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Barcodes in the Stars

Unweaving The Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder
January 1, 1999

Richard Dawkins’ 1989 book The Selfish Gene has persuaded many readers that we are, at bottom, vehicles for a genetic program. Our DNA exists to copy itself, but it does so by first building a conscious human organism. That’s lucky for us; how many chunks of matter in the universe ever get to experience sunsets, or sonnets, or sex? Many people, however, take Dawkins to be saying that since our genes are in charge, any meaning we may happen to see in life is illusory.

Unweaving the Rainbow is Dawkins’ eloquent reply to this depressing charge. Biologists may be unsentimental about their subject, he says, but that doesn’t make them unfeeling. And there may be no grand design in life, but there is plenty to be awestruck about. “To accuse science of robbing life of the warmth that makes it worth living is so preposterously mistaken, so diametrically opposite to my own feelings and those of most working scientists, I am almost driven to the despair of which I am wrongly suspected,” he writes.

Science can be the stuff of poetry, though it is the rare poet who has seen the possibilities, Dawkins argues. He proceeds to demonstrate himself what he calls “good poetic science”and “bad poetic science.” In three delightful chapters, he talks of barcodes in the stars, in the air, and in the courtroom-meaning the Fraunhofer lines in the spectrum of a star’s light that reveal its elemental makeup, the distinct patterns of harmonics in voices or the sounds of musical instruments, and the Southern blots scientists use to fingerprint a person’s DNA. What excites Dawkins about the metaphor is the idea that nature’s barcodes are full of meaning waiting to be deciphered.

Bad poetic science, to Dawkins, includes astrology and the paranormal, whose prevalence in popular culture he attributes to an excess of childish credulity. Interestingly, he also singles out fellow science popularizer Stephen Jay Gould for allegedly misleading students of evolution with forced analogies and lazy generalizations (such as the use of the term “episodic” to embrace three very different kinds of evolutionary discontinuity: catastrophic mass extinctions, macromutations and punctuated equilibrium).

But there is far more revelry than rancor in this book. Dawkins’ wide-eyed enthusiasm as he explains how selfish genes can still cooperate, how our DNA is a digital archive of the environments in which our ancestors survived, and how the human brain is the most sophisticated virtual reality machine ever built, is the antithesis of bleakness. With Carl Sagan gone, the English-speaking world needs a new poet laureate of science. Richard Dawkins now bids for the title.

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