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!

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