a work of art, it is one that has been perhaps ten million years in the crafting.” This is because individual animals are temporary instantiations of a species’ gene pool, which is shaped over deep time by evolutionary pressure. In losing the Tasmanian wolf, he says, we also “lost tens of millions of years worth of carnivorous research and development.” These points contain literal truth emphasised by provocative imagery.
I could cite many more examples, but here is just one. Discussing the problem of complex life, Dawkins references conjurors to evoke how tempting it is for our primitive brains to scream that a miracle has just occurred. How can Penn and Teller have teleported that mobile phone? How can you explain proteins, amino acids, the eye and the brain without invoking a designer? “Darwin patiently tells us exactly how the Trick of Life works: cumulative natural selection.” Dawkins links the imagery of conjurors’ tricks and nature’s mysteries with the rational explanations underlying both. The “Trick of Life”—that’s good writing, simple and elegant in its full context.
The content of the book is as excellent as its style—indeed, the two are intertwined. Some pieces are short, some long, all fascinating. The range is also astonishing: here is Dawkins the teacher, the scholar, the polemicist, the joker, the aesthete, the poet, the satirist, the man of compassion as well as indignation, the slayer of superstition and, above all, the scientist. With his treatment of everything from evolutionary psychology to the temptations of supposedly sophisticated theology, from African Eve to the beauty of the Galápagos, from the virtual reality software in our brains to postmodern baloney and the inspiration to be found in great science fiction, Dawkins excites, surprises and nourishes the mind.
But it is not all light and beauty, for there are a few bad reviews to be found in these pages. Dawkins writes of Medawar’s 1961 review of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man that it is “a candidate for the finest negative book review ever written.” Four reviews in Books Do Furnish a Life are on the Medawar level in their perfectly calibrated disdain, as devastating to the authors as a cheetah is to an unlucky gazelle. Here is one example of delicious archness, from his review of Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan’s postmodern soup of a book, Mystery Dance (the review is wonderfully titled “Pornophilosophy”):
Had you noticed that the French word lit means both “read” and “bed,” hein? Tiens, quel joli joke. Even better, “semantics and semiotics bear an evocative resemblance to the sexual word semen.” Oh, such formidable deconstruction, is it not? And “the English verb mean shares roots with moan” (nudge nudge). But attend, I can cap (wink wink) that trope there. At my school the slang word for erection was—but no I cannot bear it, it has such a droll signification—“root.”
Withering and funny, and a nice exhibition of Dawkins’ lesser known skill as a satirist (see Science in the Soul for hilarious pastiches of Wodehouse and New Labour mediaspeak, as well as a satirical defence of faith in Thor: “naive literalists apart, sophisticated thoreologians long ago ceased believing in the material substance of Thor’s mighty hammer.”) The review ends on a similarly disdainful note, but with a touch of generosity, too:
How a scientist of Margulis’s calibre and rigour can be gulled by this pretentious drivel is as far beyond comprehension as the prose itself. Let us be charitable and hope that she had an argument with her co-author and lost. But if, rightly, you value Lynn Margulis and her reputation, do her a favour and ignore this book.
The other Medawar-level reviews include an excellent demolition of the intelligent design propagandist Michael Behe’s The Edge of Evolution (“the book of a man who has given up”). These alone make the book worth buying. Other critical reviews, of Edward O. Wilson and the theologian Richard Swinburne, are not quite as fierce in their bombardment, but no less incisive.
In “Worlds in Microcosm,” Dawkins discusses models: things that look like, and can help us think about, real and highly complex systems (his examples include weather simulations and arcade games as well as animal bodies and gene pools, which model the ancestral environments of a species). He also looks at the nature of our—and other animals’—brains, and how they simulate internal models of the world (what you see is not what is out there: rather, you see the model of the world your brain has created out of the information it has received from the rest of the nervous system). The uniqueness of human brains comes from the ability to project our internal simulations forward into the future:
And once natural selection had built brains capable of simulating slight departures from reality into the imagined future, a further emergent capacity automatically flowered. Now it was but another short step to the wilder reaches of imagination revealed in dreams and in art, an escape from mundane reality that has no obvious limits.
Our imaginative and scientific prowess come from something longstanding and deep inside us, a result of a process that, over billions of years, has also seeded the planet with the most extraordinary beings, that is part of our fundamental nature as human animals and that connects us to the rest of earthly life. Is that not wonderful?
In his introduction, Dawkins ponders why fiction appeals to us. Could this deep evolutionary aspect of our minds be part of the explanation? We are master simulators and expert modellers, and what is fiction if not simulation on steroids? Every writer simulates worlds of her own, projecting into the future, the past and the non-existent to probe and analyse the world around her. The same is true of other art forms, going right back to the prehistoric cave paintings created by our ancient predecessors, who depicted the beasts of their world as well as themselves. What is this if not simulation? Could such imaginative powers, fossilised in the form of cave paintings, have helped our forebears survive and reproduce, by helping them to plan hunts, for example, as well as being—if indeed they were—expressive? Could our capabilities as simulators have allowed us to externalise our models in the name of survival and reproduction, and thence to build civilisations, create art and pursue science?
The literary images that Dawkins discusses as essential elements of literary science, and which he himself crafts and uses both skilfully and prodigiously, could also be seen as models of what they are discussing. “Trick of Life”: is that not a model of the problem of biological complexity? Isn’t the idea of the extended phenotype a model or simulation? Is all imagery understandable in this vein?
I have just two small criticisms of the book. It contains transcripts of several conversations with the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Neil deGrasse Tyson, but those with Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley, we are told, are truncated. The full conversations can only be found in the audiobook. It irks me somewhat that the finished piece is unequally distributed among the different formats of the book. Also, more of Gillian Somerscales’ insightful editorial introductions, which head each section of Science in the Soul, would have been welcome.
These niggles aside, Books Do Furnish a Life is an excellent collection to read straight through or dip in and out of. It displays the essence of the Dawkinsian method: literary craftsmanship fused with science, reason and rigour—things that are, if anything, now even more essential than ever before. In March this year, Dawkins turned 80. The book’s epilogue contains a beautiful excerpt from his masterpiece Unweaving the Rainbow, “to be read at my funeral.” Thankfully, it is likely that there are many books yet to come. Indeed, Dawkins recently revealed that he has a book on human and animal flight due out later this year and is writing a novel (his satirical forays into fiction should serve him well there).
So a very belated happy birthday to Professor Richard Dawkins, a gentleman and a scholar as well as an intellectual bruiser and an elder statesman of the life scientific, whose books have furnished and enriched my own life, and will hopefully continue to do so for a long time yet.
Books Do Furnish a Life is available for preorder here.