Reviews of "Unweaving the Rainbow"
Why do poets and artists so often disparage science in their work? For that matter, why does so much scientific literature compare poorly with, say, the phone book? After struggling with questions like these for years, biologist Richard Dawkins has taken a wide-ranging view of the subjects of meaning and beauty in Unweaving the Rainbow, a deeply humanistic examination of science, mysticism, and human nature. Notably strong-willed in a profession of bet-hedgers and wait-and-seers, Dawkins carries the reader along on a romp through the natural and cultural worlds, determined that "science, at its best, should leave room for poetry."
Inspired by the frequently asked question, "Why do you bother getting up in the morning?" following publication of his book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins set out determined to show that understanding nature's mechanics need not sap one's zest for life. Alternately enlightening and maddening, Unweaving the Rainbow will appeal to all thoughtful readers, whether wild-eyed technophiles or grumpy, cabin-dwelling Luddites. Excoriations of newspaper astrology columns follow quotes from Blake and Shakespeare, which are sandwiched between sparkling, easy-to-follow discussions of probability, behavior, and evolution. In Dawkins's world (and, he hopes, in ours), science is poetry; he ends his journey by referring to his title's author and subject, maintaining that "A Keats and a Newton, listening to each other, might hear the galaxies sing." --Rob Lightner --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Keats complained that Newton's experiments with prisms had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow. Not so, says Oxford biologist Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) who, in an eloquent if prickly defense of the scientific enterprise, calls on the "two cultures" of science and poetry to learn from each other. Yet Dawkins cautions against "bad poetic science," i.e., seductive but misleading metaphors, and cites as an example " 'Gaia': the overrated romantic fancy of the whole world as an organism," a hypothesis proposed by atmospheric scientist James Lovelock and bacteriologist Lynn Margulis. Dawkins (continuing a celebrated battle that has been raging in the New York Review of Books) also lambastes paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould for "bad poetry," rejecting Gould's theory of punctuated equilibrium, which holds that new species emerge during relatively short bursts of evolutionary advance. In these conversational, discursive essays, Dawkins is, as always, an elegant, witty popularizer, whether he is offering a crash course in DNA fingerprinting, explaining the origins of "mad cow disease" in weird proteins that spread like self-replicating viruses or discussing male birdsong as an auditory aphrodisiac for female birds. However, in venturing into realms beyond the immediate purview of science, he reveals his own biases, launching into a predictable, rather superficial assault on paranormal research, UFO reports, astrology and psychic phenomena, all of which he dismisses as products of fraud, illusion, sloppy observation or an exploitation of our natural appetite for wonder. Dawkins is most interesting when he theorizes that our brains have partly taken over from DNA the role of recording the environment, resulting in "virtual worlds" that alter the terrain in which our genes undergo natural selection. Agent, John Brockman. 50,000 first printing; first serial to the Sciences. Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Kirkus Reviews
Dawkins takes to heart his title of Charles Simonyi Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford in this thoughtful exegesis on the nature of science and why its detractors are all wrong. More with pity than anger, he takes Keats to task for faulting ``cold philosophy'' for unweaving the rainbow in the long poem Lamia. On the contrary, Dawkins observes, Newton's use of a prism to split white light into the spectrum not only led to our understanding of how rainbows form in raindrops, but enabled astronomers to read the make-up of stars. Dawkins devotes a few chapters to debunking astrology, magic, and clairvoyance, arguing that, as rational adults, we need to be critical about ideas. This notion serves him handily in chapters on coincidence: He explains the exacting calculations of probabilities to show that coincidences arent so unusual. Yet people have a penchant for finding patterns where there are none, which leads Dawkins also to address superstitions, the class of errors known as false positives and false negatives, and a wealth of cultural practices from rain dances to human sacrifice. He takes to task what he calls bad poetic science, in which he includes the theories of his rival Stephen Jay Gould in relation to what Gould sees as the three perennial questions in paleontology: Does time have a directional arrow? Do internal or external forces drive evolution? And does evolution occur gradually or in jumps? The spleens so heavy here that one can anticipate a debate, if not a duel. Final chapters provide him with a platform for reweaving the rainbow, enlarging on his earlier themes and metaphors in relation to memes, genes, and evolution. The speculative writing here is less rooted in complex gene analysis than in philosophy of the Dennett school. A sharp mind is much in evidence, delighting in exposing fraud, providing instruction, baiting a colleague, and indulging in his own high-wire acts of evolutionary dreaming.
Chris Edited by: Chris OConnor at: 10/30/05 4:50 pm