Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder

Richard Dawkins, Author Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) $26 (352p) ISBN 978-0-395-88382-2
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. (Dec.)
Reviewed on: 11/30/1998
Release date: 12/01/1998
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