BOOK REVIEW – “Unweaving the Rainbow” by Richard Dawkins
This month, while in a Twitter hiatus, I managed to get around to reading a book. Yes, a real book, with paper and pages and a cardboard cover! The book I chose to read is by Dr Richard Dawkins, and this is one that is overlooked in terms of its importance and place in society, having been overshadowed by his more groundbreaking and most famous publications such as “The Blind Watchmaker”, “The Selfish Gene” and of course “The God Delusion.”
“Unweaving the Rainbow” was originally published in 1998, and apart from some unforeseen advances in science and technology, is as relevant today as it was when written over ten years ago. The premise of the book, and the origin of the title, stem from a claim by the 19th century poet John Keats, in apparent dismay at Sir Isaac Newton for his discovery and documentation the separation of white light into the visible spectrum, or the rainbow as it is commonly known. Keats claims that Newton destroyed the wonder and poetry of the rainbow by “reducing it to prismatic colours.” Keats’ claim, and claims like it, are often employed as a last ditch attempt in refuting the importance or relevance of science, saying that the deep study of the beautiful can only reduce a wonderful thing, a thing of reverence and astonishment, to a mundane and dull object once fully understood. The extrapolation of this claim seems to be the mystery of the unknown in the form of god, souls, magic and spirituality will be destroyed by the understanding of the underlying principles that create these phenomena within humanity. Of course, this claim stems from a fear that science is, in fact, often correct, and may eventually rid the world of superstition and dogma.
Dawkins goes to great lengths to “unweave the rainbow” in its many guises; From the specific story of Keats and Newton to the charlitanism of new age mysticism, from pseudoscience to bad poetic communication, Dawkins has successfully constructed a case for the wonder and majesty of the natural world, the way things really are. He intersperses the book with pieces of prose and quotes from the arts and science, and shows that superstition and bad judgement do not lie solely within the confines of religion. Of course we knew this to be the case, but to analyse it in this manner really puts a perspective on who we are as a species, and why we believe the unbelievable.
Much like Michael Shermer’s book “Why People Believe Weird Things”, “Rainbow” gives numerous examples of how the human brain sees the world around it, and how our development as a species is sometimes hindered by our evolution, the very thing that brought us here. Biologically we are riddled with age old hangovers from times past, and socially we are told that science is devoid of wonder. The combination of these two aspects of modern society is that science is seen as a cold and soulless reduction of the universe to just a bunch of numbers on paper. While science can (and I believe will) explain away many of the aspects of life that we see as indescribable or mysterious, as Dawkins argues, this can only enhance our wonder at nature’s intricacies.
Dawkins, I feel, is always at his strongest when he talks of topics of which he is an expert; biology. When he speaks of religion, he all too often gets caught upon a personal battle of will and wits, and can come across as a less than savoury character. In “Rainbow” however, he successfully walks a thin line between scientific facts and the criticism of the human condition, without entering the territory of ad-hominem insults or personal attacks on individuals. He is neither too critical nor soft on the idiosyncrasies and quirks of human nature. He balances the rightful claim that science can only enhance our understanding of the universe and all it contains with the need for the poetic and the beautiful. This is a point that is all too often overlooked, and this message can only help to move forward any attempts by science to regain its place in the minds of modern humanity, without being seen as a threat to the beauty and appreciation we have for the natural world.
You can purchase the book “Unweaving the Rainbow” from Amazon.