Richard Dawkins takes no prisoners. The evolutionary biologist has been called Darwin’s Rottweiler for his ferocious defense of evolutionary theory; his opponents are “squelched, pulverised, annihilated, rendered into suitably primordial paste.” But Dawkins is as adept an explainer as he is a combatant. The Magic of Reality, newly out in paperback, is a sort of love letter to the sense of wonder that nature can inspire. The world contains no supernatural magic, and our minds play tricks on us when we experience stage magic. But the science can produce poetic magic, a respect that moves us to tears. He goes about paying tribute to some of the countless ways that the natural world instills awe in us.His first book, The Selfish Gene, sparked a renaissance in science writing and popularized the gene-centered view of evolution (the view that genes use individuals to replicate and spread, rather than visa versa). Humans and all other living things, Dawkins argued, are in a way the machines that genes make to survive and reproduce, though that does not make us slaves to genes—genes provide the blueprint, but then largely leaves us alone. The Selfish Gene also introduced the term “meme” to describe cultural phenomena that, like genes, use humans to propagate themselves through a process of natural selection. 

The Magic of Reality’ by Richard Dawkins. 272 pp. Free Press. $16.

One meme Dawkins is unhappy to see thriving is religion. He’s fought against religion in his 2006 bestseller The God Delusion, in articles, in lectures, and in ads on the sides of buses.

In The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkins returns to evolutionary biology. The subtitle is The Evidence For Evolution, and he doesn’t hesitate to needle theists when the opportunity presents itself. He draws evidence from genetics, geography, paleontology, anatomy, and elsewhere. What does Dawkins read in his spare time? I spoke with him about his favorite books on evolution. 

Why Evolution is True
By Jerry Coyne 

The Origin of Species, Dawkins says, should be taken for granted as the must-read of evolution. Coyne, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Chicago, marshals the evidence in favor of the “fact” (not “theory”) of evolution. “His book is extremely clear, very well written, and lays out the evidence in a way that, well, if you read it, only an idiot could fail to end up believing in evolution,” Dawkins says. 

The book is similar to The Greatest Show on Earth, and even came out the same year. Each author knew the other was working on a book about the evidence for evolution, but they avoided talking about it until they were finished. Was he surprised by any differences between the two? “I suppose it’s inevitable that there’d be similarities—the best evidence is the best evidence. But I learned some things from his book that I hadn’t put in mine, like the fascinating fact that the genes for having a good sense of smell, which are present in a dog, are in us as well. It’s just that they’ve been turned off. Which is a fascinating vestige of an evolutionary past when our ancestors would have had a much better sense of smell.” 

The Ant and the Peacock
By Helena Cronin 

Darwin had been working on his theory of evolution by natural selection for over a decade when he got a letter from Alfred Russell Wallace outlining almost the identical idea. “It’s a very nice gentlemanly story,” Dawkins says. “They didn’t quarrel over it, and papers by the two of them were simultaneously read in London. But that’s not what The Ant and the Peacock is about.” The Ant and the Peacock is about two disagreements between Darwin and Wallace: altruism and sexual selection. 

The original theory of natural selection had a hard time making sense of seemingly selfless cooperation, like the ones found among female worker ants, who works for the hive without the possibility of producing her own offspring. Similarly, seemingly counter-productive traits like the peacock’s gaudy tail present a problem for the theory. Why would it be advantageous to have a tail that’s basically a waving flag for predators? Darwin thought flamboyant ornamentation like the peacock’s tail was the result of sexual selection—peahens prefer males with flamboyant tails—while Wallace thought sexual selection couldn’t influence evolution. On the disagreement, Wallace thought natural selection couldn’t explain altruism, and Darwin thought it could.