Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Where Beagles Dare: Speaking for Darwin? The Dawkins/Darwin Audio Debate

PART OF TALKING BOOKS: AUDIO BOOK MONTH ON VULPES LIBRIS

Abridgement is always a thorny issue in audiobooks. However, I was surprised, and slightly perturbed, to read that one of CSA Word’s recent releases (On the Origin of Species read by Richard Dawkins) had been substantially edited by Dawkins himself to excise anything that didn’t fit with modern scientific thinking.

Dawkins is quoted as saying,

“In abridging the book, my priority was to cut those passages that are now known to be wrong, notably those concerned with genetics. I believe it is what Darwin himself would have wished. What takes my breath away as a modern biologist is how much Darwin got right.”

Surely, this is more than just straightforward abridgement but actually changing an historical work and inviting us to view it in a particular way (as complete fact rather than as an historical document containing theories, some of which that fit in with present day scientific thinking and some of which don’t)?

It seems that this issue has simply not been picked up on by reviewers or readers, despite this audiobook being one of CSA Word’s most successful non-fiction titles.

We decided to ask Victoria Williams and Bea Long of CSA Word about this in our interview. They kindly passed the above question on to Nicholas Jones, who was the producer of CSA Word’s On the Origin of Species and he sent this reply. We thought it was so interesting we decided to run it as a separate post.

Please let us know what you think about any of the issues surrounding abridgement and editing of classic works – scientific or other – in our comments section. We would be interested to hear any thoughts or opinions.

Nicholas Jones’ reply:

At heart, your question is: ‘Can abridgement alter balance and comprehension?’ My answer is, ‘Yes, of course it can, if it is done unsympathetically or ineptly, but to condense and intensify an argument may actually aid understanding.’

I am puzzled by the unquestioning view which some critics seem to adopt, that the author’s word in a printed book is somehow sacrosanct and exactly what he or she wrote, unaided, and that to add or subtract a single word irrevocably alters the meaning. Works are often constrained by the circumstances of their creation. Dickens wrote many of his novels for weekly magazines, so the length of each chapter was predetermined; that must surely have affected the pacing and balance of the story? That is also true for many other stories we now consider classics – Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories to a weekly schedule, Walter Scott wrote Waverley because he needed the money after a financial crisis in his printing business… a little thought will bring many more examples to light from many periods. The creative force behind work is rarely as simple as the author having a perfectly formed whole concept or story waiting to be captured as it springs, Athena-like, from his or her head.

Left unprompted, Darwin might never have actually published The Origin of Species: he explains in his introduction that what we now consider this seminal, definitive book is only what he was able to do in a limited time. Darwin was not in good health when he wrote it; he had embarked on writing up his theory, but it suddenly became necessary to publish quickly since Alfred Russel Wallace, as Darwin writes, was ‘now studying the natural history of the Malay archipelago, [and] has arrived at almost exactly the same general conclusions that I have on the origin of species.’ Darwin estimated in his foreword that he needed ‘another two or three years’ to complete his work, and that ‘This Abstract, which I now publish, must necessarily be imperfect.’ Imperfect it may be, but it was a good thing he did it, because the full work never appeared.

Critics of Darwin’s book observe that the writing is very uneven – some parts are models of lucidity, some are very tough going. Mark Twain remarked once, submitting a late and overlength essay to a magazine, that he was ‘sorry he didn’t have time to write less’, and I certainly wonder if some of the more obscure passages would have been clearer if Darwin has not been in a hurry to publish. James Costa, in his annotated edition of Origin published as part of the Darwin 200 events in 2009 observes that some parts of Origin are dense, but parts are almost lyrical, and the case studies and observations are presented in a narrative style unusual in serious scientific books even now, let alone then.

Darwin wrote 160,000 words in the first edition of Origin – that would take about 18 hours to read for audio. It is possible to get the essence into the 50,000 words, as we have done here, and make it much more accessible. We set ourselves the target length of five to six hours since that is a manageable listening task for most people. Our target audience does not need all the supportive details Darwin adduced in underpinning his arguments; the listener wants the gist of something, and if he or she wants to study the gradual processes by which the theory evolved, then the full book is available (I did not intend that as a deliberate pun; it just seems apposite).

Are we being true to Darwin’s vision? Well, a great deal of editing goes into most books between the first draft the author commits to paper or screen and the final printed book (or, now, e-book). Writing is a lonely occupation, so there is a long and honourable tradition of professional assistance (see Scott Berg’s biography of Max Perkins, for example, to see how much input he had into Hemingway or Wolfe). An editor’s job is to help the writer communicate his ideas to the intended audience in the best possible way, and the same is true of an audio producer. The point at which editing becomes censorship is a very subjective call, but not by any means unique to audiobooks.

Nicolas Soames remarks in the interview posted earlier here on Vulpes Libris: ‘A skilful abridgement inevitably concentrates on the plot and a the description may have to be conveyed by the actor.’ That is equally true of non-fiction: Richard Dawkins not only selected the portions central to the argument but spent much time studying the text to work out phrasing which will facilitate understanding when listening; Victorian writers like Darwin used punctuation in a very different style to now, and some sentences take a fair bit of disentangling. And it may seem obvious, but those without experience of creating audio books seem to need reminding that the listener doesn’t have the script in front of them, so that emphasis and clarity is fundamental to understanding: things which can be studied carefully and revisited in a written text have to be catchable in one pass when read out loud).

Your question about whether an abridgement can maintain a fair balance is a valid one. However, not only do I think that a careful abridgement will communicate the author’s intentions correctly, but it also puzzles me that this justification is very rarely demanded of theatre, film or radio adaptations. A Radio 4 ‘Book of the Week’ is only about 14,000 words – less than one tenth of Origin, but somehow that is OK because it’s radio (and had radio existed then, Origin would surely have been selected).

Perhaps the problem is that audiobooks are still not always seen as a valid medium in their own right, but as a (usually second-best) substitute for printed books, to be used by those who can’t read because of physical limitation or the demands of multi-tasking. But an audiobook is a performance into which abridger and reader and producer have put many hours of work. We come to know the work intimately; we live with it for hours, days, even weeks. We then choose to share our enthusiasm and understanding with our listeners. If we kindle (no pun intended) interest in the material, we have achieved what we set out to do.

The last thing any production team would want to do is misrepresent what we believe are the author’s intentions. With Darwin, of course, we are not in a position to check, but where authors are living, they are often appreciative of the care which goes into abridgement. For example, I heard that Andrew Taylor, CWA Dagger winner for his historical novel The American Boy, wrote to the abridger afterwards:

‘I was interested that you cut the tailpiece altogether. I added the last section partly under editorial duress and I always had a sneaking suspicion the novel needed to end with Tom and Sophie in Green Park. I think it all works beautifully. Well done.’

I also know that Ian Rankin was asked to write an additional explanatory end to one of his novels by his American publishers, and he welcomed its omission in the abridged audio. Note, too, this comment from author and Times audio reviewer Christina Hardyment, writing about the audio of David Starkey’s book on Elizabeth I:

‘Anyone wanting the story in full should go for the Chivers version, which Robert Powell does his level best to keep interesting, but there is an alternative, an audio abridgement published by HarperCollins, which arguably improves the balance of the book …’

An abridged audiobook produced with care and integrity will stimulate interest in the work from which it is derived, and that is what I think we have achieved with this edition of Origin; if anyone wants to follow the detailed history of the development of the scientific idea, they will research further. In the bonus disc in the new set, The Darwin Selection, Richard explains the historical context in which Darwin was writing; no work can be considered purely on its own, and I don’t think it is reasonable to criticize the audio version of a work for failing to provide all the detail which a far longer printed work will be, when in fact neither can be the last definitive word on the subject. All are part of a larger whole.

I am sure that by producing this edition we will have made it accessible to many who would not otherwise consider plunging into what they believe to be old-fashioned prose. It is one of the books which many more claim to have read than actually have done, and a succinct audiobook is, I believe, a contribution to widening scientific understanding.

I shall leave the last words to Mark Twain again. In 1868 he wrote to his friend Emeline Beach, daughter of New York newspaper proprietor:

‘To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself…. Anybody can have ideas – the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.’

Nicholas Jones

Strathmore Publishing

—-

Link to CSA Word
Link to Strathmore Publishing
Interviewer: Rosy Barnes
For our interview with CSA Word please go here

18 comments on “Where Beagles Dare: Speaking for Darwin? The Dawkins/Darwin Audio Debate

  1. Moira
    September 13, 2010

    The part I’m having trouble with is the excision of the passages where Darwin was wrong according to modern thinking. I’d find those passages as interesting as the rest … the places where he apparently went off beam. Removing them to make him ‘right’ all the way down the line seems … a bit high-handed, I suppose. Perhaps even a little patronizing. I don’t know. I’m not sure. Something about it is just making me uneasy.

  2. Ken
    September 13, 2010

    As interesting as this answer is, it fails completely in addressing the key point of the original question. The question isn’t the necessity of the abridgement of such a long piece of work, it’s whether Richard Dawkins has been fair in its abridgement. For in simply excising anything that doesn’t fit in with modern scientific thinking, it means that a necessary part of Darwin’s thinking is also removed from the work.

    The value of understanding Darwin, surely, is in appreciating the totality of his thinking? After all, if current scientific thinking were the be-all and end-all, we could go and buy a textbook. Or we could buy an audio book of Richard Dawkins explaining why Darwin was so important and which parts of his works we still need to be aware of today. For that’s essentially what he’s doing in excising the parts where Darwin was wrong – only the presentation this time around is more pernicious, because it’s presenting it to make Darwin seem infallible. Which, given Dawkins’ views on religion, is quite ironic. Ultimately, if I’m buying an audiobook of Darwin, I want to understand Darwin, not another person’s understanding of him. It would be nice to see Mr Jones address the problem of the sensitivity of this editing.

  3. Kelly
    September 13, 2010

    Agreed, Mr. Jones’ response is interesting and makes some good points, but it fails to address the central issue, of which he is certainly aware. That being, Richard Dawkins was not likely interested in this project to provide a clear and true representation of Darwin, but to provide additional support for his highly public and politicized position on religion and science. Regardless of where one might fall in that particular debate, it is difficult to trust that Dawkins would edit out only those things that don’t jibe with “modern science” rather than going on to edit out anything that might be construed as contrary to his personal beliefs. I’m not convinced that Dawkins can be any more trusted to faithfully edit Darwin than he might be trusted to faithfully edit the Bible. This kind of controversial feel to the audiobook is, of course, exactly what Strathmore Press had in mind when they chose to publish this highly questionable version of the Origin.

  4. Nicholas Jones
    September 13, 2010

    @ Ken: “Or we could buy an audio book of Richard Dawkins explaining why Darwin was so important and which parts of his works we still need to be aware of today.”

    That is tackled in the essay which RD reads for the bonus CD of the box set.

    I wonder if those making these comments have actually read the entire book to see what has been omitted, or are just assuming that RD will have cut out things to reflect his stance on God. Although Darwin was brought up in a religious society, Origin is not in any way a religious or anti-religious book, but a setting out of a logical deduction. For example, Darwin did not have the benefit of reading Mendel on genetics, so his understanding of mechanism is, by modern standards, wrong. But he got the principles right by his own deductions.

  5. Ken
    September 13, 2010

    Actually, I am not especially concerned about the religious arguments of Richard Dawkins. While I disagree with him on religion, I recognise that his scientific work is of excellent quality. However, I think that there is a more serious point here, that still hasn’t been addressed. Dawkins argues, essentially, in his public life, that we should venerate scientists such as Newton and Darwin for their rigorous approach to the scientific method. In cutting out our understanding of where they were wrong, as well as where they are right, Darwin is being placed on a pedestal that his own works can’t contain themselves. That’s a dangerous approach to understanding the past properly.

    To take an example from my own field, it would be wrong to assess the works of, say, Thomas Jefferson, without fully assessing the limits of what he said as much as his enduring insights. A collected works that did not bring to greater attention his attitudes to slavery, or his attitudes regarding social mobility (his vision of education for ‘all’, for example, offered very limited opportunity to the poor), would simply not be taken seriously, or would have to market itself as engaging only with a small subfield.

    Yet similar arguments to those of Mr Jones could be made for excising slavery from Jefferson’s works. After all, TJ didn’t have any model of emancipation to follow during his lifetime; while he was President, he abolished the importation of slaves. He didn’t have the benefit of practical models to follow that would emerge throughout the world in the 19th century.

    But at the same time, we need to probe why TJ thought the way he did on slavery if we’re to understand the importance of other aspects of his thought. The same with Darwin – by understanding where he was limited in his knowledge or his approach, we can actually appreciate his enduring insights all the more.

    As for the last comment about whether the commenters have read the books – no, I haven’t. But that is exactly why I am concerned about this. Not being an expert on Darwin’s work, I have to rely on the presentation of better qualified experts in abridged editions to gain an understanding of Darwin. After all, if we were all experts on Darwin, then there’d be no need for this audiobook. That means that it’s important I feel that Darwin’s ideas have been transmitted to me fairly and representatively – rather than seeing the preoccupations of an editor transmitted to me under someone else’s name.

  6. RosyB
    September 13, 2010

    Only just catching up with all the comments here – thank you everyone who has commented. And thank you to Nicholas for this piece and also for your comments. Abridgement/editing really is an issue that I think is important to debate, particularly as we go into the digital age: there are so many issues that publishers must have to grapple with.

    One of the things that stood out to me in Nicholas’s answer is the sheer amount of time that an audiobook takes up in relation to a hard copy book in terms of time for the reader and listener. It IS a different medium – and perhaps that is why this sort of issue needs to be looked at specifically in relation to audiobooks. What does abridgement mean? What is the difference between abridgement and editing? Can a book of 160,000 words really be called an abridgement if it is cut by two thirds? That is quite a boggling amount of cutting.

    On the other hand, the challenge for any producer of an audiobook such as this must be immense. How can you expect anyone to “read” an audiobook of in excess of 18 hours? I wanted to listen to and possibly review this title for audiobook month but even at 5 hours, knew it wasn’t going to be practical in the time we had. (I hope it may be a subject that Vulpes may be able to return to in the future.) But 18 hours? – that would really be a tall order for reviewing purposes and I can imagine a lot of listeners may be put off by that.

    All that being said, I think Ken has made some really key points here and the original point I thought was important to debate was the one about abridgement according to “rights” and “wrongs” according to modern science. This does seem like more than abridgement for length and more like editing with a very particular idea in mind. Now, whether or not you agree with that idea is one thing, but I wanted to open the question to debate. It is a general question – not one that is unique to this audio book, and one that I think will be more pertinent in the future also.

    Nicholas Jones says, “Perhaps the problem is that audiobooks are still not always seen as a valid medium in their own right, but as a (usually second-best) substitute for printed books, to be used by those who can’t read because of physical limitation or the demands of multi-tasking.”

    I actually think it is maybe a case of the other way round – that it is BECAUSE audiobooks have traditionally be seen as a less valid medium in their own right that these issues have not been widely discussed in relation to this medium.

    Hard copy books also have the possibility of notes/annotations as you go along.

    I asked Bea Long and Victoria Williams on the interview with CSA Word about notes/annotations and whether audiobooks ever have an audio version. The answer was:

    “No, as a mainstream audio publisher we publish audiobooks as performances and productions entire and unto themselves. Packaging always state whether abridged or unabridged and contributors are credited.”

    I noticed that Nicholas, also, talks of audiobooks as “performance”s. I am very used to this idea – having a theatre background myself – that an performance is merely a version and can never embody the whole. No production of King Lear holds all the complexities and ambiguities and levels of meaning that the playscript does – the playscript is full of possibility…the performance turns it into an actuality and therefore necessarily cuts off some of those other interpretations. However, I think this approach can be problematic with a scientific or philosophical text, for example, that have not been designed for “performance”.

    It will be fascinating to see if in the future of digital downloads etc (where space and time are not such an issue) how recordings and versions will be done and what the accepted norm will be. Indeed, perhaps it will be possible to have various versions, plus notes, in one download, with tracks to be skipped or not at will. I don’t know. But the different technical aspect of digital will surely impact on how we present this complex information.

    Lastly, I did think this piece was fascinating, but I also thought that the very good points and arguments here are mainly of a more literary bent. I think the main issue I would have with the idea of excising passages that, in Dawkins words, are “now known to be wrong”, is that it actually is in danger of misrepresenting science. Many people like to present science in terms of right and wrong and in terms of a linear evolution (if you like!) but often the truth is a messier one.

    I would have thought most people wanting to find out about Darwin will be aware that he is a historical figure and also that his thinking is of another time. I cannot comment on how well or otherwise this audiobook version works (yet :)) but I do think these questions are interesting ones that need to be debated. If you replaced someone like Darwin with – say – a political figure – I think it might be easier for a lot of people to see why some of the questions being raised here are important ones.

    Thanks so much, everyone, for a very interesting discussion. (Even if it only gets more complicated and impossible the more I think about it.)

    And quickly – Kelly – this audiobook was published by CSA Word not Strathmore. Perhaps that was my fault for adding all the links in and it being confusing.

    —-

  7. crazyfieldmouse
    September 13, 2010

    Nothing very astute to add, just wanted to say what a thought provoking post this was. thank you for sharing. cfm

  8. Hilary
    September 14, 2010

    I was fascinated and enlightened by all that Nicholas Jones had to say about the case for abridgement. however, as far as the Darwin example is concerned I think that much of what was said is beside the point.

    It is entirely possible to embrace the case for accepting and enjoying abridged versions of clasic works while still having serious qualms about this one. It’s not necessary to have listened to it to have these qualms, just to read Dawkins’s editorial policy:

    “In abridging the book, my priority was to cut those passages that are now known to be wrong, notably those concerned with genetics. I believe it is what Darwin himself would have wished.”

    I would trust an anonymous, professional editor to do with ‘Origin’ what Nicholas Jones describes – cut to the chase, deal with longueurs, distil prolix passages. Dawkins appears to have done much of this, and I commend it, but he has stated his agenda.

    This has nothing to do with his stance on God and religion – I am not shocked by that, indeed I am more tolerant of his faith position than he is of mine. What shocks me is that someone who has held the position of Professor of the Public Understanding of Science should set that cause back so comprehensively by his cavalier use of the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in the context of scientific method. The best that science can do is to give us a current working model to understand how a tiny part of the universe works. It’s good until ideas evolve, or a new paradigm overturns it. To read Darwin is to learn about two things – a seminal paradigm shift, and the working model Darwin came up with. I respect Dawkins’s knowledge enough to say that if we want to know the current working model we can read his works.

    Darwin’s work deserves the attention of an accomplished, professional, and above all disinterested editor/abridger. By his own statement, Dawkins is not disinterested. I also mistrust the ‘it’s what he would have wanted’ argument. Highly presumptous.

  9. kirstyjane
    September 14, 2010

    Here I turned up at last with some kind of formulation for what bugs me so much about this project, and Hilary already said it. I’m very dubious of any comparison with abridging fiction here. Cutting two thirds from a book like this is much more than an abridgement. And the attitude displayed to science in Dawkins’ intro is a worrying one, as Hilary points out.

    Nor do I like Nicholas Jones’ ad hominem note in his response to the comments. This certainly isn’t about religion for me; in fact I’m generally baffled by any implication that it’s somehow a choice between God and Darwin (after all, Darwin didn’t appear to see it that way). But the severity of the edits, the absolutism apparent in Dawkins’ comments and the fact that Dawkins is not just an editor, but a high profile figure who explicitly links himself to Darwin all raise doubts in my mind. What I have seen so far doesn’t exactly assuage those doubts.

  10. kirstyjane
    September 14, 2010

    Incidentally, lest I sound completely and utterly grumpy, I should say that Nicholas Jones’ observations on the abridgement issue in general are very interesting – and I appreciate the chance to talk about something so important and so tricky.

  11. clom
    September 14, 2010

    just wanted to tip my hat to an interesting discussion.

    and also to praise the greatest blog post title since the origin of any species.

  12. rosyb
    September 14, 2010

    Ah thank you Clom. And for noticing the title – so pleased! I’m afraid, Moira has to take most of the credit there…

  13. Moira
    September 14, 2010

    … or possibly blame.

  14. pam barnes
    September 14, 2010

    It would be interesting to send this discussion to Richard Dawkins and see whether it would make him reconsider this way of abridging.

  15. Jackie
    September 15, 2010

    My comment is actually a side note, about the picture on the cover of the white-headed capuchin monkeys. That species just has a black cap on its head with the nape of the neck white, like the shoulders, it’s not a dark hood as portrayed here. Other capuchin species do have dark fur going up the back of the neck, but not this one. I’m guessing that this illustration was taken from an old engraving and then parts of it colored in. I’m mentioning it because with a work such as this, which would appeal to naturalists and biologists, the inaccuracy would definitely be noticed.
    I’m allowed to comment,according to Mr. Jones, because, yes, I’ve read both “Origins…” and “Voyage of the Beagle”.

  16. Annette
    September 26, 2010

    I take the opposite view to most of what’s been said here.

    CSA’s decision to produce an audiobook of no more than six hours seems sensible to me. Since that means that two thirds of the book has to be cut, some hard decisions have to made about what to leave out.

    This is a book of science, not of literature. Science books state what we think, to the best of our ability, is correct. In his book, Darwin was attempting to outline a theory about the way the world works. As such, what is most important is what is still thought to be correct, not what has since been shown to be incorrect. So it seems quite reasonable to me that one of the criteria in the abridgement might well be to leave out what we now know to be wrong.

    Given that so much has to be cut out (the majority of the book) it doesn’t seem sensible to waste precious time on things that are wrong, when so much of it was right. The most important thing about this important book is the theory of natural selection, and as Nicholas Jones explained, Dawkins selected the portions that are central to the argument that presented it for the first time to the world. The bits that are wrong are irrelevant to that, and in a six hour recording the abridger doesn’t have the luxury of enough time to include them without having to jettison other more important passages.

    Dawkins isn’t trying to hide anything from the listener; he’s not trying to make out that Darwin was infallible or to squeeze him fully-formed into a modern view of science. He’s quite open in his introduction that Darwin got some things wrong and that he’s left them out. He’s laid out honestly what his main criterion was in his decisions about the abridgement.

    And I think he’s quite justified in saying that some of Darwin’s ideas are now known to be wrong. Of course what ‘science’ thinks is correct at any one time is always open to later revision. But the point is that in many cases, as new evidence comes to light it’s possible to say that an existing theory simply can’t be right. One of the things the scientific method is very good at is proving hypotheses wrong. In the last 150 years, the techniques and technology available to experimenters has advanced considerably, allowing us, for example, to see deep into the structure of cells. This allows scientists to uncover evidence that wasn’t available to Darwin and his contemporaries, and which flatly contradicts some of his ideas about genetics. So we can now say, with a high degree of confidence, that some of his theories about genetics are known to be wrong. In the same way we can say with confidence, for example, that phlogiston doesn’t exist, that it isn’t released when materials combust – the experimental evidence collected since the theory was proposed contradicts it, so it can’t be true.

    I don’t think the abridgement is in any way serving Dawkins’ views on religion. The theory of evolution by natural selection is well-established scientifically, and it’s only of historic interest exactly which bits its original proposer got right. It doesn’t matter to Dawkins whether Darwin got everything right, so I don’t see how his well-publicised views on religion are relevant to his ability to abridge this book. What is relevant is his expertise as a biologist and a writer, and that’s not in question.

    In any case, many religious believers quite happily accept the theory of evolution without it challenging their religious faith. It isn’t a deal-breaker where religion is concern, and Dawkins is well aware of that. (Incidentally, it wasn’t Nicholas Jones who brought up the subject of religion, he was merely responding to the previous commenters who’d mentioned it.)

    I don’t see that Dawkins is being arrogant or presumptuous in believing that Darwin would have wished for the abridgement to cut out the passages that we now know are wrong. Darwin was a scientist; Dawkins is a scientist. As such, both are interested in the truth, as discovered to the best of contemporary ability by the scientific method. So I too doubt that if Darwin were preparing a new edition of the book today, he would leave in the parts that have since been disproved.

    Of course, The Origin of Species also now has a historical significance, but nobody is censoring the full version, which is still there for anyone to read if they’re interested. This is simply one edition of it, that for practical reasons couldn’t really be recorded at full length. Maybe some day someone will record it in its entirety, but given that it had to be abridged for this edition, I don’t have any issue with the criteria that were used to abridge it.

  17. Hilary
    September 26, 2010

    It is excellent to see such a spirited defence of Dawkins’s approach to abridging ‘Origin’ – thank you so much, Annette.

    To my mind, it does stand as a version that is entirely open about the criteria used to abridge it; Dawkins has set his stall out with admirable clarity, and no-one should feel in any way misled. But I still think it leaves a gap in the market for a skilfully abridged version that seeks to retain the essence of Darwin’s material, whether subsequently disproved or not, so that, in order to find out its significance in its historical context, there is an alternative to the full half-a-working-week-long version.

    I find myself getting less and less interested in Dawkins’s stance on God, and more and more interested (but not in a good way) in his stance on Science. I suppose that his years of having been drawn into polemic are a sufficient reason for him to have to reach for the megaphone, and I can understand that, but I still find myself at odds with his expressions of certainty, and his use of language that does not really admit the wiggle room that scientific hypothesis might require. And – sorry to take issue again, but this sense of certainty does lead Dawkins into one of the iffy-est of conditional statements – absolutely impossible to prove or disprove, or even hypothesise safely about – ‘It’s what he would have wanted’. If only he’d stopped short of making a statement that so often in other mouths comes across as self-serving, I’d be more supportive of his endeavour than I am. The deeply irritating thing is that he didn’t need to say it – his own intention and the reputation he has that backs it up should have been enough

    As Rosy B said, the reality with science is messier than that, and to my mind that is one of the most fascinating things about scientific endeavour – there is still so much to discover, and it might be information and ideas that reinforce the current orthodoxy, or else we always have to be prepared for the discovery that overturns it. I was talking to my scientifically trained partner about this, and he reeled off a long list of areas of enquiry where knowledge of how the universe works is hazy to non-existent, starting with the irritating non-appearance of the Higgs Boson and going on from there until I had to beg him to stop. I find that exciting, not the reverse.

    Now, maybe that means I should be tackling Russell Stannard’s new book The End of Discovery – I wonder if I’m going to take issue with him!

  18. Pingback: Talking Books: Audiobooks month – the Foxes Reflect « Vulpes Libris

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