Richard Dawkins, the world-famous evolutionary biologist, opens most chapters in his book for children, “The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True,” with a story from mythology. So we, too, will open with a myth that is familiar to both of us.
There is an American Indian legend in northwest Michigan about a mother bear who escapes a forest fire in Wisconsin by swimming with her cubs across Lake Michigan to the Leelanau Peninsula. Although her cubs were not strong enough to complete the journey, mother bear waits for their return atop a bluff, where she still sleeps, covered in layers of sand. “The Legend of Sleeping Bear” was long a favorite story in our house because it describes a place that we know well and visit often.
We recently went to the peninsula on a school field trip and learned something even more amazing than the legend behind Sleeping Bear Dunes. We learned that it was created roughly 11,000 years ago when glaciers left huge sediment deposits that were later covered with blowing sand. The story of the Ice Age leaving behind these beautiful dunes seems more amazing to us because it is true.
It is exactly that kind of legend that is in Dawkins’ cross-hairs in “The Magic of Reality.” He would prefer that we shed these childish myths and revel instead in the even more amazing tales of truth all around us—about our evolutionary past, about the materials around us, and about our place in the universe.
Dawkins is at his best when he allows us to enter the universe as he perceives it, with childlike wonder at the true nature of things. He does not marvel at “miracles” that we do not understand, rather he embraces the edge of our knowledge and teaches young and old readers alike that there are no gods or monsters at the frontier of our understanding. There is only more knowledge to be gained by future generations, perhaps by a child whose first sparks of inspiration are ignited by this book.
I grew up in a Conservative Jewish household, so the stories, the rituals, the beliefs of childhood are not easily shed. Max, my seven-year-old son, is an extremely bright boy who is interested in science, yet is now asking a great many questions about religion because there is a difference between what he hears from friends at school about God and what he hears at home. My wife and I teach him that science is much more amazing than any myth or “miracle.” As a result, Max has no interest in religious mythology, including the God that his friends talk about.
This lack of interest carries over into my son’s reaction to parts of “The Magic of Reality.” Most chapters in Dawkins’ book begin with stories out of mythology and then proceed to destroy those myths with scientific truths. Max was annoyed with the openings of each chapter and eventually decided that they should be skipped entirely. He simply was not interested in the way primitive people wrongly perceived the world and invented stories to explain whatever natural phenomenon. Whether the myth explains how the “first man” was created according to Tasmanian aborigines or Adam and Eve in the Judeo-Christian Bible, it makes no difference to Max. He would prefer to just dive into, say, the topic of evolution.
I, however, have a different problem with the “myth” sections of the book. I am annoyed that they are examined with a sneering tone. Dawkins is consciously mocking them. With a wink and a nod, he tells us how ridiculous the myths sound.
In referencing the Tower of Babel, he says: “God noticed this and took a very dim view of everybody being able to understand everybody else. Whatever might they get up to next, if they could talk to each other and work together? So he decided to ‘confound their language.’ ” About Christianity, Dawkins says: “As it happens, we know that lots of fiction has been made up about this particular preacher called Jesus.”
Yes, we get it. These myths/stories seem ridiculous, and Dawkins takes the tone he always takes when describing religious stories—a condescending one. Yet to somebody who was raised in religion but also understands science, the mocking tone also mocks culture. It is a difficult thing to describe to those who did not grow up with religion. I can devote my career to writing about science, yet also feel strangely defensive about the stories of my childhood. In his previous book, “The God Delusion,” Dawkins compared this reaction to our evolutionary need to obey our parents. I do not know if this is true, since I have not obeyed my parents in decades. Nevertheless, I continue to feel possessive about stories I know to be myths simply because they are an important part of the way my parents raised me.
What Dawkins does not see is that the myths of our ancestors are snapshots in time. They show our cultural evolution and are a tie to our earlier, more primitive selves. They do not need to be taken literally, but rather respected as cultural history.
The problem I have with Dawkins’ assumptions is that I know these stories are not the hindrance to scientific thought that he presumes. But Dawkins repeats a mistake from previous books about the clash of religion and science by assuming that anybody other than the most fervent minority actually takes these stories literally. So, in this book, he considers it part of his crusade to set kids straight and point out the obvious, that these are just myths and stories. Children can tell the difference.
Max is very much into “Star Wars” mythology, for example. So I asked him why it is that he’s so immersed in this mythical universe yet has such little patience for the mythology listed in Dawkins’ book? Because nobody claims “Star Wars” is true, he said. And, of course, he is correct.
Max and I agree over Dawkins’ sloppy execution of what could have been a more understandable children’s book. The problem is that Dawkins, while brilliant, is not a children’s author. He lacks a knack for choosing words that children understand. He tries, and often it sounds condescending and not educational. Just because a writer begins a sentence with, “Now, remember what I said about the …” does not necessarily mean a child can grasp the full meaning. If anything, it sounds scolding.
Max, a brilliant reader for his age, tells me that this book “has too many words.” I have to agree. It is written very much in Dawkins’ “voice,” so his coziness, slight sarcasms, winks and nods to those who know of his reputation might be amusing to some parents but are unnecessary distractions for kids. He also has an annoying habit of heading off on tangents and parenthetical asides that are distractions for children. It is hard enough to get a child to focus on a topic without the author changing the subject multiple times in mid-sentence.
Where “The Magic of Reality” is good, however, it is very good; for example, Dawkins defines “magic” as a kind of wonderment about reality that is all the more “magical” because it is true. As he points out, it is far more “miraculous” than a creation myth to think of how it took billions of years of evolution to produce creatures who are now capable of understanding where they came from. As can be expected from Dawkins, his explanations of evolution are nothing short of inspirational. He describes “the slow magic of evolution,” and Dave McKean lavishly illustrates it with stacks of photographs of people representing our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and on down the millennia to our “185 million greats-grandfather,” where at last the fossil record gets too thin.
The book’s chapter on evolution is, of course, where Dawkins shines. “The Magic of Reality” could have used more such chapters, where he loses the sarcasm and explains nature in simple, understandable ways. When I now think of evolution, I think about the ancestor photographs described and illustrated in the book, and I better understand how we all got here and how we are all connected.
After Max and I finished reading the book, I asked my son what he thinks now of “The Legend of Sleeping Bear.” Does he still like the story? Max twisted his hand back and forth in an “eh” kind of gesture. “Mediocre,” he said, adding that he thinks “sandstorms, ice ages, and all” are much cooler than some mythical mother bear.
But I do not think that was ever in doubt. Max did not have to read this book to come to that conclusion. Dawkins is stating the obvious—even to children—that fairy tales are not true. Instead, Max and I both enjoyed having our minds blown by reality, such as when Dawkins tells us that atoms are mostly open space and that, as such, we never truly “touch” things. Or when he gives readers the tools to think about the long span of the evolution of life on Earth, the nature of the universe and how it may have begun, or to marvel at the life span of a star. It all does seem magical, in just the way that Dawkins means.