Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A Devil's Chaplain

A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love
© 2003 Richard Dawkins
263 pages

Charles Darwin mused that a devil's chaplain might write quite a book on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low, and horridly cruel works of nature.  A Devil's Chaplain is not quite that book, however, though it does include a mention of fantastically inefficient bio-planning on nature's part, as well as a paragraph or two on parasitic wasps.   Dawkins uses the title to collect various articles, prefaces, and reviews he has written, all pooling in either biology or skepticism. Those familiar with Dawkins will find no surprises: he writes on the role of wonder in science,  champions skepticism and evidence-based thinking, addresses religion with teeth bared in the wake of 9/11, and expands on his notion of cultural ideas being transmitted like genes, as "memes" -- an originally serious word that is now applied to pictures with words on them, from captioned cats desirous of cheeseburgers to political commentary.  There's also a considerable section dedicated to the then recently-late Stephen Jay Gould,  with whom Dawkins had professional disputes. (Dawkins defends their relationship as more professional than adversarial.)   Because the collection is so varied, it's rather hard to rate;  here's a chapter on genes and wasps, there's an appraisal of a novel set in Botswana.  Most of the book is on biology and critical thinking, and there he had me;  when he moves to morals and culture, however, I found him wanting.

I raised my first eye when Dawkins praised Peter Singer, who sees no reason to value a room of babies over a room of puppies,  and asserts that religion only sustains itself by having its adherents instill the beliefs in their children.  Of course, religions like any other cultural element are maintained through that kind of transmission -- language, for instance. They also sustain themselves, however, by providing something people need or want: meaning at the individual level, and tribal cohesion and (in some cases) some degree of public morality at the social level.   Dawkins' understanding of religion as expressed here is simplistic, but part of his argument is fair: material facts should be believed on the basis of evidence, not desire or authority. Dawkins writes at the beginning that one bit of an advice a devil's chaplain can provide, looking at the spectre of nature red in tooth and claw, is that while we are composed of selfish genes, we are not limited by them. Our intelligence gives us the ability to overcome the amoral logic of the jungle (or the savannah, no less savage). On the whole, however, amoral logic seems to have the edge; if a man can't favor a room of babies over a room of animals,  there's something vital missing.


  1. i've had the pleasure of reading some of SJ Gould's work and greatly admired it... my background is in geology, so i got a lot out of his theses re evolution(he invented punctuated equilibrium)... don't know too much about Dawkins; he's after my time, but i don't really understand his puppy comment; seems kind of pointless... anyway, great review as always, tx...

  2. Stephen, I've read bits and pieces by Dawkins, and I have no interest in reading more. I guess my mind is closed to his closed mind.

  3. Dawkins is *very* good when he sticks to what he knows well - and can prove. I'm much less impressed by him when he drifts into areas where his expertise leaves him. I, for one, was very disappointed with 'The God Delusion'.

  4. @Mudpuddle: I've been meaning to try Gould for a while now...perhaps "Bully for Brontosaurus"!

    @R.T. He remains of interest to me, in part because he doesn't go along with a lot of currents in 'secular' circles -- cultural relativism, for instance. He caused a furore a few years back when he criticized western feminists for aggrandizing their trials of being hit on at bars, given the legitimate woes of women in other parts of the world. That grew into something like a skeptic civil war, bizarrely enough..

    @Cyberkitten: Like many of us, I suppose..we put our feet in our mouths the moment we leave our familiar territory!


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