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A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love Hardcover – September 29, 2003

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Editorial Reviews Review

Richard Dawkins has an opinion on everything biological, it seems, and in A Devil's Chaplain, everything is biological. Dawkins weighs in on topics as diverse as ape rights, jury trials, religion, and education, all examined through the lens of natural selection and evolution. Although many of these essays have been published elsewhere, this book is something of a greatest-hits compilation, reprinting many of Dawkins' most famous recent compositions. They are well worth re-reading. His 1998 review of Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont's Fashionable Nonsense is as bracing an indictment of academic obscurantism as the book it covered, although the review reveals some of Dawkins' personal biases as well. Several essays are devoted to skillfully debunking religion and mysticism, and these are likely to raise the hackles of even casual believers. Science, and more specifically evolutionary science, underlies each essay, giving readers a glimpse into the last several years' debates about the minutiae of natural selection. In one moving piece, Dawkins reflects on his late rival Stephen Jay Gould's magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, and clarifies what it was the two Darwinist heavyweights actually disagreed about. While the collection showcases Dawkins' brilliance and intellectual sparkle, it brings up as many questions as it answers. As an ever-ardent champion of science, honest discourse, and rational debate, Dawkins will obviously relish the challenge of answering them. --Therese Littleton

From Publishers Weekly

Oxford don Dawkins is familiar to readers with any interest in evolution. While the late Stephen Jay Gould was alive, he and Dawkins were friendly antagonists on the question of whether evolution "progresses" (Gould: No, Dawkins: Yes, depending on your definition of "progress"). Dawkins's The Selfish Gene has been very influential, not least for his introduction of the "meme," sort of a Lamarckian culturally inherited trait. In this, his first collection of essays, Dawkins muses on a wide spectrum of topics: why the jury system isn't the best way to determine innocence or guilt; the vindication of Darwinism (or what he insists is properly called neo-Darwinism) in the past quarter-century; the fallacy in thinking that individual genes, for instance a "gay gene," can be directly linked to personality traits; what he sees as the dangers of giving opponents the benefit of the doubt just because they wrap their arguments in religious belief; several sympathetic pieces on Gould; and a final section on why we all can be said to be "out of Africa." Fans of Dawkins's earlier books should snap up this collection. Readers new to him may find that the short format (many of these essays were originally forewords to books, book reviews or magazine pieces) doesn't quite do his reputation justice. Dawkins will antagonize some readers by his attacks on religion: his tone in these essays may fall just short of intellectual arrogance, but he certainly exhibits an intellectual impatience not always beneficial to his argument. Still, Dawkins's enthusiasm for the diversity of life on this planet should prove contagious.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (September 29, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618335404
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618335404
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (78 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #616,200 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Richard Dawkins taught zoology at the University of California at Berkeley and at Oxford University and is now the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, a position he has held since 1995. Among his previous books are The Ancestor's Tale, The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow, and A Devil's Chaplain. Dawkins lives in Oxford with his wife, the actress and artist Lalla Ward.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

227 of 241 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on September 9, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Charles Darwin said that there was grandeur in his view of life produced by natural selection, but it was not all a pretty picture. He wrote his friend Joseph Hooker in 1856: "What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature." Richard Dawkins has taken the quotation for the title of a collection of his writings, A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (Houghton Mifflin). Darwin also wrote of a particular wasp: "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living body of caterpillars." But as Darwin (and Dawkins) would remind us, the evolutionary process has produced wonderfully designed creatures, and a wasp who cares for its young by letting them hatch within a hapless caterpillar is simply doing a competent job of getting the young off to a good start. It might be distasteful to us (and should have been to a supreme being), but nature just doesn't care. It isn't kindness of the mother wasp, or cruelty to the caterpillar, but simply amoral nature.
But as chaplain, Dawkins notes that while wasps and caterpillars can do nothing about such amorality, we can. "At the same time as I support Darwinism as a scientist, I am a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics and how we should conduct our human affairs." There is no inconsistency here any more than in the physician who studies cancer, but is bent on eliminating it. And as devil's chaplain, Dawkins urges us to use our evolution-given brains, reject the pacifiers of faith in immortality, and rejoice in our short lives because they are all we have.
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112 of 121 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 8, 2003
Format: Hardcover
One of the wonderful things about this book is the sense that one gets of a distinguished scientist letting his hair down, as it were, and discoursing informally on a number of interesting subjects including some outside his area of expertise. In the game of "Who would you invite to dinner if you could choose anybody?" Oxford University Professor Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, and other important works on evolution, would be near the top of my list.

Not that I agree with everything he says. Indeed, that is part of the fun. Dawkins is adamant on some subjects, religion being one of them. A goodly portion of this book is devoted to letting us know exactly how he feels about the "God hypothesis," "liberal agnostics," and the so-called miracles recognized by especially the Catholic Church. The title of Chapter 3.3, "The Great Convergence" (of science and religion), for example, is used ironically. He sees no convergence; in fact, he calls such a notion "a shallow, empty, hollow, spin-doctored sham." (p. 151)

Clearly Dawkins is not a man to mince words. But his insistence on a restrictive definition of "God" as "a hypothetical being who answers prayers; intervenes to save cancer patients...forgives sin," etc., is really the problem. He considers the "religion" attributed to scientists like Einstein, Carl Sagan, Paul Davies and others (and even himself!) to involve a misuse of the term, calling such a definition "flabbily elastic" and not religion as experienced by "the ordinary person in the pew." (p. 147)

But what Dawkins is really railing against is the illegitimacy of believing in the supernatural and science at the same time.
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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By E. Silva-herzog on August 24, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Richard Dawkins is one of the most influential and controversial essayists of today. A renowned evolutionary biologist, he currently holds the Charles Simonyi Chair at Oxford University. In his book A Devils Champlain he brings together 25 years and some of his best and most polemic essays (some previously unpublished) with subjects dealing with everything from love to evolution.

He employs his analytical passion to raise some mind-blowing questions and does not back down from challenging what many people consider as fundamental truths. He analyzes very intricate topics and situations through a scientific lens and is able to do it with clarity and simplicity. Although he has been criticized for some strong anti-religions standpoints and instances were his bias affects his writing; I believe that his work, even if you don't agree with it, is worth reading for he definitely makes some very valid points.

I believe Richard Dawkins is one of the elite essayist because of his ability to take on such complex beliefs, brake it down systematically and with the use of some philosophy prove his point; all while keeping a clear and simple style. He displays mastery in several subjects including, but not restricted to physics, biology and philosophy.

This book is divided into seven sections, each with a preamble. These sections are themselves made up of short and varied articles enabling reader is also able to jump from section to section and read different pieces since the order is not overly central. This complemented by his concise style making for a very easy read.

This book is not only a great read but it could change the way you think about some of the most basic things in you're life and will force you to re-analyze several aspects of today's society.
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