Science in the Soul

Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist

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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The legendary biologist and bestselling author mounts a timely and passionate defense of science and clear thinking with this career-spanning collection of essays, including twenty pieces published in the United States for the first time.

For decades, Richard Dawkins has been a brilliant scientific communicator, consistently illuminating the wonders of nature and attacking faulty logic. Science in the Soul brings together forty-two essays, polemics, and paeans—all written with Dawkins’s characteristic erudition, remorseless wit, and unjaded awe of the natural world.

Though it spans three decades, this book couldn’t be more timely or more urgent. Elected officials have opened the floodgates to prejudices that have for half a century been unacceptable or at least undercover. In a passionate introduction, Dawkins calls on us to insist that reason take center stage and that gut feelings, even when they don’t represent the stirred dark waters of xenophobia, misogyny, or other blind prejudice, should stay out of the voting booth. And in the essays themselves, newly annotated by the author, he investigates a number of issues, including the importance of empirical evidence, and decries bad science, religion in the schools, and climate-change deniers.

Dawkins has equal ardor for “the sacred truth of nature” and renders here with typical virtuosity the glories and complexities of the natural world. Woven into an exploration of the vastness of geological time, for instance, is the peculiar history of the giant tortoises and the sea turtles—whose journeys between water and land tell us a deeper story about evolution. At this moment, when so many highly placed people still question the fact of evolution, Dawkins asks what Darwin would make of his own legacy—“a mixture of exhilaration and exasperation”—and celebrates science as possessing many of religion’s virtues—“explanation, consolation, and uplift”—without its detriments of superstition and prejudice.

In a world grown irrational and hostile to facts, Science in the Soul is an essential collection by an indispensable author.

Praise for Science in the Soul

“Compelling . . . rendered in gloriously spiky and opinionated prose . . . [Dawkins is] one of the great science popularizers of the last half-century.”The Christian Science Monitor 

“Dawkins is a ferocious polemicist, a defender of reason and enemy of superstition.”—John Horgan, Scientific American

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Science in the Soul

WE BEGIN AT THE HEART OF THE MATTER, with science: what it is, what it does, how it is (best) done. Richard’s 1997 Amnesty lecture, ‘The values of science and the science of values’, is a wonderful portmanteau piece, covering a huge amount of ground and trailing several themes developed elsewhere in this collection: the overriding respect of science for objective truth; the moral weight attached to the capacity to suffer, and the dangers of ‘speciesism’; a telling emphasis on key distinctions, as between ‘using rhetoric to bring out what you believe is really there, and using rhetoric knowingly to cover up what is really there’. This is the voice of the scientist communicator, the determined believer in marshalling language to convey truth, not to create an artificial ‘truth’. The very first paragraph makes a careful distinction: the values that underpin science are one thing, a proud and precious set of principles to be defended, for on them depends the perpetuation of our civilization; the attempt to derive values from scientific knowledge is an altogether different and more suspect enterprise. We must have the courage to admit that we start in an ethical vacuum; that we invent our own values.
The writer of this lecture is no fact-bound Gradgrind, no dry bean (or bone) counter. The passages on the aesthetic value of science, the poetic vision of Carl Sagan, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar’s ‘shuddering before the beautiful’ – these epitomize passionate celebration of the glories, beauties and potentialities of science to bring joy to our lives and hope to our futures.
We then make a change of pace and platform as the register shifts from the extended and reflective to the pithy and pointed: what I like to think of as the Dawkins Dart. Here, with steely courtesy, Richard pursues several points made in his Amnesty lecture in admonishing Britain’s next monarch on the perils of following the lead of ‘inner wisdom’ rather than evidence-based science. Typically, he does not absolve humans from using their judgement in respect of the possibilities offered by science and technology: ‘one worrying aspect of the hysterical opposition to the possible risks from GM crops is that it diverts attention from definite dangers which are already well understood but largely ignored’
The third piece in this section, ‘Science and sensibility’, is another wide-ranging lecture, delivered with a characteristic combination of gravitas and sparkle. Here too we see the messianic enthusiasm for science – tempered by a sober reflection on how far we could have come by the millennium, and the distances we have not covered. Typically, this is conceived as a recipe not for despair but for redoubled effort.
And where did all this unquenchable curiosity, this hunger for knowledge, this campaigning compassion come from? The section closes with ‘Dolittle and Darwin’, an affectionate look back at some of the influences that fed into a child’s education in the values of science – including a lesson in distinguishing core values from their temporary historical and cultural coloration.
Through all these disparate pieces, the key messages reverberate clearly. It’s no good shooting the messenger, no good turning to illusory comforts, no good confusing is with ought or with what you might like to be the case. They are ultimately positive messages: a clear, sustained focus on how things work, coupled with the intelligent imagination of the incurably curious, will yield insights that inform, challenge and stimulate. And so science continues to develop, understanding to grow, knowledge to expand. Taken together, these pieces offer a manifesto for science and a call to arms in its cause.
The values of science and the science of values*
The values of science; what does this mean? In a weak sense I shall mean – and shall take a sympathetic view of – the values that scientists might be expected to hold, insofar as these are influenced by their profession. There is also a strong meaning, in which scientific knowledge is used directly to derive values as if from a holy book. Values in this sense I shall strongly† repudiate. The book of nature may be no worse than a traditional holy book as a source of values to live by, but that isn’t saying much.
* The Oxford Amnesty Lectures are an annual series, given in the Sheldonian Theatre in aid of Amnesty International. Each year the lectures are collected in a book, edited by an Oxford academic. In 1997 the convenor and editor was Wes Williams and the chosen theme was ‘the values of science’. Among the lecturers were Daniel Dennett, Nicholas Humphrey, George Monbiot and Jonathan Rée. Mine was the second of the series of seven and the text is reproduced here.
† Had Sam Harris’s thought-provoking book The Moral Landscape been published at the time of this lecture, I would have deleted ‘strongly’. Harris makes a persuasive case that there are some actions, for example infliction of acute suffering, which it would be perverse to deny are immoral, and that science can play a crucial role in identifying them. A worthwhile case can be made that the fact–value distinction has been oversold. (For full publication details of books referred to in the text and notes, please see the bibliography at the back of this volume.)
The science of values – the other half of my title – means the scientific study of where our values come from. This in itself should be value-free, an academic question, not obviously more contentious than the question of where our bones come from. The conclusion might be that our values owe nothing to our evolutionary history, but that is not the conclusion I shall reach.
The values of science in the weak sense
I doubt that scientists in private are less (or more) likely to cheat their spouses or their tax inspectors than anybody else. But in their professional life scientists do have special reasons for valuing simple truth. The profession is founded on a belief that there is such a thing as objective truth which transcends cultural variety, and that if two scientists ask the same question they should converge upon the same truth regardless of their prior beliefs or cultural background or even, within limits, ability. This is not contradicted by the widely rehearsed philosophical belief that scientists don’t prove truths but advance hypotheses which they fail to disprove. The philosopher may persuade us that our facts are only undisproved theories, but there are some theories we shall bet our shirt on never being disproved, and these are what we ordinarily call true.* Different scientists, widely separated geographically and culturally, will tend to converge upon the same undisproved theories.
*I like Steve Gould’s way of putting it. ‘In science, “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.” I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms’ (‘Evolution as fact and theory’, in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes ).

- About the author -

Richard Dawkins is a fellow of the Royal Society and was the inaugural holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He is the acclaimed author of many books, including The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion, The Magic of Reality, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow, The Ancestor’s Tale, and The Greatest Show on Earth. He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Royal Society of Literature Award, the Michael Faraday Prize of the Royal Society, the Kistler Prize, the Shakespeare Prize, the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science, the Galaxy British Book Awards Author of the Year Award, and the International Cosmos Prize of Japan.

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Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist


Science in the Soul

— Published by Random House Trade Paperbacks —