Review of "Unweaving the Rainbow"

Unweaving the Rainbow, by Richard Dawkins. ISBN 014026408-6.

The poet John Keats complained (more than once) that Newton’s work on optics destroyed something of the wonder of the rainbow by removing its mystery. Hence the title of this book, in which Dawkins aims to do three things:

He’s done a decent job on all three counts, but I wonder whether a narrower focus (or a broader!) might have made for a better book.

So, Dawkins begins by taking the reader on a ramble through some of his favourite bits of science, the aim presumably being to show how beautiful and inspiring it is. And, indeed, some of the science he describes is truly inspiring -- but, I suspect, only to those who were never in much danger of treating science as dull and unpoetic in the first place.

Having followed this trail as far as a discussion of DNA fingerprinting and probability, he moves on to an attack on pseudoscience and superstition, giving in the process some interesting suggestions about why and how people are gullible and vulnerable to superstition; this leads him to consider a different sort of bad science, corrupted by the wrong sort of "poetic" thinking, especially inappropriate analogies.

And, finally, he chats for a few chapters about genes and humans’ big brains and how they might have got that way; at this point, I think, we’re back to the "some of my favourite bits of science" thing.

Dawkins has some good stories to tell: the "superstitious" behaviour of Skinner’s pigeons, the curious heredity of female cuckoos, Kennewick Man. There are two problems here: firstly, that they don’t -- to my mind -- add up to anything greater than themselves; secondly, that there are quite a lot of little mistakes. Dawkins is doubtless a very good evolutionary biologist, but he isn’t a great physicist or mathematician or philosopher. For instance, in what’s otherwise quite a good description of how rainbows arise, he claims that "the raindrops delivering red light to you are all at a fixed distance from you [...] you are the centre of the circle". No, you are not the centre of the circle.

The book is also, in my view, diminished by the savage attack on Steven Jay Gould in the eighth chapter. Dawkins half-heartedly pretends that he’s not getting at Gould personally; I don’t believe him. What’s particularly strange is that a large part of the chapter is devoted to some allegedly very bad thinking allegedly inspired by Gould’s writings about the "Cambrian explosion" ... in the course of which he doesn’t quote so much as a single word from Gould to support his charge. Plenty of quotations from other authors; none from the man he blames.

Despite my reservations, "Unweaving the Rainbow" is an interesting and enjoyable book: but it could have been rather better.