Rewriting Life

Barcodes in the Stars

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

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.

This story is part of our January/February 1999 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

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.

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.

Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Rewriting Life

Reprogramming our bodies to make us healthier.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Premium.
  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look. Exclusive early access to stories.

    Insider Conversations. Listen in as our editors talk to innovators from around the world.

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.