The Magic of Reality

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The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True’ is a 2011 book by British biologist Richard Dawkins, with illustrations by Dave McKean. It is a science book aimed primarily at children and young adults. He addresses topics that range from his most familiar territory, evolutionary biology and speciation (how the tree of life creates new branches), to physical phenomena such as atomic theory, optics, planetary motion, gravitation, stellar evolution (the life cycle of stars), spectroscopy (the study of the interactions of matter and electromagnetic radiation), and plate tectonics, as well as speculation on exobiology (alien life).

Most chapters begin with quick retellings of historical creation myths that emerged as attempts to explain the origin of particular observed phenomena. These myths are chosen from all across the world including Babylonian, Judeo-Christian, Aztec, Maori, Ancient Egyptian, Australian Aboriginal, Nordic, Hellenic, Chinese, Japanese, and other traditions, including contemporary alien abduction mythology.

Only his chapter on microscopic things omits mythology altogether as Dawkins says that really small phenomena were unknown to primitive peoples prior to the invention of advanced optical magnification equipment. Dawkins also revisits his childhood and recalls his initial thoughts on these various phenomena or those thoughts expressed by his young contemporaries. In the opening chapter Dawkins explains that although mythic narratives and make-believe are fun parts of growing up, reality with its fundamental capacity for beauty can be just as magical as imagination.

He declares that there was no first person, to make the point that in evolutionary biology the term ‘species’ is used to demark differences in gene composition over often thousands of generations of separation rather than any one generation to the next. To illustrate this he uses the example of family photographs: if, hypothetically, there existed a complete set of photographs of all one’s direct male ancestors arranged in order of birth date stretching back millions of generations, from one generation to the next, one would not perceive much difference between any two adjacent pictures. But if one looked at the picture 185 million generations back one would be looking at a picture of some kind of fish. Dawkins stresses this point by saying the offspring of any sexually reproducing life form is in almost all cases the same species as its parents, with the exception of unviable hybrids such as mules.

The last two chapters cover a discussion on chaos and the human psychology behind so-called miracle claims such as the ‘Our Lady of Fátima’ and ‘Cottingley Fairies’ examples. Dawkins presents philosopher David Hume’s argument that miracle claims should only be seriously accepted if it would be a bigger miracle that the claimant was either lying or mistaken. Dawkins continues, saying miracle claims written down in texts subsequently deemed sacred are not exempt from this standard.

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