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Book Review

The Magic of Reality

The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True (young adult)


Richard Dawkins
illustrated by Dave McKean

hardback edition

Richard Dawkins' passion for science and reason has never been more evident than in his latest work, an attempt to convey to "readers of all ages" just how wonderful and magical reality is. The other side of that idea is that no matter how enchanting ancient or modern myths might be, they are not based on reality and they are not nearly as interesting or as exciting as the truth. Dawkins brings this double point home in each of twelve chapters presented as questions, with the myths of many peoples contrasted with reality as determined by science. There will be little controversy over how he handles such questions as What is the sun? What is a rainbow? Why do we have night and day, winter and summer? What is an earthquake? or even Are we alone?

Unfortunately, many in America who should read this book probably won't because of their religious beliefs. Those who think Adam was the first person, that the god of Abraham created all animals individually, that the universe was brought into being by the will of some supernatural creator, and that bad things happen because god or the gods are angry with us will reject this or any book that tells the science like it is. Fortunately, the number of people who think the Bible is the word of god and must be taken literally as if it were a science text is not as great in other countries. I imagine the book will do quite well in the UK and other places (in translation) where fundamentalist anti-science is not so great as it is in the U.S.

All but two of the chapters focus exclusively on scientific questions. Most chapters begin with a look at some of the traditional myths that have been produced by various cultures around the world. These are followed up with a look at what the science has to say about the subject. The final two chapters enter the realm of philosophy. Why do bad things (like tsunamis and cancer) happen? They just do. There are causes but nature has no purpose in bringing about harm to anyone. What is a miracle? Here he enlists the help of David Hume to convey the idea that belief in miracles is not reasonable.

Many adults would benefit from reading The Magic of Reality because it will explain to them things that apparently many of them don't understand, such as why we have summer and winter. Many people think it is because the earth is closer or farther away from the sun that we have the seasons. Many people in the U.S. are clearly ignorant of what evolution means. Many seem to think that if evolution were true we should find one species giving birth to a new species from time to time. Every offspring is the same species as its parents. To help the reader who may not understand how species evolve, Dawkins asks us to imagine a pile of 185 million pictures, each picture being the grandparent of the picture after it. Any two or three or five hundred adjacent pictures will look very similar in terms of species characteristics. But if you go from your picture at one end to your 185 millionth grandparent, you'll see a picture of a fish-like creature.

Dawkins doesn't just tell the reader how old the universe is, he explains how we know the age of the universe. He doesn't just tell us what things are made of, he tells us how we know what they're made of.

Of course the fundamentalist literalist Jews and Christians will have an awful time with this book. Dawkins treats the Judeo-Christian myths in the same way he treats African or Japanese or American Indian myths. He doesn't make fun of the people who created the stories. He simply retells the stories, occasionally expressing his being baffled at certain parts of various stories, and then contrasts them with what science knows about the same reality that the mythmakers tried to explain. He doesn't ridicule religion or gods, but he does reject those who appeal to a god's intervention or a miracle to avoid trying to answer hard questions about reality. He has no tolerance for those who want us to give up trying to understand something because they claim it's miraculous and can't be understood.

If you want your child or you want yourself to know something about the various myths of many different cultures without showing any favorites, Dawkins' book fills that requirement quite well. If you want your child or you want yourself to know something about evolution, cosmology, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and the methods of discovery used in those fields, Dawkins' book fills that requirement as well as anybody could.

What makes the book even more enticing is that Dawkins has teamed with artist Dave McKean, whose illustrations take the book to a level of visual enjoyment that matches the joy of following Dawkins as he attempts to explain some very complicated ideas in terms even those who will never read the book could understand if they dared do so.

Robert T. Carroll
October 10, 2011

more book reviews by R. T. Carroll

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