Review of Richard Dawkins’ “Unweaving the Rainbow”

Review of Richard Dawkins’ “Unweaving the Rainbow”

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Soon after the emergence of modern science, William Cowper described Newton as  the “sagacious reader of the works of God,” and Alexander Pope spoke like the Book of Genesis in his lines: 

“Nature and Natures laws hid in night:  
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.”

However, as modern science, with its esoteric formulas and technical jargon, gradually receded from the grasp of non-scientifically trained thinkers, a gradual distrust, if not aversion, for science began to arise. Thus, in the course of the 19th century, with the Romantic reaction against the 18th century veneration of science and rationality, slightly different attitudes came to be expressed. Recall how Wordsworth complained:  “Sweet is the lore that Nature brings; Our meddling intellect/ Misshapes the beauteous forms of things:-We murder to dissect.

When science seemed to be on the verge of becoming a veritable threat to artists, writers, and theologians, beginning to command more awe by its technological wonders than the admiration provoked by great art and literature, some began to accuse it of robbing human experience of the mystery of Nature which added a dimension to human life in generations gone by. Thus, Keats declared that “all charms fly at the mere touch of cold philosophy,” and moaned:  “Philosophy will clip an Angels wings/Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,/Empty the haunted air, and groomed mine-/Unweave a rainbow…”  (Recall that philosophy was still a synonym for science.) It is this view that serves as a springboard for this charming dissertation on theme that cold science can be no less spell-binding, uplifting and enthralling than medieval magic, theistic religion, or symbolic poetry. For, in truth, science is as much a spiritual experience as knowledge and discovery. If Blake was ecstatic: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand,/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,/ Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in a hour,”  this is precisely what science does through its empirical and analytical tools, and Dawkins assures us that it provokes the same kind of joy.  In his own words, “It is my thesis that the spirit of wonder which led Blake to Christian mysticism, Keats to Arcadian myth and Yeats to Fenians and fairies, is the same spirit that moves great scientists…[p. 27]”  

Dawkins is no narrow-specialist. His intellect is sharp, his vision is broad,and his culture sophisticated. He enjoys music and poetry as well as many musicians and poets do. He certainly recognizes the value of poetry: not just its verbal rhythm and beautiful imagery, but its similes and its creativity.  And he regrets that many great poets “have overlooked the gold mine of inspiration offered by science [p.15].”  

But he also reminds us of the dangers of what he calls “bad poetry” [p. 180]:  “It is the sort of imaginative, but thoughtless extrapolation from the directly perceived to the speculative and the unseen in efforts to attribute causes and explanations for natural phenomena; it is the stuff of which makes ancient explanatory mythologies are made.”  Equally, and expressed more bluntly, Dawkins also means by bad poetry the superstitions of the ages.  

Sometimes he overstates his case. In a chapter devoted to the importance, if not the indispensability, of DNA and genetic science in the court of law, he refers to the lawyers in U.S. courts who screen away scientifically literate potential jurors, and goes on to argue that “lawyers would be better lawyers, judges would be better judges, parliamentarians would be better parliamentarians, and citizens would be better citizens if they knew more science. . . [p. 113].”  True, it would be helpful for them to better understand some of the evidences that may be brought in a case. But it does not followthat they will be better lawyers as a result. Such a claim it is not unlike that of the preacher of who insists that people will be better people if they belonged to his or her religion or denomination.  

Inevitably, a couple of chapters are devoted to discussions on pseudosciences and superstitions:  ancient ailments that are still potent in society, seeming to be growing even more virulent. Most practicing scientists -especially physicists and astronomers- are amused, even intrigued, by the popularity of puerilities like astrology and numerology, but some are outraged and appalled.  And when they write on the no-nonsense nobility of science they cannot remain indifferent to such persistent plague. Dawkins explains as clearly as any good astronomy teacher, and more beautifully than most, what constellations are, and exposes the inanity of statements like Neptune moves into Aquarius [p. 114-116].” If a sex-offender is thrown in jail for hoodwinking an impressionable young woman into believing that an evil spirit in her could be exorcised only by his intrusion into her body, asks Dawkins, then “why do we not similarly prosecute astrologers who take money off equally gullible people, or psychic diviners who con oil companies into parting shareholders money for expensive consultations on where to drill [p. 121].”  

By simple analysis, he reveals the quackery and trickery of psychics, clairvoyants, et. al., as well as the credulity of the simple-minded masses.  With the concept of petwhac (Population of Events That Would Have Appeared Coincidental), he gives statistical explanations for so-called astounding coincidences which have fooled people over the ages. A little knowledge of probability and statistics would be helpful here.  

A whole chapter (9) is devoted to an explanation of the selfish-gene concept which refers to the cooperation of the genes of a species to make “individuals of the same general type as the present one,” and to the rebuttal of challenges to this thesis. One can learn a good deal of sound biology from this (and the following) chapter, aside from recognizing loopholes in Lovelocks Gaia concept.  Indeed, these two chapters must be required reading for the general public to gain basic literacy on genetics.  

The chapter entitled “Reweaving the Brain” gives a masterly account of the workings of the brain, the subtle capabilities of the nervous system, and the consequent creation of virtual realities.  

The closing chapter, “The Balloon of the Mind,” talks of minds and memes, the individual and the universal, about software and hardware. It is an exploration into current proposals and potentials for unscrambling the ancient mystery of the Mind; not however, as our distant ancestors did or as some of their bad imitators continue to do, inspired by quotes from ancient texts; but as grand poetry anchored to the latest findings of science. Yes, Dawkins expresses succinctly the conviction and goal of the scientist:  

“We can get outside the universe.  I mean in the sense of putting a model of the universe inside our skulls. Not a superstitious, small-minded, [parochial model filled with spirits and hobgoblins, astrology and magic, glittering fake crocks of gold where the rainbow ends. A big model, of the reality that regulates, updates and tempers it; a model of stars and great distances, where Einstein’s noble space-time curve upstages the curve of Yahwehs coventanal bow and cuts it down to size; a powerful model, incorporating the past, steering us through the present, capable of running far ahead to offer detailed constructions of alternative futures and allow us to choose [p. 312].”  

This paragraph not only summarizes the scientific spirit, it also exemplifies the poetic prose of the author. For this is a book, as much for the aficionado of science as for the lover of good prose. Dawkins weaves a rainbow of colorful insights and information from the world of science which is as splendid as the arc in the sky. This is the kind of poetry that Dawkins cries out for.  In effect he seems to be exclaiming: Why don’t gifted poets turn their marvelous genius to sculpt in words and periods all the rich revelations and reasonings of the grand enterprise of science?  

A valid wish, it would seem, and yet all too unrealistic, for at least two reasons:  First, only readers who have done science and delved into some of its technical details can fully partake of the thrills that Dawkins spells out.  When Keats complained about unweaving the rainbow, the sensitive poet was merely referring metaphorically to the demolition that results from analyzing details.  He may not have known about all the rich knowledge about the world around us that Newton’s prismatic splitting of light brought to humanity. He may not have been familiar with spectroscopy (a consequence of the unweaving of the rainbow) and the enrichment it brought to astronomy and chemical analysis.  Only the technically trained scientist can know all this and more.  Few people outside of this inner circle may even be aware of the fact that we know of the composition of distant stars and that we discovered the element helium, all thanks to spectroscopy.  

Secondly, there is more to poetry than magnificent expression or fascinating revelations.  There is a soothing aspect to the poetry of religion and mystery-mongering that is as much a human need as the urge to understand, explore, and interpret.  

The lofty lines of Dawkins are a sumptuous feast, no doubt, for the initiated.  But those who have, for one reason or another, skipped their science courses, may have difficulty deciphering his grand expositions.  Like a crowd with little acquaintance with opera, they can at best watch from the outside and believe that the aficionados are really having fun. But they themselves cannot partake of all those exhilarations.  

Dawkin mercilessly maims pseudoscience and superstition, which is good; but he says hardly a kind word said about the trans-rational spiritual needs of the average human being, which is not so good. Though the book is a persuasive presentation of the scientific world view, it summarily dismisses the religious point of view as “saccharine false purpose,” and “cosmic sentimentality.” True, in this utterly enjoyable work Dawkins superbly communicates some of the joys and delights that can be derived from cold science (at least to readers who can intelligently glance through journals like Nature, Science and Scientific American), but he says next to nothing about how (the vast majority of) humanity, untrained and ill-informed, can be persuaded to exchange the spiritual, even if simplistic, comfort of ancient world models for the enormously more sophisticated ones offered by current science.  

That is why I fear that notwithstanding the intelligent eloquence of the Sagans and Dawkins of the world, most people will continue to do what Walt Whitman did (in his poem The Learned Astronomer):  walk away from the charts and figures of the learned astronomer to merge in the mystic grandeur of the dark star-lit night, in utter indifference to all proofs and reasons.

Dawkins, Richard. Unweaving the rainbow: science, delusion and the appetite for wonder. Houghton Mifflin, 1998. 336p bibl index ISBN 0-395-88382-2Table of 

Contents:  1. The Anesthetic of Familiarity; 2. Drawing Room of Dukes; 3. Barcodes in the stars; 4. Barcodes in the air; 5. Barcodes at the bar; 6. Hoodwinked with Faery Fancy; 7. Unweaving the uncanny; 8. Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance; 9. The selfish cooperator; 10.The genetic book of the dead; 11.Reveaving the world; 12.The balloon of the mind; Selected Bibliography; Index