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Dawkins's Rainbow Reduces Science to Truth, Beauty--and Fantasy

Robert Proctor

Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder. Richard Dawkins. 352 pp. Houghton Mifflin, 1998. $26.

Nineteenth-century romantics accused scientists of uglifying nature; hence the central riposte of Richard Dawkins in his latest book: that the rainbow is no less beautiful for having been refracted into its component colors. Au contraire, reductionism has allowed us to discover wonders far beyond anything the poets of past centuries could imagine—from the "breathtaking poetry of modern cosmology" to the poetic improbabilities of our personal existence.

Light, digitalized and refracted, is the central celebrated metaphor here: "Barcodes in the stars" allow us to detect the chemical composition of stars and the recessional velocity of distant galaxies; "barcodes on the air" explain the transformation of barometric pulses into sound; "barcodes at the bar" allow us to identify criminals and free the innocent (by forensic DNA fingerprinting). From "unweaving the rainbow" we deduce not only the age and fate of the universe or the presence of planets in other solar systems but also the lengths of extinct mastodon penises (from Fourier analysis of fossil elephant urine tracks) and the three-dimensional structure of our internal organs (from magnetic resonance imaging).

Dawkins, the Charles Simonyi Chair of Popular Understanding of Science at Oxford, is a remarkably engaging and graceful writer, a master of the vivid metaphor, the witty aside, the apt analogy. His explanations are deft, clever and often subtle. The book contains fresh and colorful accounts of the optics of rainbow formation, the physics of insect hearing, the rudiments of symbiogenesis and much more. There is no humbug here: Dawkins asks us to feel the "awed wonder that science can give us," the "deep aesthetic passion" ranking with "the finest that poetry and music can deliver"—and we're not even past the preface. His overarching goal is to counter the "anaesthetic of familiarity," the sedative of ordinariness, making way for wonder. Dawkins's is a kind of secular natural theology, where the high priests are cosmologists and molecular biologists and computer modelers, perhaps joined by science writers and his hoped-for science-serving poets.

Dawkins is usually at his best when mocking astrology, palmistry and the diverse other sorts of tomfoolery that appear in popular tabloids like the National Enquirer. He has a useful discussion of astrology as a form of discrimination, and a well-aimed attack on the facile swooning over complexity and chaos that has somehow gripped the popular imagination. Dawkins is not a deep thinker on civil liberties, but he does make the reassuring suggestion that national genetic databanks of the future should include only noncoding, "junk DNA" regions of the human genome—to prevent discrimination on the basis of health prognoses or innate abilities.

One gets a sense, though, that something is askew in this call for poets to embrace science, in his assumption that to know is to take comfort. Readers of this unabashed brief for modernity will find no discussion of the less pleasant sides of science: that half of all research and development funding continues to go to the military, that a quarter of the world's scientists have some form of military clearance, that there is scientific myopia, scientific fraud and underrepresentation of women and many ethnic minorities in many disciplines. Dawkins chides the government of India for testing atomic weapons, but he never mentions the weapons work of any other nation. We hear a lot about catching criminals but never a mention of how to prevent crime. We learn that primitive rainmaking rituals are "elaborate and costly in time and effort" but nothing about what kind of science is more or less worthy of our attention (and funding).

Unweaving the Rainbow reads very much like a 19th-century enlightenment tract, chastising the forces of darkness, cheering on the squads of light. This a rather monochromatic, pollyanaish view of science. Foolishness is largely confined to astrologers and feminists and postmodern advocates of cultural studies. Dawkins is not really interested in what might be wrong with science, if he even would allow such a possibility. The point is rather the freedom that comes from knowing that the sound barrier would have to be broken for Santa to visit every house, that we cannot drink a glass of water without imbibing an atom that has passed through Cromwell's bladder.

Dawkins is famous for his genetic reductionism, and though the point is made less forcefully here than in his other books, there are some remarkable prophecies: When the Human Genome Project is completed (probably in 2003), the full gene sequence of a human being

will fit comfortably on two standard CD-ROM discs, leaving enough space for a textbook of molecular embryology. These two discs could then be sent into outer space, and the human race could go extinct secure in the knowledge that there is now a chance that at some future time and in some distant place, a sufficiently advanced civilization would be able to reconstitute a human being.

This is an odd and interesting view—charmingly frank in its reductionism and probably very wrong. Ignored is all of the cellular machinery required to read and regulate DNA expression, not to mention all of the context and complexity provided by the hosting egg and the uterus. If we want to communicate human biological essence, then surely it would be better to send the DNA itself, or better yet a frozen embryo. Then again, if I were an alien intelligence, I think I'd find our TV and radio broadcasts a lot more revealing. More about humanity might even be deduced from the fact of the disc itself—how it was made, for example—than from the information encoded on it.

Dawkins is only the latest in a long line of advocates for the life-as-information idea. Von Neumann was one of its early architects, and the idea has grown in recent years as computers occupy an ever-larger portion of our metaphorical space, but also as software has increasingly come to dominate hardware. Dawkins's version of the reduction carries a certain irony, given his attack on primitive people's confusion of words (or images) and things: He scoffs at the magic designs of preindustrial societies, but what is this fantasy of building bodies from compact discs but a confusion of pictures and things, matter and music? Proper analogies are difficult, but Dawkins's resurrection scheme strikes me as only slightly more plausible than deducing the sound of a symphony from the motions of a conductor's wand.

The chapter treating Stephen Jay Gould's ideas as "bad poetry" is probably the least satisfying of the lot. Dawkins takes issue with Gould's claim that there are broad thematic biases in how we approach such questions as the progressive character of evolution or the degree to which it moves by leaps and bounds; Dawkins argues—feebly—that it is wrong to say that uniformitarianism has been a prejudice in paleontological thinking. Gould here has the better go of it. Gould has led the charge against uniformitarian biases but has also played a major role in rejuvenating evolutionary theory in many other areas—in the re-recognition of the force of mass extinctions, in revising how we understand the tempo and mode of evolutionary change, in resurrecting interest in the role of drift and contingency and structural inertia—all the while stressing the historical open-endedness of large-scale organic change. Dawkins objects to Gould's lumping of mass extinction, macromutation and punctuated equilibrium under the rubric of "episodic evolution." But as different as these are, they have all shared the fate of neglect by ideological uniformitarians—and who more than Gould has worked to correct the imbalance?

Dawkins stumbles here, for surely it is odd and unfair to see Gould lumped with Teilhard de Chardin as a purveyor of "bad poetic science" (by which he means Gould's over-extension of the metaphors of episodic evolution and so forth). One suspects some subrational, personal feud between the Oxford don and his Harvard counterpart—two of the brightest lights of evolutionary thinking at the end of our century. There are weighty issues at stake, but Dawkins clouds rather than clarifies when he saddles Gould with the misinterpretations of his lesser skilled admirers—the idea that the novel organisms of the Cambrian were somehow predestined to become new phyla, for example. Gould is, among other things, a popular writer, and it is hardly surprising that not all of his acolytes tell the story as well as the master.

I guess it's nice to have old Dawkins out there, boxing the superstitious, mopping up the doubters and dissenters, but I also wonder whether he really understands the romantic poets he peppers throughout his book, why poets like Blake objected to Satanic mills or lamented the loss of the whole of light to its broken parts. Dawkins may be right that the appetite for wonder is fed "much more satisfyingly by real science" than by all the claptrap we hear about the paranormal, but I also think it is no small task to make sure that the "real science" we cherish will be of the right stuff to deserve our appreciation.

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