A FUNNY THING HAPPENED on the way to this
book review. I was reading the book in my local park, and on the way back I saw a rainbow. Not just any rainbow, mind you, but a double one - and a particularly impressive example at that*
. So there you have it, psychic powers must exist. Or predestination. Or synchronicity. Or...something?
Dawkins tramples gleefully over such mystical nonsense in Unweaving the Rainbow, and he
exhibits no patience for anyone who disagrees with him. Much of the material is familiar, borrowing from recent newspaper articles and lectures (the book's subtitle and general tone come from the 1996 Richard Dimbleby
lecture), but the focus is somewhat blurred. Not only does Dawkins attack the 'debauchery' of science to raise TV ratings and boost recruitment of students into the sciences, but he also heaps
vitriol on both the practitioners and popularisers of mumbo-jumbo such as astrology and 'psychic' conjuring. Surprisingly, religion gets off very lightly, which is a shame because Dawkins is at his
most witty and entertaining when he's Bible-thumper-thumping.
The whole is drawn together by a third strand, which portrays science as a theatre of wonder rather than the dusty academic
domain of stereotype. This is where Dawkins, of course, triumphs because although he makes some forays into less familiar territory of astronomy and physics, he constantly falls back on examples from
his own field of evolutionary biology. One of the more tiresome themes, however, is the 'science as poetry' metaphor, which is overplayed to an excuciating degree. The book is stuffed with
literary quotations and allusions that Dawkins persists in pursuing in the text, but it all comes across as overkill to silence the anti-science arts lobby. It's the book's thesis, of course, that
demystifying something as beautiful as a rainbow doesn't make it any less beautiful, but Dawkins brings his accustomed penchant for exhaustive rebuttal to bear on a debate that rests quite happily on
the facts. Undoubtedly Dawkins is well-versed in the classics and literature as well as science, but ultimately that's all his fanciful literary rhetoric tells us.
The book, then, is a bit of a mixture. When Dawkins dons his 'flowery arts person' crown things are turgid and directionless, but when he gets stuck into the science he is as compelling as
ever. Two particular chapters stand out: one that explains probability and coincidence to 'unweave the uncanny', and one, from Dawkins's own turf, about 'selfish co-operators' in the gene pool.
There are the usual skirmishes with Gould and others aling the way, and on the whole it's a readable if vaguely unsatisfying tome.
* This is absolutely true, BTW!