The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True has got to be one of the most visually appealing books that has arrived on my desk this year. The book is stunning enough to just sit on the coffee table, but it is also eminently readable and engaging. Dave McKean’s images are, as one has come to expect, both surreal and illuminating, picking up the threads provided by Dawkins’ text while adding a little bit of his own spin.
The overall thesis of the book is that reality itself is magically wonderful and that we don’t need the supernatural–that truth itself is challenging and rich enough to keep us inspired and awestruck.
It does this by providing a series of lessons about common and often poorly understand natural phenomenon–just the sort of science that you hope your children are getting at school.
The book covers such topics as evolution, natural selection, atoms, astronomy, rainbows, and other forms of refraction, the origin of the universe, whether there is life beyond Earth, earthquakes and other seismic and geological phenomenon, the immune system, and chance. Most chapters begin with explanatory myths, and progresses from the stories to the science, showing both the connection and the disconnect.
Though the book is pitched at young adults, and will be a valuable and interested adjunct to school lessons, McKean’s amazing visuals, the extremely lucid explanations and illustrative examples make this an equally good read for adults–filling in all those gaps in knowledge.
There are no fairy tales here. The book does a pretty good job of debunking a whole range of myths and legends, putting Christianity on par with ancient myths and legends, ghost stories, and claims of UFO abductions, dreams, and card tricks.
That Dawkins does it with such good humour and lucidity, invoking Hume’s miracle argument from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding to show how we can distinguish between opposing empirical claims, is a testament to both his intellectual capacity and his strong self-confidence.
Certainly the book presents stunning arguments (the chapter on UFOs is particularly powerful) and illustrations of scientific principles with great clarity. Nevertheless, as a poet, I can’t help thinking that the one area of the “miraculous” that Dawkins skirts over or even misses entirely is the notion of metaphor.
Many of the legends presented and debunked aren’t meant to be taken literally, though I’m aware that there are people who do. Some of these stories are more than ‘fun’–they’re also designed to illuminate aspects of human nature–character types, examples of hubres, emotions, cultures, ideas. Dawkins has written on such memes in his book The Selfish Gene, so dismissing them so entirely seems an odd approach: “it is time to put away the myths and look at the truth.”
If we completely dismiss our cultural traditions, our historical heritage, and by implication, all the wonders of art and literature that these things give rise to, we’re in danger of losing out on another very human kind of magic. This magic–the magic of metaphor–is not in the slightest bit antithetical to science or an awareness of a scientific view of the world. Indeed, it may well be the wellspring of the hypothesis.
Nonetheless, overall The Magic of Reality is a beautiful book that will inspire and encourage children to see science as exciting and magical, and if it encourages young scientists to take their studies further, that’s wonderful. There’s much here for children of all ages to learn, and Dawkins’ prose remains clear-sighted and easy to understand throughout.
The chapters on rainbows and evolution in particular are standouts–melding the visuals with text perfectly in a way that is easy to understand.
Nevertheless, we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and to see myths and even, to a certain extent, historical experience, as old-fashioned falsehoods that we need to evolve beyond is limiting. There’s plenty of magic in stories.