Richard Dawkins, evolutionary zoologist, Professor at Oxford University until 2008, Fellow of The Royal Society and Royal Society of Literature, first caught the public attention with his ground-breaking and controversial book The Selfish Gene in 1976. It was followed by a string of bestsellers including The God Delusion and The Greatest Show on Earth. Now he has turned his attention to a younger audience with his book The Magic of Reality and it does not disappoint. Sue Unstead reports.
I meet Richard Dawkins at his home in Oxford where, perhaps unsurprisingly, animals are all around, from busy little Tiger, the dog that greets me noisily at the door, to the galloping horse and leaping hare, gaily painted carousel animals that adorn the room. I hesitate to go straight in to the question of a younger audience, being all-too familiar with the implied suggestion that writing for children is somehow dealing with a lower order of species. I have already noted his quick response both to Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight and to Mariella Frostrup on The Book Programme: ‘Why children? Why not, after all children are people and they are a very important audience.’ Instead I ask him whether the book was prompted by a concern about a lack of understanding about science and the way in which it is taught in schools today. Dawkins is disarmingly frank when he reveals that he is not close enough to the teaching of science to comment, but he does say that an important motive was coming across schoolchildren, particularly those of an Islamic background who reject the whole concept of evolution ‘which distresses me hugely’. More worrying still were the children who seemed ‘wantonly, perversely anti-science’. In fact the idea for pitching a book at a younger age group had occurred some 18 years ago: ‘When my daughter was 10, I wrote an open letter to her called “Good and Bad reasons for believing”.’ It was published and was well received, and later formed the final chapter for an adult book The Devil’s Chaplain. Other projects took priority and the whole idea for a book for a younger audience was shelved until now.
In The Magic of Reality Dawkins sets out to show ‘that the real world, as understood scientifically has a magic of its own, an inspiring beauty which is all the more magical because it is real and because we understand how it works.’ The result is an inspiring introduction to science, not just for children but for a family audience. There is a wonderful clarity to Dawkins’ approach as he explores complex ideas about space, time and evolution in a lucid and accessible way. Each of the twelve chapters begins with a question: ‘What are things made of?’, ‘What is the sun?’, ‘Why is there night and day, winter and summer?’ and in more abstract terms ‘Why do bad things happen?’ Seemingly simple questions open the door for subjects that range from DNA and the Doppler effect to planets, plate tectonics, star birth and the chaos theory.
The fundamental questions of existence
From the outset Richard Dawkins establishes a strong authorial voice. His tone is relaxed and conversational, often including personal anecdotes about his own childhood. I ask him whether he had an audience in mind. ‘One of the keys to good writing is to constantly have an audience in your mind as you write, and I find myself re-reading over and over so that the end result is filtered by many imaginary readers.’ The approach does not seem so very different from that of his adult books, at least those for the lay reader such as The Selfish Gene. Dawkins says he hadn’t really modified his style, ‘although sometimes I hesitated about a long word. But isn’t part of the joy of reading discovering new words?’ He is careful always to explain words in context, with the result that a glossary, so often an escape clause, is never missed.
With a childhood in Africa and then growing up on a farm in England, I wondered whether this had inspired him to be a scientist. ‘Rather to my regret, I was never a child naturalist as my father had been,’ though this modest assertion is somewhat belied by his description in the book of dissecting the corpse of a weasel or a mole to marvel at the wriggling mass of nematode worms while noting this was never true of the domesticated rats they were given to dissect in biology lessons. ‘I didn’t shine at school. It was only when I got to Oxford that I suddenly took off and became extremely enthusiastic about science as a means of answering the fundamental questions of existence.’ This philosophical approach to science is clear in all that he writes.
Myths from around the world
Myths, and the debunking of them, play a large part in the book as Dawkins explores how people invented stories to explain what seemed to them mysterious or magical events, whether earthquakes, shooting stars or tidal waves. Dawkins clearly enjoys the quirkiness of some of these myths, such as Odin’s choice of tree trunks in the Norse creation myths or the battle between two lizards in the Aboriginal Dreamtime story of the creation of night and day. I ask him whether these stories were an important part of his childhood. Fairy tales, biblical myths, Charles Kingsley’s The Heroes, and Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Just So Stories were among his favourites. Perhaps this background of myths and storytelling is what has enabled him to develop his own strong voice in his books. Like many of his other books, this one is available in an audio format, read by Dawkins and his wife Lalla Ward, so the idea of an audience is always present.
In the book Dawkins draws on myths from around the world, including Ancient Greek, Babylonian, Judaeo-Christian, Aztec, North American, Chinese and Japanese. And yes, the biblical stories, whether the Creation story or the miracle of water being turned into wine are dismissed as soundly as other kinds of stories. Dawkins is keen to show us that scientific reality has a beauty that exceeds those of ancient myths.
The cultural diversity of such stories does provide a wonderful launch pad for illustrator Dave McKean whose richly detailed artwork colours every page. Dawkins may have provided source material for the scientific diagrams, but the flights of fancy are McKean’s stock in trade. This produces a very different result from the DK world of white backgrounds with plentiful annotations and captions. Illustrations here are used to augment the text and provide aide-memoires as the text develops an argument. Where they do leap to life is in the iPad app, which the publisher has developed in parallel. Dawkins is keen to show me how this works on several levels, not just as an e-reader that includes all the text, but with animations, simulations and video. Interactive diagrams are particularly effective at explaining scientific concepts, such as for example Newton’s theory that all orbits are controlled by gravity as demonstrated by a giant cannon firing balls that travel such a distance they go into orbit. Dawkins is clearly delighted at how well the app is selling, rivalling the book which reached no.2 in the adult bestseller lists (only to be toppled by celebrity cooks and boy band biographies).
Skill as a storyteller
We talk more about the audience for his book and to what extent he tested it on children. Dawkins explains how he had feedback on the text from a number of science teachers at a London school, but the greater involvement was with a school in Moray Firth where children read and reviewed sections of the manuscript. His target age group was 12 years, although children as young as age 7 were able to access the text if read aloud by an adult. Dawkins was particularly taken with the fact that all the children cited a particular passage as their favourite part – on evolution – that if you could line up photographs of all your ancestors going back generation by generation, by the time you got back to your 185-million-great-grandparent the picture would resemble some kind of extraordinary deep-sea fish. And where there is explanation of the relative sizes and distances, of the earth from the sun for example, he got the children to act it out on a playing field, with a football (sun), a peppercorn (earth) and a pinhead (moon).
Perhaps it is not so much the text level but the amount of text and sustained reading that is required. We are so often told that children’s attention span has been fragmented by constant use of the internet. Here Dawkins defends the fact that children do have the stamina to enjoy JK Rowling, Pullman and even Enid Blyton (admitting that he was not allowed to read her as a child). The comparison with fiction is surely appropriate, for it is undoubtedly Dawkins’ skill as a storyteller that enables him to retain the reader’s interest while presenting complex concepts and developing ideas. ‘I do get the sense that the young are exam-driven. Teachers constantly complain to me that they have to worry about the curriculum rather than exploring ideas and teaching what is interesting.’
One aspect of the book that still puzzles me is the implied suggestion that today’s children, feet firmly rooted in reality and hard facts, will choose myths rather than scientific explanation. Dawkins says he is genuinely undecided, based on his own intuition and own experience as a child. ‘Inspired by Dr Doolittle and years of church sermons I actually did believe that if I wished and prayed for something strongly enough I could make it happen. Being steeped in a diet of magic spells and witches waving wands and changing one thing into another, I do wonder whether this predisposes a child to be sufficiently sceptical. There is something in the way that fiction of that sort can breed gullibility.’
The question clearly intrigues him for he has invited Philip Pullman to write an article on just this topic in the Christmas issue of the New Statesman that he is guest editing. ‘Pullman is strongly rational, yet his books are magical. He thinks that children are perfectly capable of distinguishing between the imagined and the real world.’
We turn back to the book and I notice that there is a quote by Pullman on the cover: ‘The clearest and most beautifully written introduction to science I’ve ever read.’ I can only agree with him.
The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins, ill. Dave McKean (272pp, 059306612X) is published by Bantam Press at £20.00.
Sue Unstead was a publisher of children’s non-fiction for 25 years and is now a freelance editorial consultant and writer.