Book review and analysis of the Richard Dawkins chapter in ‘Seeing Further’

Richard Dawkins has contributed enormously to the general readership’s understanding of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Starting from his seminal first book The Selfish Gene Theory, his writings have come to represent robust scientific logic and high literary quality. His latest contribution toward this end comes in the form of a chapter written for the book Seeing Further, which is edited and compiled by Bill Bryson. In the chapter, Dawkins tries to place the theory of evolution among other great scientific discoveries of recent centuries. He suggests that the theory is the most revolutionary, in that, it overwhelmed our previous understanding of the processes of life, death and rejuvenation. Dawkins reopens the long-running debate between random change and intelligent design and offers the third possibility, namely evolution through a “smoothly cumulative gradient of improvement”.

Dawkins then discusses with his trademark lucidity and insight, the history of the idea of evolution and how its early proponents were mostly British and related in some way to the Royal Society. Considering that the compilation is for celebrating 350 years of the society’s existence, Dawkins underplays the theory and gives more attention to the history, origins and development of the thought. He handles this role with elan, for his most popular works were largely polemical in nature, full of citations from other historical works. The intellectuals being discussed include Alfred Russel Wallace, Patrick Matthew and Edward Blyth. The author attempts a critical analysis of the ideas of these early thinkers on the subject. He seperates that which is scienficially proven from the merely plausible. This synthesis ultimately presents the reader with salient points of Darwin’s theory. While Darwin remains the chief protagonist of the work, Dawkins credits other contributors who provided vital insights . He also quotes extensively from their correspondences and publications, making the chapter rich in detail and scholarly rigor. The author embeds the prose narrative with complementing pictures – such as the cover of first printing of Origin of Species – providing a pleasant relief.

Dawkins is not merely a biologist, but also a public intellectual. In the case of the chapter in discussion, he fulfils the latter role by infusing the reader with a sense of excitement and intellectual stimulation. He prompts and spurs the reader to take an active interest in science. His prose and narrative style is so well-rounded that one marks up passages for re-reading. The other highlight of the chapter is its wit and humour. Hence, in conclusion, it is apt to say that Richard Dawkins does his reputation no harm through this latest offering. His previous book The God Delusion attracted much controversy due to his vehement defense of Atheism. But his contribution to Seeing Further would provoke not such reaction from the intelligentsia for it largely deals with historical aspects of evolutionary thought. The chapter as well as the entire book are much recommended as additional reading for college students, especially those specializing in science. Budding scholars would also learn that there are challenges beyond the merely scientific, in the form of institutions and bureaucracy as represented by the Royal Society.

References:

Tim Radford, review of Seeing Further: The Story of Science & the Royal Society, edited by Bill Bryson, GUARDIAN.CO.UK, Added: Saturday, 09 January 2010, retrieved from <http://richarddawkins.net/articles/4897-seeing-further-the-story-of-science-amp-the-royal-society-edited-by-bill-bryson>

Bill Bryson, Seeing Further: The Story of Science & the Royal Society, published by HarperPress in 2010.

Dawkins, Richard. “Brief Scientific Autobiography”. RichardDawkins.net. http://richarddawkins.net/articles/4757-brief-scientific-autobiography.

Dawkins, Richard (9 March 2002). “A scientist’s view”. The Guardian (London). http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2002/mar/09/religion.schools1.