Categories: books, philosophy, review

BookReview: The God Delusion

The God Delusion

Book by Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins’ 1974 book, the Selfish Gene is probably one of the most important science books written for the general public (I’ll be reviewing that book here later) in the second half of the 20th century. Not only did the Selfish Gene do much to explain evolutionary biology to the average reader, but it also contributed a significant new conceptual framework to neo-Darwinism, that genes program biological hosts to be selfish (meaning they privilege propagation of those genes above all other imperatives), even when being altruistic. This follows from an important observation of Darwinism: that which succeeds is that which propagates, and vice versa. Genes that are not, ultimately, selfish, will not propagate = not succeed = not propagate.

What I have read of Dawkins’ work, I have liked; and I am always happy to hear him speak (thank you podcasts). He is passionate, articulate, and convincing when he discusses evolution and science. So I was excited to read his new one, the “God Delusion.”

And starting for page 1, I was deeply disappointed. Infuriated, actually. The God Delusion is a different kind of book from the Selfish Gene, though what kind of book it was intended to be is hard to say. Whatever kind, Dawkins badly missed the mark. It’s possible that I read it unfairly, expecting it to be something it wasn’t meant to be: an exploration of the scientific/cultural reasons behind the almost-universal human belief in some kind of supernatural deity or deities. But it is not that book at all. It is many other things, and none of them particularly effective. It is a catalog of many stupid things said in the name of religion; it is a list of many bad things religious people have done; it is a sarcastic dismissal of the “religious mind” (whatever that is); it is a refutation of creationism; it is a defense of the separation of church and state; it is a book of sloppy theology; poor philosophy; shoddy psychology; and most offensive to me, given Dawkins’ bona fides, a book of lazy science.

Dawkins has an axe to grind here, and he leaves no doubt that he *hates* religion. He thinks it is childish, ignorant, dangerous, evil, contemptible, disgusting. Such beliefs are not necessarily problematic, except that his contempt for religion gets in the way of his ability to make a cogent case for whatever it was he meant to elucidate (which is not particularly clear in this muddled book).

As a leading public exponent of Darwinism he has been the target of countless attacks from religionists and creationists (many of them abusive and threatening, some of them printed in this volume). As a public and vocal atheist the target on his head is that much larger. He is frustrated with dangerous and anti-scientific movements such as Intelligent Design, and is offended by the valued place religion is given in policy-making, particularly in the USA, but elsewhere as well. He doesn’t like the way religion treats homosexuals and stem-cell research, and abortion. All of which is fine.

Indeed a book about all the bad things done in the name of Religion in the past six thousand years, or even the past six years, would be a thick tome, and anyone would marvel at the horror. But I wouldn’t have much interest in Dawkins’ account of such things – I need no convincing on that point in any case. He is an evolutionary biologist, and I wanted his views on where religion comes from, and why it is a delusion. To be fair, he occasionally provides some theories on this count (one chapter): mainly that religion is the “byproduct of childish gullibility,” that children learn to obey orders from parents (helpful for keeping them alive), and later this “gullibility” mechanism is erroneously transferred onto “God.”

Perhaps. (Though I find, as almost everywhere throughout this book, Dawkins’ use of language is unnecessarily non-neutral… “childish gullibility” is an odd way to state a useful evolutionary trait).

But here is another Darwinist theory (mine, perhaps others’) of why religion and belief in God might have persisted and spread: religion is a useful way to organize societies, to force people to obey laws, to enforce social norms, to inspire warriors and to placate the discontented. Hence, from a cultural Darwinist vantage, religious societies have historically been better at organizing themselves, hence defeating their foes, hence surviving. So there has been a “natural selection” of religious societies over non-religious. Perhaps this theory is wrong, yet Dawkins is so hostile to religion, he cannot admit that religion might serve any useful purpose at all (except to produce good music, poetry, and to console the dying). And so his theories of the delusion of God, such as they are, seem woefully incomplete as any kind of explanation for the persistence of the idea of God across almost all ages, and cultures in human history. Including our own, scientific age.

I should note here my own biases: I am a very lapsed Catholic, mostly agnostic, vaguely influenced, perhaps, by the belief in some kind of universal power, but certainly not a “personal” God, certainly not as reflected in particular religious doctrine. (In fact, I think that the idea of having a “true” religious doctrine is logically inconsistent with the Christian/Judeo/Islamic concept of an infinite God; our puny human minds are too small for such things). Curiously, Dawkins dismisses this kind of loose pantheistic belief, which he calls Einstiennian belief, after Einstein’s statement: “I don’t try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it.” Dawkins says this sort of belief is not religious at all (hence not worth considering), and doesn’t really address it in any serious sense. Which is curious, because if God is a delusion, surely this kind of vague belief, the kind that secular, scientifically-minded people like me harbour, would be just the kind of belief that an evolutionary biologist would be interested in studying. There are easy explanations for why teen-aged Evangelicals and those who grow up in Amish towns and Madrasses believe in God … But what about us thoughtful agnostics? Dawkins explains this away with some cheap logic showing that agnostics are in fact atheists (check this video for the hilarious “logical” move in the other direction).

Because this is a book by Richard Dawkins, it does have its moments, mostly when he is doing what he does best: explaining evolution. He does far too little of that in these pages. It is not a science book, or a philosophical book; it is a political book. An effective political book should make its case coherently, objectively. Dawkins has not done that here, and should get back to his desk and work harder to write the book this ought to have been.

My rating: 1.0 stars

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BookReview: Field Notes from a Catastrophe

Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change

Climate Change Book by Elizabeth Kolbert

My first job out of university, as a fresh-faced, idealistic engineer, was in the energy industry, for a sort of international think-tank made up of eight of the biggest electric companies in the world from G7 countries. I got there in 1998 (a year after the Kyoto Protocol was signed), and climate change obviously was high on the agenda, so I got to know what many in the energy industry thought of it (it was a big problem, and these companies were generally worried about how to address it in the most efficient, and least-costly way. That is, they were concerned, but wanted to avoid losing lots of money as a result). From the E7 (now E8) I went on, in the summer of 2000, to a financial brokerage called Prebon in New York, which was setting up an investment banking team to build financial products tailored for Kyoto Mechanisms – financial mechanisms aimed at getting funding into projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I was the policy guy, mainly, looking at national and international frameworks, as well as doing marketing of our insurance-based products to big energy companies around the world; and negotiating with potential sellers of emission reductions. I attended the COP conference in the Hague and talked to government officials all over the place. (Those were my jetset days of flying around the world, when I thought I might just be able to save the human race and become a multibillionaire at the same time). I worked at Prebon for a year and a half until the election of George Bush (and US abandonment of Kyoto, going back on a GOP campaign promise to regulate CO2 in the US); and then September 11 forced Prebon to shut down our group. Also a factor in shutting us down: we hadn’t made a nickle, despite having a $350 million deal in the works, though I don’t think we would have made the sale even without Bush and September 11. After I came back from NYC to Montreal, I spent some time working with a small alternative energy company here in Montreal, with toes still in CO2 waters … tho since 2004 I have been just an observer.

But I have been following Climate Change more or less closely for ten years or so, and have watched as the science matured (and Canada, incidently, did absolutely nothing except sign papers year after year). I am, you could say, a Climate believer…though I have an open mind to new research: if it were to turn out that everyone was mistaken about the climate, I would be happy to recant my former beliefs. But, the opposite has happened. Since 1998 when I started paying attention, various predictions from the models (then very uncertain) have started to come to pass: plants and animals are changing their breeding habits, the Arctic and Antarctic are melting, glaciers around the globe are receding, and the temperature keeps going up. Closer to home, the ski hill I grew up on no longer operates (they never made snow, and the natural snow isn’t enough to guarantee a viable season any more), and it regularaly rains in January and February.

And so when I first read Elizabeth Kolbert’s series of articles on climate change in the “New Yorker” in 2005 I was captivated. Field Notes on a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change is a compilation and expansion of those articles. It is the only climate book I have ever been inspired to buy — all the others seemed to rehash things I knew already, but there was something about the way Kolbert writes on climate — at once scientifically compelling and personal. And frightening. Of the many hundreds of articles I have read about climate change, Kolbert’s are the best.

In this book, Kolbert weaves a compelling tale, focusing on a handful of active scientists, their work on climate, and an underlying sense of terror that seems to infect all of them. They are at the front lines of climate research — out in the field and building the models. She visits the melting permafrost in Alaska, NASA climate modellers in New York, biologists studying butterflies in northern England, and Columbia paleoclimateologista with the world’s biggest collection of ocean core samples. She also talks to some historians who argue that massive civilization collapse in human history can often be attributed to climate changes destroying the agricultural systems those civilizations depend upon; and some of the people trying to do something about all this worrying problem that so many seem to ignore. The impressive thing about these scientists is not their much-trumpeted alarmism, though, but the opposite: the caution with which they make their claims. Scientists tend to be a thoughtful bunch, they are used to weighing massive amounts of data, inputs, and research from across many fields to make their conclusions. You make your hypothesis, you do your experiments, you publish your results in peer-reviewed journals, and others do their best to poke holes in your argument. More experiments are done, in various disciplines; in the case that other results consistently conflict with a hypothesis, it is rejected. When more data backs a hypothesis, from many different areas, it becomes accepted. Climate science is no different, and what’s happened over the past ten years, since I first started following the climate debate, is a hardening of certainty, as more and more evidence, more studies, and more data are backing up the theory that the climate is changing (not in doubt) and that we are forcing the change. But the real test of a theory is its predictive power: if a theory says such and such should happen, and such and such happens, it is worth paying attention to.

And this is why the much-maligned climate models are so powerful: they have been tweaked and improved over the past ten years, and have become more powerful. They back-check well against the past records, and have done a good job of predicting what is happening now. What’s scary is their predictions of what will happen in the future. It ain’t pretty.

Kolbert manages an impressive feat in this book: she presents the latest climate science clearly, and in enough detail that one gets a powerful sense of where most scientists think we are and where we are going. There are graphs and data sets, and evidence. But what emerges most powerfully is the sense of quiet, measured … panic (there is no other word for it) from the scientists working in the field. They are watching as our climate changes, and they know where we are likely to go. And most think we are pushing climate fast to that frightening place. In this slim volume, Kolbert has encapsulated the panic, and shown exactly where it comes from – scientifically and historically. And she shares this panic. As arctic researcher, Donald Petrovich relates to Kolbert:

The way I’ve been thinking about it, riding my bike around here, is, You ride by all these pastures and they’ve got these big granite boulders in the middle of them. You’ve got a big boulder sitting there on this rolling hill. You can’t just go by this boulder. You’ve got to push it. So you start rocking it, and you get a bunch of friends, and they start rocking it, and finally it starts moving. And then you realize, Maybe this wasn’t the best idea. That’s what we’re doing as a society. This climate, if it starts rolling, we don’t really know where it will stop.

My rating: 4.0 stars

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Categories: art, best, books, librivox

LibriVox – public domain books for your ears

OK, I’ve just launched a little experimental project, let’s see how it goes. It’s called LibriVox:

LibriVox is a hope, an experiment, and a question: can the net harness a bunch of volunteers to help bring books in the public domain to life through podcasting?
LibriVox is an open source audio-literary attempt to harness the power of the many to record and disseminate, in podcast form, books from the public domain. It works like this: a book is chosen, then *you*, the volunteers, read and record one or more chapters. We liberate the audio files through this webblog/podcast every week (?).

There some more info here.

So if you know any podcasters, literature buffs, actors, librarians, teachers, readers, writers, radio announcers, or anyone at all who might be interested in donating some time to read a chapter of a public domain book and record it to the net, please send them to LibriVox. If you want to get directly in touch, try: librivox(at]yahoo(dot]ca.

So this is for all you bloggers who read and comment on this site occasionally: (eponym, fling, andre, mike l, martine, seb, wirearchy, danielle and the rest)…

let’s see where it all goes!