Art by Peter HamlinFOUR YEARS AGO, I RAN ACROSS A PROFILE IN Wired magazine of the Darwinian sociobiologist Richard Dawkins. Written by Michael Schrage back when the magazine was still sporadically worth reading, the story presented Dawkins as an imaginative but unromantic man, a scientist who explained evolution in machine-age terms and likened the Earth and its inhabitants to a computer and its components. As digital copying machines, programmed to slavishly generate lines of code in the form of DNA, Dawkins argued, we can do little through reproduction to confound our genes' selfish designs. But we can, he assured us, change the world through ideas. In the last chapter of his slender but monumental 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, he detailed how that's done, and coined the term “meme” to describe an idea that makes its way through a culture by embedding itself in vulnerable minds.
My own mind proved a friendly host for the Dawkins meme, not least because he took the pressure off one's personal life — specifically, on the matter of having children — and put the weight of one's worth on ideas. I became a dedicated fan, checking out his books from the library and buying the ones I couldn't bear to return, downloading his speeches off the Internet and printing them out for safekeeping. I wasn't alone: Dawkins is now being called upon to ordain the greatest thinkers of our dwindling millennium, and Tufts University offers a degree program in “memetics” — the study of memes — in a department headed up by cognitive-science avatar Daniel Dennett.
Dawkins does not write about evolution as elegantly as Timothy Ferris does astronomy, and he isn't nearly as lively a storyteller as his intellectual adversary, Stephen Jay Gould. His fans have learned to accept the irritable exasperation that seeps through his prose as endearing, to prefer the curmudgeon to the dry and ordinary. The Selfish Gene, as well as Dawkins' subsequent entries, The Blind Watchmaker and River out of Eden, succeed on the strength of his ideas, which he conveys in metaphors that manage to appeal to layperson and scholar alike. He has amassed a passionate following because he so insistently puts forth a rational — and when you stop to think about it, liberating — theory about who we are, why we are, and what we should do with the minuscule moment in history each of us claims for a life. “The present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time,” he writes in the auspicious first chapter of his latest book, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder. As mere flickers on that ruler, the best we can do is pursue what we love.
Unweaving the Rainbow, whose title comes from Keats' accusation that Newton's light spectrum had robbed rainbows of their mystery, is Dawkins' least technical and most ruminative book to date. It is in part an attempt to address misapprehensions between art and science, to encourage interaction between the practitioners of each. It introduces few new theoretical concepts, and except for updates of Dawkins' Darwinian theory for high-tech times (“A species is an averaging computer,” he writes, characteristically, in a chapter on natural selection), contains only scattered explanations of natural phenomena.
Instead, Unweaving the Rainbow is mostly concerned with false assumptions and popular myths about science. Dawkins discredits astrology by reminding us that “there is no known physical mechanism whereby the position of distant heavenly bodies at the moment of your birth could exert any causal influence on your nature or your destiny”; he undoes psychic “friends” with a contentious explanation of probability theory. He disassembles Gould and everything he stands for in a 10-page diatribe that peaks with a stunning excerpt from W.H. Auden's “Unpredictable but Providential”: “It was the fittest who perished, the misfits/forced by failure to emigrate to unsettled niches, who/altered their structure and prospered” — the point being that if Auden knew “survival of the fittest” is a misnomer, why doesn't Gould?
NONE OF DAWKINS' OBJECTIONS WILL MAKE A DENT in the profit margins of fortunetellers or Gould's readership, of course; myths only dissipate when they're no longer popular. But each of Dawkins' pugnacious attacks yields collateral benefits — from his argument against astrologers, we learn something about the stars; in his berating of Gould, he corrects his readers' own assumptions about Darwinism. At moments like these, Unweaving the Rainbow nearly lives up to its promise, as it does when Dawkins finds remarkable applications for the intersection of poetry and science — when he defends Keats' comparison of a nightingale's song to a drug, for instance, or invokes Chaucer to remind us how little humans matter in evolutionary time compared to, say, the cuckoo's evolutionary tricks over many thousands more years.
It's too bad, then, that so much of the book seems desultory, misplaced or poorly reasoned, that to find its beauty means slogging through a litany of meandering complaints, the bulk of which seem unworthy of Oxford University's Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science (a chair endowed for Dawkins by a Microsoft millionaire). When he moves on to wag the finger at the poets, artists and composers of the Western canon, Dawkins begins to sound less like a sage with a gift for conveying the secrets of evolution to the masses, and more like a crotchety propeller-head who's spent too much time in the lab. He laments that D.H. Lawrence “lacked only a couple of tutorials in evolution and taxonomy” to get his facts right about hummingbirds, as if it matters; he declares Keats “a waste of poetic talent” for disdaining science. He imagines that William Butler Yeats, “that confused Irish mystic,” could have died more happily had he bothered to visit the 72-inch reflector telescope that awaited him at Birr Castle in Ireland, a mere hour's drive from home. With even more hubris, Dawkins weighs in on serious music: “Think of the 'Dies Irae' that might have been wrung out of Verdi,” he fantasizes, “by the contemplation of the dinosaurs' fate when, 65 million years ago, a mountain-sized rock screamed out of deep space at 10,000 miles per hour straight at the Yucatán peninsula and the world went dark.”
Writer and physicist Jeremy Bernstein tells a story about a conversation between Robert Oppenheimer and Paul A.M. Dirac, in which Dirac, one of three scientist-inventors of quantum mechanics, began to ask poet and physicist Oppenheimer what those disciplines have in common. “In physics we try to give people an understanding of something that nobody knew before,” Dirac mused, “whereas in poetry . . .” As Dirac had answered his own question, he needed no further enlightenment from his colleague. But Oppenheimer might have had to explain a little bit more to Dawkins. Both poets and physicists may have as their ultimate aim the understanding of mystery, but they come at the task by different means. An artist has the responsibility to interpret with conviction and honesty only a specific, emotional and subjective truth. As for the objective truths — that's why God made scientists.
The fact is, there are poets who live up to Dawkins' demands for scientific accuracy — he might love Kenneth Rexroth's “Halley's Comet,” for instance — and poets who don't: Stephen Dobyns' “Long Story,” a meditation on how man became dominant (“He must want to be boss real bad,” says the cat upon seeing Cain kill Abel) would no doubt rankle him to the core. But even the geologist Auden painted a personified moon as willfully avoiding jagged mountains, and time as possessing the quality of intolerance. Because art, as much as Dawkins wants it to be different, means imagining the world beyond the known and discoverable, interpreting how the world feels to us, not necessarily exactly what it is. Whatever the poet and the scientist share of the sense of wonder and the desire to explain, their ways of seeing are forever, and necessarily, at odds: One can only strive for certainty; the other thrives precisely on not really knowing for sure. By failing to respect such distinctions, Dawkins accomplishes the opposite of what he set out to do. Instead of straddling the chasm between science and art, he ends up proving just how wide it can get.
Richard Dawkins' scheduled appearance at the Los Angeles Public Library on March 9 has been canceled.
UNWEAVING THE RAINBOW: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder By RICHARD DAWKINS | Houghton Mifflin 337 pages | $26 hardcover