Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 2004

A Devil’s Chaplain: Selected Essays, by Richard Dawkins

reviewed by Dan O’Hara

How very fortunate we are to have Richard Dawkins, a man of immense learning, great clarity of thought and expression, a passion for communication and an unyielding stance against cant and hypocrisy.

From his first book, The Selfish Gene (1976), a brilliant popular synthesis of work by his immediate predecessors, through The Extended Phenotype (1982), a tough read but an important original contribution to biological science, and The Blind Watchmaker (1986), the most successful and uncompromising exposition of Darwinian evolution to have appeared in our time, to its several sequels (River out of Eden (1996), Climbing Mount Improbable (1996) and Unweaving the Rainbow (1998)), Dawkins has shown an unmatched enthusiasm for his subject – evolutionary biology – that can hardly fail to sweep even the most jaded reader along with him.

His very success has made him the prime hate figure of religious fundamentalists, and provoked demented rejoinders from creationists.

Besides his well-known books, Dawkins is in constant demand as a lecturer, journalist and reviewer, and it is a collection of such occasional pieces that now appears in book form as A Devil’s Chaplain. The title is taken, of course, from the famous letter by Charles Darwin to his friend Hooker in 1856.

The selection and arrangement of these mainly short pieces – many of which have been given new, contextualising introductions by the author – has been undertaken by Latha Menon. She has done a very skilful job.

I had feared in advance that it might resemble a ragbag of fairly insubstantial pieces, with lots of overlapping and repetitive passages and little overall coherence. My fears were completely unjustified. Naturally, certain themes recur, but each time with a fresh treatment and varied perspective that ensures the whole is very much more than the sum of its parts.

Among the more memorable sections are tributes to his friends Bill Hamilton, Douglas Adams and John Diamond; tussles with fellow evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould; and his blitz on the “post-modernist” tendency. Among the more unexpected is a heartfelt, and heartwarming, tribute to the unorthodox but pioneering headmaster of Oundle, F. W. Sanderson, and of particular interest to readers of this magazine will be his illuminating examination of the sense and nonsense that has been written about “gay genes”.

Other pieces highlight the dangers of liberal complacency in the face of religious militancy, whether of the Islamic terrorist or more insidious Christian fundamentalist variety. And there are many flashes of illumination on little-known, or underappreciated, aspects of Darwin and Darwinism. All in all, this is a compelling and life-affirming collection of lapidary prose, rising at times to moments of poetic ecstasy. Could modern humanism wish for a more eloquent spokesman?

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Created : Sunday, 2004-05-23 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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