Notes and Quotes: Richard Dawkins’ UNWEAVING THE RAINBOW

Here is a middle-period book by the Oxford scientist whose writing mostly focuses on evolution; this one is an exception. Its topic is the beauty of science, how science addresses the “appetite for wonder,” and how people who don’t understand science pursue delusions in search of that same sense. It’s a very good book if somewhat uneven; some chapters are crystal clear and insightful; others get bogged down in very specific examples of biological systems that the author is no doubt familiar with but are difficult for layman (at least for me) to follow.

Half-way through Dawkins quotes Carl Sagan, with a passage the represents the key theme of the book:

How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought! The universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant? Instead they say, ‘No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.’ A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.

Summary and Quotes

  • The book’s title derives from a poem by Keats, who thought Newton’s explanation of the rainbow deprived it of its beauty and poetry. Dawkins’ thesis is the opposite: understanding, for example, why we see rainbows has led to a vast understanding of the universe we live in, without reducing their beauty at all.
  • Real science provides the same sense of wonder expressed by the mystic poets, despite threats from purveyors of pseudoscience, critics who see science as just another cultural myth, broadcasters who think science must be “fun,” and those who think ignorance of science is cute, or simply not useful.
  • But, without losing lucidity, indeed with added lucidity, we need to reclaim for real science that style of awed wonder that moved mystics like Blake. Real science has a just entitlement to the tingle in the spine which, at a lower level, attracts the fans of Star Trek and Doctor Who and which, at the lowest level of all, has been lucratively hijacked by astrologers, clairvoyants and television psychics.

  • Chapter 3 is Key: Newton’s discovery that light bends through prisms (and raindrops) explained rainbows; the discovery of absorption lines in such spectra (“barcodes in the stars”) enabled the identification of the composition of stars; the discovery of shifts in absorption lines led to the understanding that the universe is expanding, and so, by projecting the expansion backward, to the discovery of the age of the universe.
  • Similarly, “barcodes on the air,” pressure waves in the atmosphere, provides understanding of sounds, harmonics, and analogous cycles of wildlife and mass extinctions; and why vowel sounds are different.
  • And “barcodes at the bar,” i.e. DNA analysis, provide ways to analyze evidence in court trials.
  • People are subject to superstition and gullibility, e.g. astrology (how would it work?; it doesn’t work; astrologers don’t agree among themselves; why is anyone impressed?), and tabloids that routinely claim incredible events.
  • In contrast, we can positively rule some things out, like perpetual motion, and by considering the likely sources of other claims, rule out fairies in the garden, the Loch Ness monster, flying saucers, and so on. These betray an appetite for wonder, and the source of credulousness in the understandable desirability of children to believe anything their parents tell them.
  • Fraud, illusion, trickery, hallucination, honest mistake or outright lies—the combination adds up to such a *probable* alternative that I shall always doubt *casual* observations or second-hand stories that seem to suggest the catastrophic overthrow of existing science. Existing science will undoubtedly be overthrown; not, however, by casual anecdotes or performances on television, but by rigorous research, repeated, dissected and repeated again.

  • Habits of mind to overcome superstition include understanding of statistics, of coincidences, of pattern detection; humans err in certain direction because we’re miscalibrated based on our evolutionary past.
  • Chapter 8 is about “bad poetic science,” i.e. not bad writing per se, but writing that suggests bad science, e.g. through bad metaphors. Dawkins targets especially Stephen Jay Gould, his misleading distinction between gradualistic and abrupt evolutionary change, and his implication that the Cambrian fossils suggest some kind of top-down imposition of new forms.
  • Two technical chapters warn against the illusion of simple opposites, e.g. nasty vs. nice; how genes cooperate with each other; how species don’t exist “for” other species, and so on. Dawkins imagines how a single gene survives, in successful bodies, from generation to generation.
  • The brain simplifies perceptions and creates a virtual world [[ These ideas are familiar from Deutsch, who’s first book was published the year before this one. ]], with evidence from brain disorders how perception can go wrong.
  • Finally the author speculates about why our brains are so big, and have grown so fast, compared to other animals. He suggests various kinds of co-evolution, like the hardware/software co-evolution of computers. For humans, the “software” that fueled the expansion of brains might have been language; the reading of maps; throwing things; memes; and sexual selection.
  • We can take the virtual reality software in our heads and emancipate it from the tyranny of simulating only utilitarian reality. We can imagine worlds that might be, as well as those that are. We can simulate possible future as well as ancestral pasts. With the aid of external memories and symbol-manipulating artifacts – paper and pens, abacuses and computers – we are in a position to construct a working model of the universe and run it in our heads before we die.

    …Not a superstitious, small-minded, parochial model filled with spirits and hobgoblins, astrology and magic, glittering with fake crocks of gold where the rainbow ends. A big model, worthy of the reality that regulates, updates and tempers it; a model of stars and great distances, where Einstein’s noble spacetime curve upstages the curve of Yahweh’s conventional bow and cuts it down to size…

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