Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins
Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, 337pp, £20 in UK
Few would attempt to bind poetry to science and thereby create a unified entity, but Richard Dawkins is happy to do so. Indeed, he declares it a "central tenet" in his new book, Unweaving the Rainbow.
He tells the reader outright that if poets weren't so quick to discount scientists as cold and unemotional, perhaps they too could experience the excitement he sees in the scientific disciplines and so be moved to a fresh new view of the world. "It is my thesis that poets could better use the inspiration provided by science and that at the same time scientists must reach out to the constituency that I am identifying with, for want of a better word, poets."
It is a theme he returns to again and again in this rambling, eminently readable book that encourages the reader to perceive science in a different way but at the same time serves as a good old-fashioned rant against things that annoy him. Richard Dawkins is easily annoyed. He gives over an entire chapter to pointing out the foolishness of those who subscribe to horoscopes, mysticism and the X Files, almost demanding that they see the error of their way. ". . . I cannot actually work out why professional astrologers are not arrested for fraud as well as for incitement to discrimination."
Another chapter is devoted to the debunking of conjurors, confidence tricksters who trade in and profit from people's gullibility. He has a go at one such internationally known mystic who does a particular line in fixing watches telepathically, but Dawkins shows how in fact the conjuror is dealing in nothing more than probabilities.
He rails against the mystics and the astrologers because of their misuse of language, the creation of a pseudo-scientific lingo designed to attract a semblance of scientific authenticity. This is teased out in particular in a chapter in which his underlying poet/scientist theme comes most powerfully into its own and he discusses "poetic science". He warns that "there is bad poetry as well as good, and bad poetic science can lead the imagination along false trails". Peddling falsehoods clearly represents bad poetic science. "By bad poetic science I mean something other than incompetent or graceless writing. I am talking about almost the opposite: about the power of poetic imagery and metaphor to inspire bad science, even if it is good poetry, perhaps especially if it is good poetry, for that gives it the greater power to mislead."
And so the stage is set for the author to have a go at his arch rival for pre-eminence as the world's foremost theorist on Darwinian evolution, Stephen J. Gould. He singles out Gould's "bad poetry in evolutionary science", yet hastens to claim that it is nothing personal. "I am anxious that such critical concentration upon one individual shall not be taken as personally rancorous. On the contrary, it is Gould's excellence as a writer that makes his errors, when they occur, so eminently worth rebutting."
The poetic theme is sustained as well by Dawkins's liberal use of quotations from Blake, Keats, Yeats, Dickinson, Shakespeare and others which are stitched seamlessly and delightfully into the text to help carry his themes and the imagery created by his title. This itself is taken from Keats, who mocked Newton for his "unweaving" of the rainbow by showing how a prism could separate white light into colours.
The title also provides a thematic rationale for Dawkins to explain to the reader how light and sound waves can be dismantled into constituent parts, how our genetic fingerprints provide a barcode for reading our genetic make-up and to marvel at how our brains manage to comprehend the spoken word.
It is at such times that Dawkins's remarkable talents come shining through most clearly. He conveys a sense of wonder and excitement at these things so taken for granted, even as he explains the most obtuse scientific concepts with an effortless mastery of the language that brings all readers along. You will not halt at unexplained complexities or stumbling prose. These are not present in a writing style that is as attractive as it is engaging.
And always he returns to joust with the poets, nudging them towards his thesis and chastising them if they don't pay attention, especially the Romantics, and Keats in particular. "Why in Keats's `Lamia', is the philosophy of rule and line `cold', and why do all charms flee before it?" he asks. "What is so threatening about reason? Mysteries do not lose their poetry when solved. Quite the contrary; the solution often turns out more beautiful than the puzzle and, in any case, when you have solved one mystery you uncover others, perhaps to inspire greater poetry."
Dawkins can irritate with his doctrinaire stance and his determination to point out the supposed mistakes of others, but at the end of the day you buy a book to enjoy the prose and think about its meaning, and there is plenty of scope for both in this offering.
Dick Ahlstrom is Science Editor of The Irish Times