Yep, I am catching up with book reviews. I have read several this year, although not at the same pace as last year, so there’s a lot of work to do. Let’s dive in.
Richard Dawkins, the eminent British biologist, just published a book, Books Do Furnish a Life, that collects many of his writings and conversations. These include book reviews, forewords, afterwords, and conversations with other thinkers on various topics such as biology, the role of science, secularism.
I must admit that, as much as I admire Dawkins, this is the first book I read by him. The Selfish Gene is in my bookcase looking down on me, both figuratively and literally, as if saying: you don’t have what it takes, do you? Apparently not, or at least not yet. However, Books Do Furnish a Life has been useful in expanding my reading on biology, so much so that I am starting to think about taking up the challenge of his first book. Even since I was a teenager I had very little difficulty in reading popular astrophysics and particle physics books: I devoured all Stephen Hawking‘s books, and I still recall the impact that Just Six Numbers, by Martin Rees, had on me; all before I finished high-school.
But biology is a different matter. Maybe it is the broader range of specific vocabulary. Maybe it is my inner interest in the topic. Maybe it is a combination of different factors. But I’ve always found it difficult. It is also, by the way, because evolution by natural selection is not extremely intuitive. I mean, the mechanism is intuitive; what it is difficult to grasp is the timescale at which it has worked. Not also this: the role of the genes, and how the genes manifest themselves in different behaviours that can even change the environment leading to higher survival changes—the extended phenotype. But then again, quantum mechanics is not the most intuitive phenomenon either.
The short writings collected in this book are very useful to further the knowledge on these topics. The way that Dawkins writes, providing analogies to the various mechanisms at work especially in evolution by natural selection, is a delight. I can’t emphasise this enough: the clarity, and the beauty, and intuitiveness—they are superb. And the enthusiasm! You can tell that Dawkins feels fascinated by what we have learned in the recent decades about how we came to be. The sheer breath of knowledge at the service of educating the reader is a gift for all of us. He follows the advise of Steve Pinker in The Sense of Style: write as if your reader is as intelligent as you are but lacks the particular knowledge of the topic.
And then we have the conversations with other thinkers. One of them is the aforementioned Pinker, someone I also greatly admire, talking about Darwin and evolutionary psychology. Others include Neil deGrasse Tyson, Matt Ridley, and the one and only Christopher Hitchens—for The Hitch that was the last interview he gave before his death, published in the NewStatesman: Never Be Afraid of Stridence. Interesting and absorbing in equal parts, these conversations introduce each section of the book.
I don’t think there’s an equal to Dawkins on science popular writing. Maybe Carlo Rovelli, writing about physics, gets close to him. But the amount of writing by Dawkins far exceeds that by Rovelli. Anyone interested in biology, evolution by natural selection, and secularism, will find this collection of short writings incredibly absorbing. Highly, highly, highly recommended.