“The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True,” by Richard Dawkins. Illustrated by Dave McKean.
When my niece was seven years old, she saw another child, with a severely deformed torso and cleft palate, on the merry-go-round we were riding. Then she asked me the question, about why bad things happen, that every parent must dread: “How did that little boy get hurt so he looks like that?” I explained, as best I could, that he hadn’t been hurt by anyone but had been born the way he was. Since cleft palate is often genetically determined, I talked about DNA as a set of “instructions” that make each of us unique and explained that sometimes, for reasons no one fully understands (though we understand much more than we once did), the instructions are mixed up.
The next question, which I should have expected, was easier to answer. Her mother was pregnant at the time, and my niece had already been told that she was going to have a little sister. “What if my sister’s instructions are mixed up?” she asked. Without going into the details of amniocentesis, I told her that the same tests showing her mother was having a girl had also showed that the baby was healthy. My niece had seen a sonogram, so that made sense to her.
The third question was the toughest, since this wasn’t my daughter and I knew she was being brought up to believe in God. “Why would God let a baby get the wrong instructions?” she asked. Here was the theodicy problem, earlier than I might have imagined. I don’t believe in lying to children, so I told her that not everyone believes in God and that sometimes, nature makes mistakes. She seemed satisfied but then asked, “Do you believe in God, Aunt Susan.” “No,” I said, “but people have different ideas about this and you should ask your parents what they think too.” Then I went on to talk about the work of scientists and doctors who were trying to find cures for children born with problems and even to help babies who were sick while they were still inside their mothers’ tummies. Later, my sister-in-law told me that God never came up after this discussion but DNA did and she was frustrated because she couldn’t find a book to explain genetics with scientific accuracy in terms a child could understand.
Richard Dawkins helps fill that need with a new book,
The Magic of Reality
, that discusses not only DNA but everything from rainbows to evolution. The great virtue of this volume, enchantingly illustrated by Dave McKean, is that it leads the young along the path of logical thinking instead of piling fact upon fact in an effort to tell children what they should think.
This is the first book by a prominent member of the “new atheist” generation to address the urgent task of how to help children distinguish between myth and reality. Whether people prefer to call themselves atheists, agnostics or just religious skeptics, there is no more important issue than the promotion of logical thought among the young. (I should say here that I know Dawkins and his positive comment appears on the cover of the British edition of my 2008 book,
The Age of American Unreason
Nowhere in the developed world is this issue more important than in the United States, where the Christian right is actively engaged in trying to reshape public school curriculums to conform to its religious doctrines, keep evolution out of science classes and promote the lie that the founders established a Christian government.
Dawkins uses a simple, brilliant technique highly appealing to young and old: He opens each chapter with a set of myths from different cultures and then goes on to talk about what science has learned about the real origins of humanity, the real probability of “good luck” or “bad luck,” and the real explanations for bad events and bad experiences, from the destruction of earthquakes to disease.
Each chapter begins with different versions of myths, with the more familiar Christian and Judaic stories given no more or less credibility than unfamiliar mythology. In the chapter titled, “Who Was the First Person?” I was particularly delighted by a Tasmanian aboriginal story, which features a dying god who fell to earth after losing a battle among the stars and decided to create humans as his parting gift before death. Being in something of a hurry, he forgot to give people knees and gave them inconvenient kangaroo tails. The victorious rival god in the sky, seeing that the new people on earth were unhappy with their limited mobility, descended to earth to give them knees and cut off their tails. (For early humans in what is now Australia, this myth also provided an explanation of why people have no tails and kangaroos do.) This myth is followed by the story of Genesis, attributed to Hebrew tribes in the Middle East who believed in only one God.
All of this unfolds without didacticism and Dawkins presents the myths not as silly or stupid but as examples of early human beings’ first efforts to understand the world around them-and how they themselves came to be. Although this approach would of course be unacceptable to parents who indoctrinate their children with a literal interpretation of the Bible or the Koran, it would be entirely congenial to many religious liberals whose faith does not require them to see the stories in sacred books as anything but myths or metaphors and who do not teach their children that the universe was literally created in six days.
Whimsical as Dawkins’ tone is at times, he shows children the great respect of not talking down to them. One caveat: unless a child has already had an unusually good science education, the book is unlikely to be fully understandable to those below fourth grade.
In the chapter on miracles, Dawkins talks about David Hume’s definition of a miracle as a “transgressing” or breaking of a law of nature. Then the author quotes Hume’s famous observation that “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.” Dawkins does “translate” Hume’s statement into words more understandable to children today by offering an example of a friend named John who claims to have watched a cow jump over the moon. “No matter how trustworthy and honest John might normally be,” Dawkins writes, “the idea of his telling a lie (or having an honest hallucination) would be less of a miracle than a cow literally jumping over the moon.”
Alas, this explanation is absolutely necessary in a culture where many young readers have become accustomed to lowest-common-denominator “young adult” books in which one of the basic tenets is that authors must reach readers “at their own level” and never use unfamiliar expressions and cultural references that would require them to make a special effort to understand.
One of the saddest, most common public misapprehensions about atheists-and about all who are dedicated to the promotion of reason and science-is that they are prigs who want to take all of the fun out of childhood. These worshippers of childhood innocence are the same people who consider it depressing rather than a sign of intellectual growth when a child figures out that there is no Santa Claus. They also apparently think it is “fun” for a child to believe she is descended from a pair of first parents created by a god who then drove them out of paradise for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge but unsettling to suspect than monkeys might be among our more recent evolutionary ancestors.
Dawkins’s book is dedicated to the proposition that the truths of nature are just as pleasurable and awe-inspiring as any fairytale. “Miracles, magic and myths-they can be fun,” Dawkins concludes, “and we have had fun with them throughout this book. Everybody likes a good story, and I hope you enjoyed the myths with which I began most of my chapters. But even more I hope that, in every chapter, you enjoyed the science that comes after the myths. I hope you agree that truth has a magic of its own.”
Note to readers: If you’re acquainted with any particularly good books about science for children, your recommendations would be greatly appreciated.