Exciting and engaging: Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True

By Christine Schofelt
12 November 2011

BookFor more than a decade we have experienced a veritable explosion in the number of books aimed at young adults and middle schoolers that treat vampires, witches and other supernatural subjects.

Fantasy, of course, has its place, but something else, of sociological and ideological significance, is going on here. There has been a concerted flight from reality on the part of many authors and publishers—complex issues of growing up or making sense of the world are increasingly reduced to good-versus-evil tropes, cloaked in macabre fantasy and packaged in ways that serve only to remove the reader from the world she or he inhabits. The search for the next big monster or magical element is ongoing, and creature after creature is seized upon, trumpeted and offered up as a trifling distraction.

In this climate, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ latest offering, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, is a welcome book indeed. While most people who are familiar with Dawkins will likely recognize quite a bit of the content from his Unweaving the Rainbow (1998), this is a worthy endeavor, as he shows within its pages why reality offers so much more than fairy tales ever could.

DawkinsRichard Dawkins

Dawkins sets out in the first chapter—”What is reality? What is magic?”—to define the terms in question. He lays out how we know what is real, through direct sensory perception, as well as by using instruments and methods to test theories using models, arguing that how we know things ultimately comes down to reliance on our senses.

Importantly, he asks, “Does this mean that reality only contains things that can be detected, directly or indirectly, by our senses and by methods of science? What about things like jealousy and joy, happiness and love? Are these not also real?” His answer is firmly materialist; “Yes, they are real. But they depend for their existence on brains … These emotions are intensely real to those who experience them, but they didn’t exist before brains did.” This alone is refreshing.

As for magic, it is as he notes, “a slippery word,” and Dawkins takes pains to define what exactly he means by it in this book. While providing examples of supposedly “supernatural magic” and “stage magic” too (including references to his friends Penn Jillette and James Randi), by far the most intriguing discussion involves what he calls “poetic magic”—the magic of viewing the stars, the magic of being “moved to tears by a beautiful piece of music,” of “something that makes us feel more alive.”

In one of my favorite passages, Dawkins provides a very useful warning against using supernatural magic as an explanation: “To say that something happened supernaturally is not just to say ‘We don’t understand it’ but to say ‘We will never understand it, so don’t even try.’” Science, he says, takes the opposite approach, and “thrives on its inability—so far—to explain everything, and uses that as a spur to go on asking questions.”

Opening the doors to inquiry and discovery, to finding out what is real, and encouraging young people to explore the wonders of reality are Dawkins’ primary aims with The Magic of Reality, and he proves an engaging writer for the vast majority of the book. He writes with an excitement not often seen in nonfiction books aimed at people in this age group. His own love of the complexity of reality is palpable. Where many books on science tend to focus only on the facts, Dawkins’ approach is very personal and warm. His assumption of intelligence on the part of the reader, and that we deserve to know the truth and will enjoy it, is endearing and caring. It matters to him that young people know what’s what.

Each of the chapters poses and answers a question—in the second chapter, for example, “Who was the first person?” Dawkins uses a similar device to his “library” of time in Unweaving the Rainbow—this time using an imaginary three miles of photographs to describe the millennial pace of evolution. Tracing our ancestry back, Dawkins brings us from modern humans through 185 million generations of “great grandparents” to prehistoric fish. Having started the chapter with a couple of examples of creation myths, which Dawkins tells in a surprisingly even-handed tone, he then contrasts the reality and how we know what we know.

The chapter does get complex, describing several sorts of science involved in figuring out the process of evolution. This is better than fine, but could get daunting for some children. The illustrations by Dave McKean, however, provide a good hook to keep the reader on track. McKean, whose own career has ranged over quite a variety of projects, from the Sandman comic books and film direction to book and album illustration, is a perfect match for this project. His use of ink drawings, paintings, photography and collage is not just beautiful, but serves to draw the reader in—the “what is that?” effect of many of the illustrations is itself a spur to deeper attention and thought.

Moving through the subjects of atoms, earthquakes, the sun and (of course) rainbows, Dawkins then tackles such questions as “Are we alone?” “Why do bad things happen?” and “What is a miracle?” It is here that one can expect trouble from certain quarters, because while Dawkins’ tone remains avuncular, his content will not sit well with some.

In “Are we alone?,” Dawkins notes that there are not many ancient legends involving aliens, and therefore discusses more modern phenomena such as the Heaven’s Gate cult. He treats the victims of the cult humanely, with an effort to explain why they took the actions they did. He is very good in this chapter, which covers the gamut of alien abduction stories, and brings in the studies of a number of psychologists on subjects such as how memory works, false memory syndrome, sleep paralysis and such.

His efforts to debunk alien abduction tales are not intended to discontinue the search for knowledge—indeed, it is just a jumping off point. In answer to the question, “Is there really life on other planets?,” he answers flatly, “Nobody knows. If you forced me to give an opinion one way or the other, I’d say yes … But who cares about an opinion? One of the great virtues of science is that scientists know when they don’t know the answer to something. They cheerfully admit that they don’t know. Cheerfully, because not knowing the answer is an exciting challenge to try to find it.”

“Why do bad things happen?” is a very useful chapter in which Dawkins not only sets out to make sense of superstition, but also to show what “luck” really is, and to “depersonalize” the universe. As in the other chapters, Dawkins makes good use of myths and stories of ancient traditions to introduce the chapter and illustrate his points, and we see in this section an especially welcome tendency not to condemn, but to understand why people thought the way they did.

The various myths are treated as past attempts to understand the world around us and dismissed gently. The reality of the situation—concepts such as probability, for example—are introduced. He makes, in every case, a very good argument for science as a better and more intriguing way to find out about the richness of the world than any story that has gone before. Gentle as he is, however, he does firmly place the legends and myths properly to rest, and this is bound to rile the more rabid elements of various religious communities.

All in all, this is a valuable book. Dawkins has said that he intended it for those 12 years old on up—but that he also hoped parents would read it with their kids. One could certainly see curling up with it.

The author also recommends:

The joy of science
A review of Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins
[8 January 1999]