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Biological Chemistry

Deciphering The Magic Of Reality

Children’s book evokes the wonder of scientific truths but with an unnecessary attack on cultural myths

by Max Lovy, age 7 , Howard Lovy, age 46
January 9, 2012 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 90, ISSUE 2

Credit: Howard Lovy
Max Lovy takes a leap off of Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan.
Credit: Howard Lovy
Max Lovy takes a leap off of Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan.

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.

The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, by Richard Dawkins, Free Press, 2011, 272 pages, $29.99 hardcover (ISBN-10: 1-43919281-2; 13: 978-1-43919281-8)
The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, by Richard Dawkins, Free Press, 2011, 272 pages, $29.99 hardcover (ISBN-10: 1-43919281-2; 13: 978-1-43919281-8)

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.



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John Pinckney (January 10, 2012 12:01 AM)
Mr. Lovy, it is great that you give your son an appreciation of science and the unknown things of the universe but did you have to ruin your son's future appreciation of the wonderful stories of the Bible? The Passover story, David and Goliath,Genesis creation and Abraham. These are the stories of his forefathers. They have sustained the Jewish people for generations. You have removed from him the "Mystery of the Jews" and inculcated in him a disdain for these ancient people as primitive and unworthy of attention. Have you ever studied Jonah or the Song of Solomon in the original Hebrew? Believe me "primitive" is not what comes to mind. Please reconsider.
Howard Lovy (January 10, 2012 3:57 PM)
I grew up religious, learning the Torah and studying its stories and meanings extensively. I spent the first part of my career writing for Jewish publications and am extremely well-versed in religion. And while my son will not grow up with the same strict religious upbringing that I had, he will be aware of his heritage and will likely absorb a great deal of it into his own worldview. He is only 7 and what he believes now is a snapshot in time. He is a bright boy who can understand more than only one point of view.
Brian Macker (January 10, 2012 8:48 AM)
"The problem I have with Dawkins’ assumptions is that I know these stories are not the hindrance to scientific thought that he presumes."

So the news reports of all these creationists and fundamentalists fighting science in the classroom are just some fairy tales Dawkins made up and somehow got published as fact?
Jim Farley (January 10, 2012 11:25 AM)
Yes, they are. Nobody is fighting science in the classroom. What they are fighting is the competing religion of "scientism' wherein the Dawkins's of the world assume that their fairy tales of creation are more scientific than others' fairy tales of creation just because they use scientific language to dress up their fantastic "just so" stories.
DouginTexas (January 10, 2012 8:58 AM)
You don't dispell a myth by simply claiming it isn't true. Myths are usually built on truths, but with elaborations. Davy Crockett did live, and the stories - often referred to as a myth or legend - of his life and happenings are true. Myths convey larger truths, not merely untruths.
You call Bible stories myths: does this mean that David, king of Israel did not exist? does it negate the happenings of the Passover? There may be scientific explanations for the plagues of Egypt - this does not negate the occurences as detailed. Try looking for the truths behind the myths you're so quick to dispell. Maybe there's something to learn from them.
Ryan (January 10, 2012 10:17 AM)
My boys also asked some of these same questions. "How come Grandma doesn't believe in evolution?" Instead of dismissing grandma's notions we talked about how True Reality is filtered through our perception. 5000 years ago a Jewish priest may have been shown how God created the earth but he didn't understand what a Quark-Lepton Condensate does as it cools into matter and energy, so he just wrote down that "God parted the liquid water" and "separated Light from Dark and made dry ground". He may have seen the what truly happened by at the time he didn't understand. So then I look at my boy and say "Now, do we know better?" "Sure Dad!" "Wrong, we know much more then we use to, but we still do not fully understand what is going on around us. What your teachers think is Truth may only be approximately true if not flat out wrong."
Suburbanbanshee (January 10, 2012 10:31 AM)
That's pretty sad stuff, no matter how atheist you are. The legend of the Tower of Babel inspired the entire science of linguistics, especially the discovery of the Indo-European roots of a wide variety of languages; as well as a great deal of Middle Eastern archeology. What has Dawkins inspired, besides giving Internet fads and jokes the dignity of being called "memes"?

Beyond that, I'm really disturbed that Dawkins could get a good education and still be such a literalist. He doesn't understand genre as real, for instance, or that there are different ways of understanding that don't include literal fact. I think he couldn't possibly play Red Rover without standing there insisting that there's nothing red about him, and insisting that we all play Skin-Colored Rover.

So does he include the urban myths of science in his book? Because there are some doozies which children are commonly taught, and which really do damage to understanding the world. But they're passed along by science professors so they must be true, right? Sigh.

And I bet he doesn't have any trouble believing that English has a present tense, even though it's a well-known linguistic fact that it doesn't (technically). Probably for most people that doesn't matter; teaching a loose approximation of the truth works okay. English grammar structure is much weirder than most people ever need to know, even linguists. But I think that's a lot more fundamental information than all this messing about with atheist catechetical materials in the guise of defending science. Should I proclaim that all writing which doesn't recognize this fact is a lie?
Suburbanbanshee (January 10, 2012 10:44 AM)
Re: Tower of Babel, does the man even mention the Great Ziggurat? Because that was certainly a factually true thing. He might also have mentioned how long it took people to believe that there was such rapid language change in Britain after the Roman Empire pulled out, because the idea that grandchildren could barely understand their grandparents seemed way too Tower of Babel-like. But the language evidence didn't lie.

Re: creationist fundamentalists -- That's not a science vs. religion quarrel. It's a religion vs. religion quarrel about how to interpret the Bible. Fundamentalism is a fairly new way to interpret the Bible, albeit similar tendencies show up wherever literalists gain power. (Yes, people exactly like Dawkins, who have similar problems with genre.) Throughout the ages, most Jews and Christians have believed that God speaks truthfully through Creation as well as the Bible, and that therefore (as St. Albert the Great put it) if nature conflicts with the Bible, that means one's interpretation of the Bible is wrong. (And yes, science got falsification primarily from Biblical studies, which makes Dawkins' attitude that of a rebellious teen pretending his parents don't exist.)
T Patton (January 10, 2012 11:51 PM)
Suburbanbanshee- Do you blog anywhere? Like your style.
Phil Bowermaster (January 10, 2012 12:26 PM)
Of course the question of "what's cooler" is in doubt. It is entirely subjective. Some will find the legend of the Sleeping Bear more aesthetically appealing than the natural explanation; others will prefer the sandstorms and ice ages.

Nobody believes the Sleeping Bear story any more. Like Star Wars, no one is "insisting it's true." So the notion of having to choose between the two is ridiculous, like asking whether one prefers String Theory or Cinderella.

It's okay to tell a child which story you prefer and why, but telling children which story "should" appeal to them is like telling them that red, not purple, should be their favorite color.

And of course the same principle applies to myths that are still fervently believed. If they're wrong, then people should believe the natural explanations. But there is no requirement that anyone "should" like a natural explanation better than an imaginative story.

A book explaining the wonders of nature to kids sounds great. Some sneering, pedantic Brit dictating taste sounds like one I'll have to pass on.
Robert (Bob) Buntrock (January 24, 2012 9:52 PM)
I'll bet that Native Americans in Northwest Lower Michigan still tell kids the myth of the Sleeping Bear, possibly even people in general whether they live there or just visit. I have friends who live in the area and we've visited the dunes. Absolutely spectacular, more than 200' tall, and worthy of myth even if not "believed". Athletes walk down the stairs and then time themselves running up. Our friends son, then a professional triathlete, could scale them in 15 minutes.
Myths are not necessarily meant to be believed but they are important to any culture.
David Brusowankin (January 10, 2012 1:25 PM)
Mr. Lovy,

Regarding those Bible stories, the wealth of Rabbinical commentary more than 2000 years old makes it abundantly clear that simplistic readings are unacceptable. The assumption that science and religion are incompatible is dealt with in many ways, by commentators both modern and ancient, and denied. No religious person that I know of denies the majesty and magic in the "natural" world. In fact, as the Rabbis teach, to find G-d within the world, without (explicit) miracles, is to apprehend G-d in the best way.

Unfortunately, knee-jerk reaction, intellectually dishonest arguments, and fear by elements both right-wing and left, poison everything.

DensityDuck (January 10, 2012 1:50 PM)
I think the key line in the whole article is "because nobody ever thought 'Star Wars' was true".
Richard Stein (January 13, 2012 6:07 PM)
Prof. Dawkins does express concern that teaching children these stories, may of which are myths, may “poison” their minds. I think the reviewer is correct in saying that children are brighter than Dawkins seems to think, and realize that the stories may just be such, but may benefit from the lessons they are attempting to deliver. An analogy is the myth of Santa Claus. Must children are told this myth when they are young when they believe it, but then, as they age, begin to express doubts which may make them wonder about the sincerity of their parents. However, most eventually realize that their parents were doing this to create happiness among their young children, most of whom come to appreciate their effort and do not think ill of them for telling them something that was not true.

In a sense, religion functions in this way. People look for explanations for things they don’t understand, and religions offer them such, even though some think the explanations are simplistic. I do not think doing this is harmful and providing attempts to explain which may or may not be correct is not necessarily harmful if it brings comfort to some. Beliefs are personal and all have the right to believe in what they want to. My reservation is that one should nor force one beliefs on others or use them for personal gain.

I fault some of today’s politicians who condemn others for not believing in the same things that they profess to. People do not necessarily act in a manner prescribed by such beliefs, and I believe one should judge people by their actions rather than what one beieves have motivated them.

Matt Comstock (January 17, 2012 8:24 AM)
From the article, "...What Dawkins does not see is that the myths of our ancestors are snapshots in time...." etc.

Dawkins, in fact, makes exactly this point: that biblical literacy is important and part of culture. In fact, I think The God Delusion contains a list of many of the biblical stories that are woven into the cultural world view of many westerners.

As far as the mocking tone of Deciphering the Magic of Reality, I have not read the book yet, and perhaps this tone doesn't have a place in a children's book. But I recall that a large proportion of Americans, as high as 40% (is that right?), believe the Earth is mere thousands of years old and was literally created in seven days by a creator god.

As a scientist, and having been surrounded by scientists in my day-to-day life for decades, this statistic (whatever the actual percentage may be) amazes and confounds me. In this book, it seems that Dawkins continues his quest to battle this irrationality in our culture. I look forward to reading it.
Matt Comstock (January 17, 2012 3:12 PM)
From Dawkins, The God Delusion:

....ignorance of the Bible is bound to impoverish one's appreciation of English literature.... atheistic world-view provides no justification for cutting the Bible, and other sacred books, out of our educaton.... We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage
Robert (Bob) Buntrock (January 19, 2012 1:30 PM)
As usual, the answers (and wisdom) are somewhere in the middle. Creation stories of all cultures, including those in the Bible, are indeed myths (in the non-pejorative sense). Most of the writings of the Old Testament (especially Genesis) were not written down until long after (the Hebrew Alphabet probably did not exist until after Mt. Sinai). They are culturally true even if not scientifically true (and sometimes even not necessarily historically accurate). All myths are much deeped and multi-layered than face value. Biblical myths define believer's relationships with God. Those of other cultures may define those relationships with a higher being and the world around them.

Should thay be taught to children? Why not? With maturity, an appreciation for the spiritual truths emerge while acknowledging the lack of literal "truth" (and those who would impose strict literality on the rest of the public are wrong minded).

Disclaimer: I'm a chemist (for life), subscriber to good science, defender of enlightened public education, and a lifelong member of the Lutheran Church (more moderate or even liberal than many) and find the roles very compatible. I'm very much at home in my current congregation where, like our Jewish brothers and sisters, questioning of one's faith is welcome and uplifting. Just yesterday, our Bible Study group discussed many of these issues, cued by readings in the book of Jonah. We enjoy searching for the mystery buried in the stories, a never ending process. Even with my scientific background, I also continue to wonder at the beauty of the world.
Deborah (January 25, 2012 1:54 AM)
Interesting discussion. I am grateful for my Jewish upbringing and have never thought there was any conflict between my faith and being a scientist. In fact, its quite consistent with string theory. Two different dimensions, or worlds, if you will.
Kyla (February 14, 2012 12:39 PM)
Great article, love the book.

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