A Devil’s Chaplain and courteous disagreement

I just finished reading “A Devil's Chaplain” by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is one of my absolute favorite science writers, both because of his perspective (it's easy to like authors you agree with) and his phenomenal writing style. Dawkins holds the Simonyi Professorship of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford (yes, that Simonyi), which I believe lets him do whatever he wants.

If you have never read “the Selfish Gene”, do so. Before I read it, I had a fairly good understanding of evolution, but Dawkin's approach (from the perspective of the gene) made it much more clear to me. Organisms are just machines that genes build to get themselves reproduced (okay, that's probably an oversimplification...) Dawkins also coined the word “Meme” in this book.

But enough digression...

A Devil's Chaplain is a collection of various writings that Dawkins has done over the years, and since the items weren't meant to go together, it is uneven in places, though still quite interesting. But I want to talk about one section in particular, the section that contains his reviews of books by Stephen J. Gould, who died in May of 2002.

Gould and Dawkins could be described as “the monsters of evolutionary biology“, both for their scientific contributions and to their books. But they have a very real disagreement on how some of the evolutionary mechanisms work (*not* a disagreement on the basic mechanisms, as some have claimed). So having them review each other's books gives a very interesting perspective.

What is wonderful about Dawkins' reviews of Gould's books is that the way that he manages to disagree with what Gould says while still giving Gould the respect that he reserves, both for his work and for his writing. It's so rare to see such civilized disagreement in our society, which makes it so striking.

So, in sum, a decent book, but read “The Selfish Gene“ or the “The Blind Watchmaker“ first.


Comments (6)

  1. Duncan says:

    The blind watchmaker is a gem (although Dawkins software is a bit ropey 😉 )…sounds like I’ve another book to add to my christmas list.

  2. dom says:


    I’ve also blogged about Dawkins; he’s a shining light in the popular science field.

    And yes, his SW maybe dodgy, but in the last book I read by him, he tells us that he attempted to write a full word processor (with ahead-of-its-time ‘mouse’ support) in machine code many years ago on his PC/XT… what a hero!

  3. Andrew says:

    ‘uneven’ ?

    ‘ropey’ ?

    ‘dodgy’ ?

    Ha !

    And if ‘organisms are just machines, then you yourself are just a machine. But if you formed via the accumulation of millennia’s worth of random genetic mistakes, then your thoughts, i.e. the neural firings in your brain, are themselves no more than random mistakes, so you have no basis for assuming that anything you think is rational or meaningful.

    On the other hand, if you were created in the image of an intelligent God, you would have a basis for assuming that there is such a thing as rational meaningful thought.


  4. Ian says:

    Andrew, you’re such a theistic idiot.

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