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Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder Paperback – April 5, 2000

4.0 out of 5 stars 153 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Why do poets and artists so often disparage science in their work? For that matter, why does so much scientific literature compare poorly with, say, the phone book? After struggling with questions like these for years, biologist Richard Dawkins has taken a wide-ranging view of the subjects of meaning and beauty in Unweaving the Rainbow, a deeply humanistic examination of science, mysticism, and human nature. Notably strong-willed in a profession of bet-hedgers and wait-and-seers, Dawkins carries the reader along on a romp through the natural and cultural worlds, determined that "science, at its best, should leave room for poetry."

Inspired by the frequently asked question, "Why do you bother getting up in the morning?" following publication of his book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins set out determined to show that understanding nature's mechanics need not sap one's zest for life. Alternately enlightening and maddening, Unweaving the Rainbow will appeal to all thoughtful readers, whether wild-eyed technophiles or grumpy, cabin-dwelling Luddites. Excoriations of newspaper astrology columns follow quotes from Blake and Shakespeare, which are sandwiched between sparkling, easy-to-follow discussions of probability, behavior, and evolution. In Dawkins's world (and, he hopes, in ours), science is poetry; he ends his journey by referring to his title's author and subject, maintaining that "A Keats and a Newton, listening to each other, might hear the galaxies sing." --Rob Lightner

From Publishers Weekly

Keats complained that Newton's experiments with prisms had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow. Not so, says Oxford biologist Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) who, in an eloquent if prickly defense of the scientific enterprise, calls on the "two cultures" of science and poetry to learn from each other. Yet Dawkins cautions against "bad poetic science," i.e., seductive but misleading metaphors, and cites as an example " 'Gaia': the overrated romantic fancy of the whole world as an organism," a hypothesis proposed by atmospheric scientist James Lovelock and bacteriologist Lynn Margulis. Dawkins (continuing a celebrated battle that has been raging in the New York Review of Books) also lambastes paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould for "bad poetry," rejecting Gould's theory of punctuated equilibrium, which holds that new species emerge during relatively short bursts of evolutionary advance. In these conversational, discursive essays, Dawkins is, as always, an elegant, witty popularizer, whether he is offering a crash course in DNA fingerprinting, explaining the origins of "mad cow disease" in weird proteins that spread like self-replicating viruses or discussing male birdsong as an auditory aphrodisiac for female birds. However, in venturing into realms beyond the immediate purview of science, he reveals his own biases, launching into a predictable, rather superficial assault on paranormal research, UFO reports, astrology and psychic phenomena, all of which he dismisses as products of fraud, illusion, sloppy observation or an exploitation of our natural appetite for wonder. Dawkins is most interesting when he theorizes that our brains have partly taken over from DNA the role of recording the environment, resulting in "virtual worlds" that alter the terrain in which our genes undergo natural selection. Agent, John Brockman. 50,000 first printing; first serial to the Sciences.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (April 5, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618056734
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618056736
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 5.2 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (153 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #75,657 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Not many people have the gift of taking some common event and deconstructing it to the nth degree, while making it all seem quite normal. As in his other books (Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable, etc.) Mr. Dawkins makes your mind boggle at the way nature use very simple (?) building blocks to fashion something extraordinary ... like us. You are set back on your heels when you realise that your body is largely composed of modified bacteria, without which we could not exist. He goes on to expound on how we see and from there how our brain interprets the world, comparing it to Virtual Reality (no comparison!) - anyone who has experienced any form of VR will understand the immense computing power it takes to present even a half-decent rendition, but the brain does this continuously AND has time to dream, imagine, remember past events and places all in real-time - I doubt if enough teraflops of computer power exist in the world even now to do that.
The main thrust of the book is the poetry of science; how, by understanding more about the way the universe works, we can appreciate the wonder of it all the better - open our minds to something more beautiful than just the outward appearance of a beautiful object - even make us see the beauty in some not-so- pleasant sights!
In this book he uses well thought-out, easy-to-grasp concepts to explode myths, de-bunk charlatans, and de-mystify magic (a little TOO vitriolic at times, I fear!) - all with the intention of opening our minds to the concept of evolution (specifically Darwinism). He takes us from rainbows to barcodes to DNA in easy stages, explaining in graphic (but never tedious) detail just how nature can (and will) evolve all its wonders.
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Format: Paperback
As a geology student I mainly use to read Dawkins' books out of curiosity for evolutionary biology and appreciation for his debating skills, not because they've got anything to do with my field. This one was different though, as I knew it would be about scientific thought in general, so possibly of more interest to anyone into science, no matter what their specific expertise.....
I have to say now, after reading it not once but twice, I am glad I have to disagree with nearly all the negative critics I read on this book, and there seem to have appeared lots, both on Amazon websites and on various magazines and journals. Which was, incidentally, one more reason for me to grow curious about this essay....

"Unweaving The Rainbow" is a collection of informal personal reflections on what science is all about, what it means to some of us from an emotional viewpoint, and how it fares when compared to other cultural orientations that seem to be more widespread, like arts and humanities, or (in stark contrast to science!) superstition, pseudo-science and metaphysical spiritualism. There's no technical discussion of any topics in the philosophy of science, just the knowledgeable digressions of someone with something to say. My only quibble is that the last four chapters seem to stray somewhat far out of the book's main purpose, delving deeper and more exclusively into the realm of "extended" biology, following an evolutionary thread that starts with Dawkins' typical metaphors on the role of genes in the game of life and ends with a touch of cultural anthropology and psychology.... But then again, it's just one more example of how science can be beautiful and fulfilling, though still lacking answers to some of our questions (but working on it, and you never know....
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Format: Paperback
Dawkins the old Master is at his best and worst in this book. The premise of the bookis arranged around the idea that Poetry and Art are sometimes in fundemental opposition to science. But why should they be Dawkins asks?
It is a fair question and one must make allowances for some bad scientific allegories as well as plain bad poetry. Dawkins has started out with a wonderful idea and he develops it very nicely for about half of the book. Then the book begins to degenerate into something of a jumbled criticism of Steven J. Gould (nothing new there) and the wanderings and adapted characteristics of hedge sparrows and --- no surprise --- a defence of the selfish-gene theory.
In final analysis Dawkins starts out with one of the those cosmic-wonder-of-science books, and then it degenerates into borderline pedantry, with interesting bits of science thrown in around the sides. Dawkins is not the populariser that is Carl Sagan and his writing in this book shows it.
Dawkins is at his best when he has a specific point to prove in an area that he knows well. "The Blind Watchmaker" and "The Extended Phenotype" and the "Selfish Gene" are all par excellance when it comes to him arguing from a first premise in his area of expertise.
Dawkins is also an old crusty Oxbridge lecturer and it comes across in this book. I like that a lot! I think that some readers may be a little bit perturbed to be told what to think. But let's get it straight here. This man has one of the greatest minds in Modern Zoology -- it behooves us to listen to him. We have a lot to learn from him.
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