Christmas is looming for many of us and with it the challenge of buying the perfect gift for friends and family. Choosing something for young people (especially teenagers) is particularly difficult since their quixotic sensibilities can make choosing just the right thing something of a shot in the dark. Although a printed book might seem culturally retro to the younger generation, this is just what I am suggesting here. Not just any old book of course or even a book about plants (which you might expect in the AoB Blogosphere) but a philosophy book. I doubt such a heavy word occurs even once in the book itself but philosophy is what it’s about and it makes for very good reading.
The book I am referring to is Richard Dawkins’s The Magic of Reality. It was published just a few months ago. This distinguished biologist has written numerous popular books before (most notably perhaps The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion) but this is the first time he has written specifically for young people ― an even harder task than buying them Christmas presents. Dawkins attempts, in plain non-technical language, to evaluate the world around us and the wider universe too. He pulls no punches in putting across his main theme that myths and magic have no place in the present day as we struggle to understand biological and physical reality.
Each of the twelve chapters starts with plain non-nonsense accounts of long-standing myths and legends and supernatural beliefs that many people still rely on to explain what is around them. This is followed by alternative myth busting evidence-based explanations. Dawkins successfully portrays these as far more exciting and full of adventure and promise than the long-standing belief-based explanations of old, no matter how colourful these may be in literary terms. He emphasises the precedence of experimental evidence over belief and decries any approach that fails to allow for knowledge to develop further as new evidence comes to light. The subjects dealt with in this way are turned into leading questions that are used as chapter headings. They include ‘Who was the first person?’; ‘Why are there so many different kinds of animals?’; What are things made of?’; ‘What is the sun?’; ‘When and how did everything begin?’; ‘What is a miracle?’; ‘What is an earthquake?’; Why do bad things happen?’. These are just the sort of awkward questions often posed by young people and Dawkins harnesses them to great effect to explain current state of knowledge on diverse matters stretching from subatomic structures to the big bang, with lots of biology parked in between.
It’s a pity Dawkins could find relatively little about plants to help get young readers excited about. However, they do feature here and there. Heavy use is made of analogies (e.g. a three-mile-high pile of imaginary photographs, one for each generation, used to illustrate the approx. 185 million generations that lie between us and our fishy ancestors). These can sometimes become a touch tedious but they usually get the job nicely done. All the well-crafted and unpretentious writing is, by contrast, bathed in colourful eye-catching illustrations by Dave McKean. Every page is brilliantly enhanced by his arresting artwork that is always well-grounded in the text that floats amongst the imagery.
By the way, The Magic of Reality is not just for teenagers. And, if nothing else it is an object lesson in how to write about complex and difficult subjects for non-specialists. There is a happy knack of combining confident exposition with the humility that comes from knowing there is so very much still to learn. Of course, if that were not true, science would simply grind to a halt. So it is perhaps odd that so much science writing is overbearingly ‘definitive’. Perhaps this happens when a wealth of learned facts is confused with knowledge and insight. Happily Dawkins writing is not in this mould.
Chief Editor, AoB PLANTS