Jim Razinha's Reviews > A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love

A Devil's Chaplain by Richard Dawkins
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Aug 04, 2011

really liked it

Richard Dawkins more often than not is labeled arrogant, whther in print, in lecture or in person. Having read, listened and talked to Dawkins, I would be hard pressed to argue the contrary. Nevertheless, I still like him and what he has to say, even if I don't understand everything.

The Devil’s Chaplain is a collection of essays published in 2003, that according to the backleaf of the paperback, is “an enthusiastic declaration, a testament to the powers of rigorous scientific examination to reveal the wonders of the world.” Well, I think it is a wonderful collection ranging from the pedantic to the candid, from righteous to humble (if you look close, you’ll see this). He can be wittily entertaining and maddeningly academic, but never boring. And he doesn’t pull punches (no expects that anyway).

Dawkins grouped his essays into six (actually seven) sections and provides a foreword to each, explaining his choices for inclusion.

In “Science and Sensibility” he talks about Darwin (of course). He examines the relativity of truth as related to perspective, with science as the only real truth. He looks at the human ape family tree, ethics in genetic studies, relates his experiences as a jury member (prompting me to rethink the jury concept). Two of my favorite essays in this section look at quackery of new age crystal proponents and a brilliant review of “Intellectual Impostures” by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont (published in the US as “Fashionable Nonsense”)offering Dawkins’ Law of Conservation of Difficulty and a web link to a hilarious site: The Postmodernism Generator (http://www.elsewhere.org/cgi-bin/post...” that “will spontaneously generate for you, using faultless grammatical principles, a spanking new postmodern discourse, never before seen.”

In “Light Will Be Thrown”, the chapters look at Darwinism’s effect outside biology and Darwinism as a universal truth. He also relates with palpable distaste his experience with the “murky underworld of creationist propaganda.” Within that chapter is a fascinating look at information transfer, one of the best, if dry, reads in the book.

In “The Infected Mind”, Dawkins concentrates all barrels on religion. He revisits memes and his view of religions as viruses of the mind. He dismisses claims of the convergence of science and religion, and does a number on the tendency to afford religious spokesmen a “privileged platform”, such as including their opinions in scientific discussions where they have no place.

“They Told Me, Heraclitus” is a collection of tributes and eulogies to Douglas Adams, W.D. Hamilton and John Diamond, the last exposing some of the snake oil masquerading as “alternative medicine.”

“Even the Ranks of Tuscany” blows the lid off the exaggerated conflict between Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. Dawkins freely admits he was neither close friends with Gould nor in agreement on their respective views of evolution, but he was highly respectful of Gould’s scientific approach and laudatory of Gould’s writing. The chapter contains some reviews of Gould’s books, both favorable and unfavorable, and concludes with a sad recounting of a final collaborative effort against the intelligent design movement that was cut short before publication by Gould’s death.

After a chapter on Africa, he concludes with a moving letter to his (then) ten year old daughter entitled "Good and Bad Reasons for Believing"
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