Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origin, by Robert M Hazen. Joseph Henry Press, Washington, DC, USA. Reviewed by Bernard Howard.Continue reading
Bomby: The creationists’ favourite beetle
A knockout blow for evolution turns out to be nothing of the sort
AS JBS Haldane famously said, God must have an inordinate fondness for beetles, he made so many of them. Of all the tens of thousands of the horny-winged horde, the creationists have chosen, as the absolute knockout anti-natural selection example, the bombardier beetle. Only the great Organic Chemist in the sky could have designed the chemical weapon system which enables this beetle to deal with ants and other predators.
The special feature is a sac containing a mixture of two chemicals, which do not react with each other spontaneously. When danger threatens the beetle is able to initiate changes in this mixture which cause it to be expelled explosively. The resulting missile is not only toxic and corrosive, but also, because of the heat generated by the reaction, it is boiling hot. Some species adopt a blunderbuss or scattergun method of discharging their weapon, others are even cleverer and can aim at their target like a marksman.
To understand why creationists have been so excited, and to follow the suggested evolutionary pathway leading to this phenomenon, we must look more closely at the chemistry of the process. The storage sac contains two substances, hydrogen peroxide and a relatively simple organic compound, quinol. The latter is oxidisable to quinone, but, although hydrogen peroxide is an oxidising agent, the two can coexist without reacting if left undisturbed. When danger threatens, the sac containing this mixture is emptied into a reaction chamber containing the enzymes catalase and peroxidase. The catalase decomposes the hydrogen peroxide almost instantaneously into water and oxygen, and the peroxidase causes it to react with the quinol, oxidising it to quinone. This in turn causes two things to happen; the heat released in this reaction raises the temperature to boiling point, and the sudden release of gaseous oxygen forces the liquid out with great force. In passing, we note that the creationists have the chemistry and sequence of the process wrong, but, as is their wont, they persevere in their error after being corrected.
Why have the creationists seized on this as a clincher for their belief? Well, it’s all so complicated, isn’t it? Quantities of two unusual chemicals, two enzymes, as well as the anatomical arrangements. Each is necessary, the system would not work if any one was missing. In modern creationist jargon, it is irreducibly complex. Therefore dear old Bomby must have been intelligently designed, mustn’t he? No. It ain’t necessarily so! A plausible sequence leading from a generalised arthropod to this specialised animal can be suggested. It nicely illustrates the way features with one function can be co-opted for other purposes, and demonstrates how small steps, each conferring a minute selective advantage, can lead eventually to large changes. We can note first that each of the four chemicals is not unusual, as claimed by creationists, but is a common constituent of arthropod metabolic systems. Quinone is made by numerous insects; it ‘tans’ the cuticle making the exoskeleton more or less rigid and dark in colour. Quinol may be synthesised by a similar route; it is not confined to bombardier beetles. Hydrogen peroxide is widespread in nature as a product of oxygen metabolism. Catalase and peroxidase are also found universally in the animal kingdom; oxygen, on which our life depends, is not an unmixed blessing, and these enzymes destroy dangerous by-products of oxygen metabolism (think anti-oxidants). Greater gene activity, leading to the biosynthesis of increasing amounts of these chemicals, seems an obvious pathway of natural selection. M Isaak (2003) has linked this process to the anatomical changes which would have taken place concurrently with the chemical developments. Each step in this scheme confers an obvious advantage and so would be selected for. Though the combination of features makes the bombardier beetle unique, individually they have counterparts in many other insects; for example, the secretory glands which produce the pheromones and other chemical signals. Isaak’s article discusses the issue in more detail, and is recommended (Isaak, M. Bombardier beetles and the Argument of Design www.talkorigins.org/faqs/bombadier).
This article was suggested by my reading The Bombardier Beetle’s Chemical Defence, by Marten J ten Hoor, Hoogezand, Netherlands, in CHEMNZ, no. 100. I am grateful to Mr ten Hoor and the editors of that journal for providing that stimulus.
A very merry unbirthday
“There are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents and only one for birthday presents, you know.”
A quotation is always a useful heading to an article, and one from ‘Alice’ always lends an air of paradox and profundity.
Christchurch Skeptics, and some fellow-travellers, met recently to celebrate TWO birthdays; Charles Darwin (12 February 1809) and the New Zealand Skeptics (NZCSICOP) (6 February 1986). As a gesture from youth to age our function was held closer to the twelfth than the sixth; on the evening of Saturday, 11 February (an UNbirthday?) at the Cotswold Hotel.
In addition to the usual aids to eating, the tables were lent a skeptical air with cards carrying Darwinian/Skeptical quotes selected by chair-entity Vicki Hyde and some pseudoscientific baubles made by myself. Large jugs of gin (homeopathic, 30C), irreducibly complex bacterial flagella for lashing evolutionists, magnifying glasses for seeking answers in Genesis, pyramids for sharpening razor blades and brains, and magnets to be carried in male trouser pockets (cheaper than viagra). The door between the Kitchen and the dining Tables became the K/T boundary, with dinosaurs on one side and chickens on the other. The toast “Charles Darwin” was proposed by our chair-entity, and the meal then began with (what else?) primordial soup. The dinner then proceeded on its usual course with much conviviality.
Despite the late hour, the after-dinner address by Denis Dutton held the gathering’s attention to the end. ‘Darwinian Aesthetics: what Evolution tells us about the Nature of Art’ described how some eminent and ardent evolutionists resisted the application of Darwin’s ideas to human behaviour and social structures, yet such an extension of evolutionary principles explains much about us. Four hundred generations of urban living have not obliterated eighty thousand generations as hunter gatherers, so people in all present day cultures find most pleasing the type of landscape in which our distant ancestors developed. Dr Dutton gave a number of other examples relating our ideas of beauty and ugliness to ancestral behaviours of selective advantage. Blame for the poor peacock’s caudal load lies firmly with the peahen; one example among many of sexual selection.
After a brief question and answer session, our chair-entity thanked the speaker and declared the Darwinday Dinner ended.
The success of the evening was due to the hard work of our Get-things-done Secretary. Thank you, Claire!
A French perspective on some old favourites
Debunked! by G Charpak & H Broch, translator BK Holland. Johns Hopkins University Press, Reviewed by Bernard Howard.Continue reading
The backward march of reason
“There’s no need for your organisation. We’re all skeptics nowadays.”
Anthroposophy in Darmstadt Children’s Hospital
The Darmstadt Children’s Hospital in Germany has acquired an “Anthroposophical Ambulance” thanks to the efforts of a fully qualified medical doctor who has extended his healing abilities by embracing Steiner principles. This hospital is a teaching hospital attached to the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Frankfurt-on-Main. The medical director has welcomed this development.
Feng Shui ritual causes apartment fire
Three Bavarian ladies tried to rid their apartment of bad spirits by opening doors and windows, and smoking them out with the aid of another spirit, that of wine (alcohol to us moderns). The fire ritual went amiss, the building was badly damaged by fire, the ladies were hospitalised, and the local authority was considering charging them with careless use of fire.
Founding of German Astrological Academy. Dr. Astrol anyone?
A group of German astrologers has founded the German Academy for Astrology, in the hope that it will open the way to State-recognised academic teaching of their subject. This despite the uproar in the French scientific community when notorious astrologer Elisabeth Teissier received a doctorate for her study of the sociology of the subject. There was a well grounded fear that the degree would lend a false appearance of validity. The University of Paris forbade the teaching of astrology in 1666.
University of TCM established in Vienna
The Traditional Chinese Medicine Academy in Vienna has prevailed upon the Minister of Education to grant it the status of a private university. Though it is yet to produce any research results, the institution will teach Diploma courses in Massage, Midwifery, and Physiotherapy, and courses for Bachelor and Masters degrees in Acupuncture, Pharmacology, and Tuina-massage. This year, expect even Dr. Sin. Med. graduates.
From that well known centre of spin, the British prime minister’s office, comes news that his wife, Cherie Blair, has embraced the latest ‘altmed’ fad, vortex therapy. The Scotsman reports that, “You place a hand on the part of the body from which the negative energies need to be drawn out, and point a long rod at a small block which is filled with corresponding negative energies.” / As her husband thinks President Bush can make the world safe for democracy, these two can have the satisfaction of meeting at breakfast knowing they have each already believed something impossible.
Acknowledgments: Items 1 to 4, Skeptiker; 5, New Scientist.
The Royal healing touch
The medical community in Britain is suffering a severe attack of lèse majesté, and it is feared some distinguished heads will roll on Tower Green.
Prince Charles, in his untiring care for the health of his future subjects, has set up The Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Integrated Health, and, with the help of several hundred thousand pounds of taxpayers’ money, this Foundation has published Complementary Health Care: a guide for patients. It helps readers to locate homeopaths, reflexologists, cranio-sacral therapists, and other types of healer. This 45-page treasury is being sent free to all GPs in Britain.
This well-meaning attempt by the philanthropic heir to the throne and his disciples to help the sick has been spurned by the medical fraternity, in the harshest and most hurtful terms. The British Medical Association has criticised it for recommending treatments which have no evidential support. More biting remarks have come from Professor Edzard Ernst, occupant of Britain’s only Chair of Complementary Medicine. When he saw a draft version, he said it was “hair-raisingly flimsy, misleading and dangerous”. He offered to correct it free of charge, an offer which was declined (Of course! How dare he presume to rewrite a text which had the Imprimatur of HRH?).
Having seen the published version, the Professor is even more scathing (see www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,1442930,00.html) “… scandalous waste of public funds … the most spurious I have seen for years … reads like a promotional booklet”.
No expense seems to have been spared in the production of the “Guide”; it is in full colour, with lots of photos of folk receiving various therapies. Though it concedes, even emphasises, the need to see your doctor and to keep him/her fully informed, the contents will otherwise be familiar to students of Complementary Medicine; no mention of evidence (though a scholarly-looking list of 141 references), much talk of “… believe that … ” and “… used by many people for …” and of those mysterious entities beloved of these practitioners: “energy” and “meridians”. There is, of course, no discussion of the mutually exclusive nature of some of these therapies, nor of the complete absence in many cases of evidence of efficacy. You know, of course, the meaning of the verb “to heal”. It is therefore puzzling to see one of the 16 therapeutic modalities included in the “Guide” is known as “Healing”. Surely it is not implied that none of the other 15 can cure your trouble? “Healing”, in this context, looks to be our old fraudulent friend Therapeutic Touch. If you are visiting Britain, and feel the need for a little cranio-sacral therapy, help is at hand. The Guide, with relevant addresses, can be downloaded free from www.fihealth.org.uk. Be cheered, also, by the claim that over half the GPs in Britain will direct you to CAM practitioners; indeed, many have such people working in their medical centres.
Prayer – Not so effective after all
A widely publicised trial which appeared to show prayer was effective in enhancing fertility now appears to have been fraudulent.
In 2001 an extraordinary paper, from the highly regarded Columbia University Medical Center, New York, appeared in the also highly regarded Journal of Reproductive Medicine. About 100 women in South Korea who were undergoing in vitro fertilisation treatment were divided into two groups; half had their photographs prayed over anonymously by persons in the US, the other half were not so prayed over. Astoundingly, the conception rate in the “prayed for” group was twice that in the “not prayed for” group. The work was hard to fault from internal evidence, as it had apparently been done using all the procedures of a modern clinical trial, and it became widely quoted as firm evidence for the efficacy of prayer. Publicity was aided by a press release from the university.
This intrigued Dr Bruce Flamm, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at California University. The scandalous nature of his findings is described in a recent Skeptical Inquirer. He wrote to the three authors and the journal editor, asking, as one would of a colleague in the same field, for access to the raw data of the experiments. Over a period of some years repeated similar inquiries have elicited no answer, not even an acknowledgment, from either journal or authors. Such behaviour is not only unusual and discourteous, it is also unethical, and inviting of suspicion.
In his article, Dr Flamm first comments on the unnecessary complication of the praying arrangements. Not only were the Korean women prayed for, but the Americans who were praying for them had their prayers “fortified” by themselves being prayed for by another group. And yet a third tier of prayers was added, praying that the prayers of the middle tier would be answered. The paper offered no reasons for this complexity, which would seem to introduce unnecessary confusion into the trial. Some prayers asked that “God’s will be done”, so, in the absence of knowledge of what God’s will is, any result is a “success”. How much prayer was offered, and whether the prayer and the prayed-for acknowledge the same God, were not enquired into.
The Korean women were quite unaware of all this praying, and the university had later to admit it was wrong not to have obtained informed consent. The university had initially described one man (Lobo) as lead author, but when Dr Flamm did get a reply from the vice-chancellor, this person was said to have not known of the work until well after it was done, and had had a merely editorial role in the paper. Another author had recently left the university, while the third has a long criminal history, and is now in jail for fraud. This man, Daniel Wirth, has also a history of publishing reports of “healing” in several papers in obscure paranormal journals.
Why a respectable journal was conned into publishing such a bizarre paper remains a mystery, because the editor refuses to communicate with Dr Flamm, or media inquirers. Despite the criticisms of Dr Flamm and others, the journal kept this paper on its website until a few months ago. Were the claims made in this paper true, they would represent possibly the greatest discovery of all time. That the journal was so incredibly sloppy in its editing, and so obdurate in retracting the paper, is highly damaging to its reputation, and suggests the editor is blinded by his religion.
Another miracle paper
Reading Dr Flamms critique, I am reminded of the now notorious homeopathy claim of Benveniste et al published in Nature. Some useful comparisons can be made. In 1988, as in 2001, reports containing claims of events that should not have occurred according to current scientific understanding, arrived in the respective editorial offices. We are told that the question of publishing Benveniste’s was fiercely argued at Nature, and printed, most unusually, with an explanatory note. As far as is known, the other paper, from workers at the Columbia University Medical Center, had a smooth ride editorially, and was printed without comment.
Nature received a flood of letters to the editor, and several critical of the paper and of the editor for publishing it were printed. Whether anything similar happened at JRM was never admitted. Dr Flamm’s repeated requests for information and discussion were never acknowledged.
Benveniste’s extraordinary claims led the Nature editor to an extraordinary action; he sent a team of investigators to Benveniste’s laboratory in Paris to observe what was done “at the bench”. The flaws in technique thus revealed destroyed Benveniste’s claims. The team’s findings, when published in Nature, caused the authorities to close Benveniste’s laboratory, and almost ended his scientific career. The Columbia University Medical Center appears unmoved and unchanged in the face of Dr Flamm’s criticisms, and two of the three authors of the “Prayer” paper are pursuing their careers apparently unhindered.
L’Affaire Benveniste is now well in the past. Science is still, as before, opposed to homeopathy, and Nature retains its position at the top of the heap of scientific journals. On the contrary, thanks to Columbia University Medical Center and the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, the issue of the efficacy of prayer remains to clog the stream of medical thinking and inhibits progress. And what researcher who values his reputation and the standards of his work will now wish to offer papers to the JRM?
Published with acknowledgment to, and approval of, Skeptical Inquirer, Buffalo, NY,USA.
I Feel Sorry For Him
A French test of a therapeutic touch practitioner generates sympathy, but no positive results
We have recently received a message from OZ. Not transtasman Big Brother, but the cousins in France. OZ stands for Observatoire Zététique, a group of skeptical investigators (Zetetic is much the same as skeptic, as every Victorian schoolboy knew. The Greeks had not just one word for it, but two).
The message is an English translation of their report on a test of a Therapeutic Touch (TT) practitioner. This person, referred to as “Mr Z” had approached OZ with some keenness to be tested, and many discussions took place, not only on a detailed protocol for the tests, but about Mr Z’s philosophy and approach to his vocation.
OZ summarise Mr Z’s practice thus:
“[It] depends largely on subjective validation parameters: the [energy] is sensed either around the area affected by a given pathology or in the vicinity of the source of the problem. For example, ankle pathology can be the cause of muscular tension in the neck; thus the signal might be perceived either in the ankle or the neck area. This complicates any attempt to identify the signal by comparison to objective means of observation (eg scanners, x-rays, MRI and so forth). The same is true of treatments carried out by means of ‘magnetic passes’; the area to be treated cannot be determined by reference either to the affected area or to the area deemed to be the cause of the pathology. Moreover, a validation based on the sensations of patients would be lengthy and difficult to implement, and would not furnish a satisfactory solution to the problem of observation according to objective parameters.”
After long consultation two tests were set up. In the first, preliminary test, Mr Z determined for each investigator from which part of the body he detected the strongest signal. He was then blindfolded, and he examined each in random order. Result, two successes out of nine attempts: failure.
For the second and definitive test, Mr Z chose the skeptic whose “body energy” he found to be the strongest. This was a female member of the investigating group. The two members with the weakest “energies” assisted Mr Z. A screen was set up across a doorway between two rooms, with Mr Z and his assistants on one side, and the other investigators and the subject on the other. In several dummy runs Mr Z claimed to feel the “energy” through the screen when the subject was present, so a series of 100 tests, with 50 “positives” (subject behind screen), and 50 “negatives” (subject not behind screen). Mr Z expressed himself satisfied with the test, and was keen to have the results published. Of 100 tries, two were discarded because, by reason of misunderstanding of signals, the subject’s position did not match that indicated by the previously randomly selected positives and negatives. For statistical significance, 98 tries require 64 correct answers. Unfortunately for Mr Z, he achieved only 55. These unsurprising results confirm previous findings and our expectations from our present knowledge of the physical world. What did surprise me was the great empathy between the skeptics and Mr Z. Their report shows almost great disappointment that he failed. Is this the stuff skeptics are supposed to be made of?
The title of this article is quoted by the investigators as the comment by the president of OZ when the news was reported to him.
My Near Death Experience?
It began like any other Saturday morning, out of bed even later than on weekdays, a leisurely breakfast, dismembering the 10 sections of the Press, and settling to a good long read. It was then that the pain began, and intensified until something had to be done. No time to send for homoeopathic medicines, no time to summon the healing hands of a Therapeutic Touch practitioner. No! Into an ambulance and delivery into the hands of the conventional medics at Christchurch Hospital.
It is well known that doctors in general are closed-minded, arrogant, mendacious and venal; nurses have acquired pretensions to professionalism, forgetting their proper duties of pillow smoothing and bedpan emptying. So the outlook was rather grim as I was wheeled into the A&E department. My fears were confirmed when none of these so-called experts looked at my irises, tickled the soles of my feet, or swung a crystal pendulum over me in making a diagnosis.
Rather, I was exposed to the fancy toys these people like to play with, x-ray and CT scan machines. And so the mechanical process ground on: sedation, urinary catheter, anaesthesia, the surgeon’s knife, and a hazy coming to.
It is well known to us Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) enthusiasts that, even more than usually, the convalescent body needs an extensive supply of dietary supplements, vitamins, minerals, and lots of medicines from Nature’s pharmacopoeia. I was offered none of these energy-giving materials and immunity boosters: just plenty of ordinary, well-cooked food. In spite of this deprivation, my body managed somehow to recover, and I was allowed to escape from the clutches of conventional medicine.
But, I hear you ask, what about the Near Death Experience (NDE)? Well, that villainous anaesthetist so adjusted his taps and valves that my brain never got anywhere near the tunnel and the brightness, so I was denied this life-enhancing experience. Spoilsport!
Nothing Grand About Grander Water
“Energised Water” turns out to be much the same as the other kind
Grander water indeed, than the ordinary stuff from the tap; Europeans are paying more than the equivalent of $NZ20 per litre for it.
Punning aside, Johann Grander is a Tyrolean man who has “discovered/invented” a wonderful but secret way to “energise” water, by loading it with “Natural Information of the Highest Order”. A quantity of this water is sealed in the device which is inserted into the domestic supply line; although the two lots of water do not mix, the “Information” in the energised water passes over to the water flowing to the taps, so the fortunate householder, who has paid thousands for the privilege, has a never-ending supply of “Grander water”. The efficacy of the device does not change over periods of many years (this I can believe).
What do you get for all this outlay? Whatever water does for you, Grander water will do it better. Of course, your water tastes better, it improves the quality of your food, and is useful in treating a wide range of ailments from corns to cancer. You economise on laundry detergent, and your house plants will grow and bloom better.
Unlike many products of this kind, Grander water has been subjected to scientific tests; in fact, three tests. The first was carried out as a student research project; several bulk properties, such as electrical conductivity, pH, and many others, were the same whether the water came straight from the tap or had first passed through the “energiser”. Astonishingly though, the surface tension of energised water was markedly lower, an observation apparently inexplicable in scientific terms.
Enter Herr Heckel and Dr Heinig, a geoecologist and physicist respectively, of Berlin, to carry out the second test. Not content, as are many scientists, to treat Grander’s claims with disdain, they studied the student’s thesis carefully, and noticed that the Grander water in the test, but not the tap water, had been passed through a length of “Gardena” garden hose. The plastic of which these hoses are made contains “plasticisers”, which are well-known surface-active agents, ie, they lower the surface tension when leached into the water in the hose.
Eureka! Experiment showed that water passed through the hose had lower surface tension, water not passed through the hose had normal surface tension, irrespective of being “energised”. Conclusion: Grander water is indistinguishable from tap water, in any of the many tests carried out on it.
The third investigator, Dr Eder of the University of Vienna has done some double-blind tasting tests on his friends and acquaintances. This small-scale study showed half the test subjects could not distinguish Grander- from tap water, and the other half were equally divided in their preference. A great preponderance of subjects preferred the taste of cooled tap water to that of water at room temperature. This casts doubt on a test carried out elsewhere on “energised” spring water, which tasted better than “unenergised”. A careful check found the “energised” water was cooler.
Did these revelations cause a slump in sales of Grander water, and did Herr Grander return ignominiously to his Tyrolean home? Skeptics will, sadly, not need to be told the answer to those questions. On the contrary, Dr Eder faces a challenge in the Austrian courts for publishing his view that Grander’s claims are nonsense, and Herr Grander has been awarded the Austrian President’s Cross of Honour for Science and Art.
With acknowledgments to “Skeptiker”, Drs Heinig and Eder, and Herr Heckel.
The Time Line, or, Genesis Aotearoa
The universe we live in is vast, in both space and time, so vast as to be beyond human comprehension. Mathematicians have devised a way in which the large numbers involved can be manipulated, the “exponent”1, but it can mislead us into thinking we comprehend more than we really do. It can blind us to the true difference between two numbers whose exponents differ by only one unit. Thus, if my bank balance grows from $102 to $103, I am richer by $900, but if it grows from $106 to $107, I have gained $9 million.
Books on geology and palaeontology usually display the Earth’s history as a vertical column, with the formation at the bottom and “now” at the top. To be at all useful, this column must be exponential, ie 4.5x109yr BP at the base, rising in equal steps, 108, 107, 106, etc to the present. A linear scale would have the whole of “civilised” human life as a minute fraction of a millimetre, the thickness of a small bacterium.
To emphasise the true relationship between the age of the Earth and the scale of human existence, Mr Bill Taylor has devised an ingenious and impressive work, “The Time Line”, or “Genesis Aotearoa” as the Royal Society of New Zealand, the funder of the project, call it. Take a piece of cord, and suppose each millimetre of its length to represent one thousand years. To represent the age of the Earth will need over four and a half kilometres of cord. This lengthy piece of rope hangs in the Cotton lecture theatre of the Victoria University of Wellington, arranged in vertical bits to fit the height of the room, and placed tightly together like a loom warped up for weaving.
The birth of the Earth starts in the back top corner, stage right, and time marches to the front, around the podium, and “now is about half way down next to the door, back stage left.” The development of different life forms is illustrated by objects hung on the rope in the appropriate places. At the end of this rope, the terminal half centimetre contains all of human history; a length about equal to the height of a person covers the time Homo sapiens has existed.
In contemplating this imaginative and instructive creation, I was struck by the large areas of it, corresponding to millions of years, which carried no objects indicating the appearance of something new. A reminder of Gould and Eldridge’s “Punctuated Equilibrium”?
See Bill Taylor’s comments on the installation here.
1We count the number of zeroes following 1, and write that as a superscript after ten, eg 10,000,000 = 107.
Devil’s Chaplain an Eloquent Advocate
A DEVIL’S CHAPLAIN: Selected Essays. Richard Dawkins. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003. ISBN 0 297 82973 4.
We Dawkins fans have been waiting since “Unweaving the Rainbow” in 1998 for this. Unlike its predecessors, it is not written around a single theme, but is a collection of Dawkins’s comments and reviews of the past 25 years, on a variety of topics, reflecting his wide-ranging interests and passions. His editor, Latha Menon, has arranged 32 of these into six groups and a final letter to his ten-year-old daughter on “Belief”. In addition to a general Preface, Dawkins has written a short introduction to each group.
The first essay in group one, which gives its name to the title of the book, is based on a quotation from a letter of Darwin’s: “What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature”. This is a mixed bag of topics, ranging from the lunacies of crystal gazing and postmodernism to an enlightened public school headmaster of 100 years ago, with, between these extremes of sense, the Great Ape Project.
In the second group, collected under the title, ‘Light Will Be Thrown’, we are back with Darwin and evolution. ‘The Infected Mind’ is a passionate denunciation of monotheism, after which Dawkins cools down by means of four eulogies for friends and heroes.
Much is made, especially by biology’s enemies, of “hostility” between Dawkins and SJ Gould. A whole section of the book is devoted to this; reviews of Gould’s books, comments on his philosophy, and correspondence between them. It is a lesson in how to combine professional disagreement over details with warm respect and friendship in personal matters. The author grieves for Gould’s early death as for a fellow fighter for truth.
The final section has a geographical flavour. “Out of Africa” applies to Homo sapiens in general, and to Dawkins in particular, and he relishes that. Many of us parents must wish we could write as eloquently to our children as he does in the coda to the book. Fortunate Miss Dawkins!