Richard Dawkins at Chipping Norton Lit Fest

Review published on April 29, 2013. Reviewed by Mike Safford

A spring Sunday morning, an unspoiled English countryside town, a stroll through the grounds of a 14th century church, and an hour in the company of Professor Richard Dawkins. These were the pleasures I enjoyed this last weekend, as Chipping Norton Lit Fest rounded off a fine four days of literary entertainment. If there is a more charming place to enjoy a lit fest, I am yet to see it.

A figure so divisive that the mere mention of his name in mixed company can provoke argument, Dawkins appeared here not as the secular firebrand, but as the proselytising professor. The subject was his book “The Magic of Reality,” a lavishly illustrated work for children and young readers. If, like me, you’re more familiar with Dawkins as the author of combative works like “The God Delusion,” “The Magic of Reality” will be a revelation. The prose is thoroughly accessible, simple enough to be read by children, but without being patronising to adults. Dave McKean’s illustrations are sumptuous, bringing home some of the beauty that Dawkins encourages us all to see in the world of science. This enthusiasm was on show as he outlined some of the chapters in the book.

The “Magic” in Dawkins’ title is what he refers to as “poetic magic,” a sense of the transcendent, the moving or exhilarating magic of the starlit night or a perfect piece of music. By opening with the chapter “Who was the first person?,” he drew from his own vast expertise and made a convincing case for the magic of science. In reality, there never was a first person; much like the ageing process of a person cannot be recognised from day-to-day, there was no single generation at which humans became “human.” Instead, he offered up the scientific truth; if we were to take a photo of every generation of our family tree, dating back to our 185,000,000-greats grandfather, we would see a gradual progression back from homo sapiens back to early fish. I have to hand it to Dawkins – for kids interested in super heroes (bats, spiders, et al), there are few stories more fascinating than the one in which you genuinely have fish, lizards and monkeys in your own family tree.

In covering the ninth chapter of his book, “Are we alone,” Dawkins examined one of those other subjects likely to inspire young children, the idea of whether or not there is life elsewhere in the universe. Here he was heavy on the detail, speculating what form life would take. I’ll confess, for an arts-minded spectator like myself, proteins hold less interest than some of the book’s other subject matter, but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment one iota.

As could be expected, the closing question and answer session was invigorating. Much like certain characters are said to have the ability to start a fight in an empty room, Dawkins managed to find a way to throw in some controversy despite the wholly supportive questions of the crowd. Subsequent press coverage has predictably focused on his reprised suggestion that indoctrinating children with religious belief is child abuse, but the finest moment came from a question on the value of myth. As an audience member contended that myths aren’t true, at least “not in a scientific sense,” Dawkins response was that of a man who has devoted his life to scientific endeavour. Apparently exasperated, he asked – “what other sense is there?!”

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