Richard Dawkins & Dave McKean The Magic of Reality:
How we know what’s really true (Bantam, 2011).
A review by John Carr
(Reviewed February 2012)
This large-format illustrated book represents another stage in Richard Dawkins’ foray into the public dispute between science and religion. Aimed, it appears, at older children and general adult readers, it uses a softer, less direct approach than the controversial best-seller of 2006, The God Delusion. But make no mistake, the purpose is the same, as the sub-title indicates.
How do we know that something is true? Because it is more credible – where ‘credibility’ is based on systematic scientific enquiry, not myth, magic or the supernatural. In the first chapter, ‘What is reality? What is magic?’, Dawkins identifies three types of magic: stage magic (skilful tricks intended to confuse and entertain), supernatural magic and poetic or metaphoric magic (as in ‘the sunset/painting/ song/soufflé was pure magic’).
In the ensuing eleven chapters, he leads the reader through some of the most important scientific phenomena of biology, astronomy, geology, chemistry and physics. Thus, Why are there so many different kinds of animals? (biology and evolution); What are things made of? (chemistry); Why do we have night and day, winter and summer? (astronomy) and so on.
His usual way of proceeding in each chapter is to retell some of the myths that pre-scientific peoples around the world made up to explain weird natural phenomena. He is careful to draw these from all continents, restricting the number that are Judeo-Christian. Only towards the end does he go for the kill with references to Fatima, the Virgin Mary and the wedding at Cana. Having painted a picture of the quaint attempts of our forebears to explain the universe and their place in it, he then provides a relatively simple modern scientific explanation.
Technical terms are kept to a minimum and McKean’s illustrations are striking and amusing. The illustrator’s startling impression of what our 185,000,000 x great-grandfather might have looked like should replace the clichéd great ape ancestor in the mind of your average creationist. (Think Moreton Bay flathead!)
Following in the tradition of the great poet-scientists like Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, Dawkins endeavours to inspire readers with a sense of awe in the face of the wonders of the universe. At the end of his treatment of evolution by natural selection, he describes all living things, animal, vegetable and bacterial, as our cousins and asks rhetorically, ‘Isn’t that a far more wonderful thought than any myth?’ He ends the book with a wish: ‘I hope you agree that the truth has a magic of its own. The truth is more magical – in the best and most exciting sense of the word – than any myth or made-up mystery or miracle. Science has its own magic: the magic of reality.’