The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins


Few scientists manage to reach a huge popular audience. Even among them Richard Dawkins is distinctive for the clarity and elegance of his prose. The Magic of Reality, an introduction to science, is as good an example of his expository gifts as he has written. It will be appreciated by inquisitive children while illuminating much for the adult general reader.

The hardback edition, published last year, was filled with colourful illustrations by Dave McKean. The paperback retains only a few small black-and-white images for chapter frontispieces. It is a tribute to Dawkins that his explanations lose no force in this more utilitarian packaging.

Each of the dozen chapters focuses on a big question that inevitably occurs to the inquiring mind. Dawkins’s theme is that science is not prosaic but has “an inspiring beauty that is all the more magical because it is real and because we can understand how it works”. By reading the book, non-specialists will genuinely come to understand concepts such as the movement of molecules and how raindrops create rainbows. It’s near impossible not to relish the economy of Dawkins’s explanations. An especially fine chapter asks who the first person was. With an instinct for analogy, Dawkins explains natural selection across geological ages by imagining a stack of photographs of the reader’s 185,000,000 great-grandparents, back to our fishy forebears.

Critics fault Dawkins for not grasping that science and religion seek to answer different questions. Yet the obtuseness lies with them. Dawkins cites David Hume’s magisterial explanation of why accounts of the miraculous — of literal magic — can’t be given credence. They are explanations, of a sort, and don’t work. Dawkins shows that they are also dreary stuff compared with the explanations that do work.

*The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins, Black Swan, 267pp, £8.99; e-book, £6.49. To buy this book for £8.54 visit the or call 08452712134

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Written By: Oliver Kamm
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  1. Trinity: 3 way split = the best way to hedge your bets that each part of your brain won’t know what the other arts are doing.

  2. Bravo Dawkins! I bought hard copy and promptly donated to my local elementary school. There should be one in every classroom in Canada, and if the Government had any spine they would provide for that. Imagine the good that would come from that single act! Private schools would of course pass on such a gift from the Canadian taxpayers. 

    This is where our money should go, not on a new 25 billion dollar fleet of fighter jets to defend our snow.

  3. A nice review, but the link only leads to the front page of the newspaper, not the review itself. I couldn’t find the original review.

    As for the book, I bought it a long time ago, in hardback and read one section each day at breakfast. I thought I was pretty well-educated, but I learned a lot of things, in language I could remember and pass on to friends.

  4.  I dragged my feet about buying a copy because it was listed as a children’s book.  Being relatively science educated I figured it would be too much of a primer to hold my interest.  Well, I could not have been more wrong.  AND I had a bit of a brainstorm while I was reading it.  My wife asked me to read a book that she really enjoyed (a recent romance novel….)  anyway, I struck a sort of deal with her and she is currently reading The Magic of Reality.  My 12 year old son keeps picking it up and reading a selected chapter as well.

    I also will use many many of the valuable descriptions and explanations while I work (I am a Biology teacher).  Thanks Richard.

  5. It will be appreciated by inquisitive children while illuminating much for the adult general reader.

    Indeed. I know quite a few adults who would benefit from a reading.

  6. What I love, and have often noted while reading any of Dawkins’ books, is that ‘clarity and elegance of prose’.

    Especially the clarity. I appreciate that his explanations of the diverse workings of selection and adaptation go deeper than do those of most authors. It is in the understanding of the small practical details that understanding really develops and grows.

    Nothing important is left unexplained, however apparently trivial, until its importance is vividly revealed, and until the reader is imbued with the same enthusiasm as the author. This is a rare talent indeed. We need more Dawkinses for our schools and universities.

    Thanks, Prof! 

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