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

by Richard Dawkins

Houghton Mifflin Co., Nov. 1998

313 pages, hardcover

Review by Jim Walker

The title comes from a Keats poem and refers to Newton's resolving the colors of light through a prism, thereby diminishing the beauty and mystery of light and rainbows. At least Keats and others have contended this through their historic memes.

Dawkins disagrees and presents his reasons in a wonderful and instructive way. Dawkins thinks that an orderly universe, one indifferent to human preoccupations, in which everything has a explanation, forms a more beautiful, more wonderful place than a universe tricked out with ad hoc magic. I think after reading this book, most readers will agree. His thesis aims to show that "the spirit of wonder which led Blake to Christian mysticism, Keats to Arcadian myth and Yeats to Fenians and fairies, is the very same spirit that moves great scientists; a spirit which, if fed back to poets in scientific guise, might inspire still greater poetry."

Dawkins goes through several basic science lessons explaining the fingerprints of light, sound and DNA, and provides a scale against the vast history of life and how humans just barely got in. If only my high school science books read like this!

I also enjoyed Dawkin's distant debate against his nemesis, Stephen Jay Gould, another favorite science writer of mine. Fans of World Wide ProWrestling or Tyson brawls can watch their splats, but I'd rather watch a debate between Dawkins and Gould. At least we can read about it from these two excellent science story tellers. And it goes to show the honorable competitiveness between two first-class scientists, and provides an actual example of how science works.

We read something innovative when Dawkins theorizes about reconstructing ancient environments through the study of DNA in a kind of 'collective unconscious.' For after all, life forms evolve to adapt to their surroundings, for example, the shape of the sparrow tells us something about the viscosity of air and its weather conditions.

Dawkins speculates on how our large brains evolved so quickly through a software and hardware co-evolution by a form of self-feeding. It may have occurred from language, hunting (tracking and maps for finding animals), ballistics (as in throwing spears), or from memes (metaphorical ideas). As he puts it: "The genes build the hardware. The memes are the software." I felt delighted that Dawkins revisited the powerful idea of "memes" which he gave birth to in his first major book, The Selfish Gene.

Several years ago, I made a bet with a skeptical friend that the word "meme" would appear in a dictionary within ten years. Although I have not checked every dictionary, I happily report that meme appears in at least one dictionary, the Random House Webster's College Dictionary, 1997, defining the word as: "a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes." And my bet won within 6 years to boot! In spite of those who dismiss the power of the idea of memes (including Gould, and by the way, how does pointing out its Lamarkien nature reduce its import?), the word has now developed roots in our lexicon, and as those in the entertainment industry say, "it has legs."

Unweaving the Rainbow provides a satisfying outlook and description of science against the superstitions of the world. It gives the science lover a soaring feeling of dignity and wonder that matches the best that poetry has provided. We've known it all along, but Dawkins gives us new words to parry against our Faith infested critics.

A few quotations:

"Isn't it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked-- as I am surprisingly often-- why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way around, isn't it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born?"

"Each one of us is a city of cells, a each cell a town of bacteria. You are a gigantic megalopolis of bacteria. Doesn't that lift the anaesthetic's pall?"

"The poetry is in the science."

"Science advances by disproof of its hypotheses."

"It is true that scientists, more than, say, lawyers, doctors or politicians, gain prestige among their peers by publicly admitting their mistakes."

"Science makes no secret of what it still does not understand."

"A social world in which there is language is a completely different kind of social world from one in which there is not. The selection pressures on genes will never be the same again."

"Our minds are invaded by memes as ancient bacteria invaded our ancestors' cells and became mitochondria."

"It is possible to enjoy the Mozart concerto without being able to play the clarinet. In fact, you can learn to be an expert connoisseur of music without being able to play a note on any instrument. Of course, music would come to a halt if nobody ever learned to play it. But if everybody grew up thinking that music was synonymous with playing it, think how relatively impoverished many lives would be. Couldn't we learn to think of science in the same way?"


1. The Anaesthetic of Familiarity
2. Drawing Room of Dukes
3. Barcodes in the Stars
4. Barcodes in the Air
5. Barcodes in the Bar
6. Hoodwink'd with Faery Fancy
7. Unweaving the Uncanny
8. Huge Cloudy Symbols of High Romance
9. The Selfish Cooperator
10. The Genetic Book of the Dead
11. Reweaving the World
12. The Balloon of the Mind
Selected Bibliography

To obtain this book, click below:

Unweaving the Rainbow

Other books by Richard Dawkins:

Climbing Mount Improbable (paperback, hardcover)

River Out of Eden (paperback )

The Blind Watchmaker (paperback)

Blind Watchmaker: An Evolution Simulation (software, Macintosh only)

The Selfish Gene (paperback, hardcover)

The Extended Phenotype (paperback)

To find out more about Richard Dawkins on the internet, visit John Catalano's "The World of Richard Dawkins."