The Magic of Reality

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The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True
TheMagicofReality Dawkins Bantam2011.jpg
Author Richard Dawkins
Illustrator Dave McKean
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Subject Science
Publisher Bantam Press (UK)
Free Press (US)
Publication date
15 September 2011 (UK)
4 October 2011 (US)
Media type Print (hardcover), Paperback, Audiobook, iPad app
Pages 272
ISBN 1-4391-9281-2
OCLC 709673132
LC Class Q173 .D255 2011
Preceded by The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
Followed by An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist

The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True is a 2011 book by British biologist Richard Dawkins, with illustrations by Dave McKean. The book was released on 15 September 2011 in the United Kingdom, and on 4 October 2011 in the United States.[1][2][3]

It is a graphic science book aimed primarily at children and young adults.[4][5] Dawkins has stated that the book is intended for those aged around 12 years and upwards, and that when trialling the book prior to publishing, younger readers were able to understand its content with additional adult assistance.[6]

The book is published in the United Kingdom by Bantam Press, and in the United States by Free Press.


Most chapters begin with quick retellings of historical creation myths that emerged as attempts to explain the origin of particular observed phenomena. These myths are chosen from all across the world including Babylonian, Judeo-Christian, Aztec, Maori, Ancient Egyptian, Australian Aboriginal, Nordic, Hellenic, Chinese, Japanese, and other traditions. Chapter 9 includes contemporary alien abduction mythology and Chapter 4 omits mythology altogether as Dawkins says that really small phenomena were unknown to primitive peoples prior to the invention of advanced optical magnification equipment, any texts they believed to be divinely inspired having failed to mention such useful knowledge as beyond human experience at the time. Dawkins also revisits his childhood and recalls his initial thoughts on these various phenomena or those thoughts expressed by his young contemporaries. Dawkins gives his critique of many of the myths, such as when he points out that much myth involves some god's symbolic transgressive act performed just once, with Dawkins saying that such one-time acts would be inadequate to explain the mechanism as to why the phenomena continue to happen in unbroken cycles.

In the opening chapter Dawkins explains that although mythic narratives and make-believe are fun parts of growing up, reality with its fundamental capacity for beauty is much more magical than anything impossible. The Fairy Godmother from Cinderella cannot magically turn a pumpkin into a carriage outside the bounds of fiction, the reason being that such objects as pumpkins and carriages in reality possess internal organisation that is fundamentally complex. A large pumpkin randomly reassembled at the most minute level would be much more likely to result in a featureless pile of ash or sludge than a complex and intricately organised carriage.

In the subsequent chapters Dawkins addresses topics that range from his most familiar territory, evolutionary biology and speciation, to physical phenomena such as atomic theory, optics, planetary motion, gravitation, stellar evolution, spectroscopy, and plate tectonics, as well as speculation on exobiology. Dawkins admits his understanding of quantum mechanics is foggy and so declines to delve very far into that topic. Dawkins declares that there was no first person, to make the point that in evolutionary biology the term species is used to demark differences in gene composition over often thousands of generations of separation rather than any one generation to the next. To illustrate this he uses the example of family photographs. If, hypothetically, there existed a complete set of photographs of all one's direct male ancestors arranged in order of birth date (or hatch date) from youngest to oldest stretching back millions of generations, from one generation to the next one would not perceive much difference between any two adjacent pictures—looking at a picture of one's grandfather or great-grandfather one is looking at a picture of a human—but if one looked at the picture 185 million generations back one would be looking at a picture of some kind of fish. Dawkins stresses this point by saying the offspring of any sexually reproducing life form is in almost all cases the same species as its parents, with the exception of unviable hybrids such as mules.

The last two chapters cover a discussion on chaos and the human psychology behind so-called miracle claims such as the Our Lady of Fátima and Cottingley Fairies examples. Dawkins presents philosopher David Hume's argument that miracle claims should only be seriously accepted if it would be a bigger miracle that the claimant was either lying or mistaken. Dawkins continues, saying miracle claims written down in texts subsequently deemed sacred are not exempt from this standard.


Tim Radford, in his Guardian review, calls the presentation of the physical book "prodigiously illustrated and beautifully designed", and regarding the content says "it is a distillation of so much that Dawkins has written and argued since the publication of The Selfish Gene ... The strength is that he knows his ground. The weakness is that – for a 'family audience' – he deliberately constrains his vocabulary along with the exuberant imagery and belligerence that made his reputation from the start."[7]

The New Scientist article collates the reviews of Andy Coghlan and those of his 20-year-old daughter Phoebe and his 13-year-old son Callum. Coghlan calls the book "a triumph" but wishes Dawkins had a chapter entitled "Why do people do bad things to others?" saying "The book provides a golden opportunity for Dawkins to ask whether we can evolve to treat one another more civilly. Alas, he doesn't seize it." Coghlan also supports Dawkins "encouraging readers to be bowled over by the stunning beauty of reality – a sentiment I thoroughly support. Too few of us wake up each day and reflect on how amazing it is that we are not only alive, but aware of being alive." Phoebe liked the book, she writes "I was unable to put the book down. I found myself enjoying learning exciting new facts and having old ones reinforced. It was definitely no repeat of the classroom scenario... Perhaps the book's greatest asset is that it manages to bring science to life. The vibrant illustrations reinforce this, as do the fun font styles... His style is colloquial, creating a relaxed, lighter tone." Callum, who is closest to the intended age for the book, doesn't need to be persuaded about the bounds of reality, he writes: "Miracles don't exist. Simple as that. The Magic of Reality hasn't changed my views on anything."[8]

Neville Hawcock for the Financial Times praises Dawkins' clarity in explanation: "He really is very good at this. The chapter on rainbows has the clearest explanation of how they appear that I’ve ever seen." Of the myths Dawkins uses Hawcock writes: "These, straw gods set up for Dawkins to knock down, are not up to the job of accounting for reality but at least give McKean some great subject matter."[9] Meghan Cox Gurdon writing for the Wall Street Journal says: "His tone throughout alternates between real delight over how things work and avuncular pity for the people who persist in seeing an author behind the machinery of the universe... There is no plan, winks Mr. Dawkins, nor any divinity. There is just the 'magic' of the universe unfolding. If that is the view you wish your children to have of the cosmos, then The Magic of Reality will suit you very well."[10]

Wyndgate Country Club controversy[edit]

During Richard Dawkins' October 2011 book tour, its sponsor Center for Inquiry (CFI) signed a contract with Wyndgate Country Club in Rochester Hills, Michigan, as the venue site. After seeing an interview with Dawkins on The O'Reilly Factor, an official at the club cancelled Dawkins' appearance. Dawkins said that the country club official accepted Bill O'Reilly's "twisted" interpretation of the book without having read it personally.[11][12] Sean Faircloth said that cancelling the reading "really violates the basic principles of America ... The Civil Rights Act ... prohibits discrimination based on race or religious viewpoint. ... [Dawkins has] published numerous books ... to explain science to the public, so it's rather an affront, to reason in general, to shun him as they did."[13] CFI Michigan executive director Jeff Seaver stated that "This action by The Wyndgate illustrates the kind of bias and bigotry that nonbelievers encounter all the time."[14] Following the cancellation, protests and legal action by CFI against the Wyndgate Country Club were pursued.[15] In 2013 this case was settled in favour of the Center For Inquiry.[16]

Publication history[edit]


  1. ^ Alison Flood (23 October 2009). "Richard Dawkins targets teenagers with myth-busting illustrated book". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2 November 2009. 
  2. ^ "Comment: Richard Dawkins' Missing Link – A Book on the Evolution of Sex". Retrieved 11 August 2010. 
  3. ^ "[UPDATE – iPad app]UK & US release info – The Magic of Reality – Richard Dawkins & Dave McKean – Transword Publishing & Simon and Schuster". 1 September 2011. Retrieved 14 October 2011. 
  4. ^ Porten, Jeff (18 July 2011). "TidBITS Opinion: The Amazing Meeting 2011: Richard Dawkins vs. Chuck Norris". Retrieved 14 October 2011. 
  5. ^ "The American Conservative » Richard Dawkins Schools the Young". 13 July 2011. Retrieved 14 October 2011. 
  6. ^ Dawkins, Richard (13 September 2011). Newsnight; Interview: Richard Dawkins on The Magic of Reality. Interview with Jeremy Paxman. BBC Two. Retrieved 14 September 2011. 
  7. ^ Radford, Tim (21 September 2011). "The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins – review: A brilliant introduction to science for children". The Guardian. Retrieved 23 September 2011. 
  8. ^ Coghlan, Andy; Phoebe Coghlan & Callum Coghlan (17 September 2011). "A Dawkins family affair: Andy Coghlan and his children review the latest offering from arch-atheist Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion in teen-friendly form". New Scientist 21 (2830). Retrieved 28 September 2011. 
  9. ^ Hawcock, Neville (30 September 2011). "The Magic of Reality". Financial Times. Retrieved 1 October 2011. 
  10. ^ Cox Gurdon, Meghan (1 October 2011). "Natural Enchantment". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 1 October 2011. 
  11. ^ "Rochester Hills Country Club Cancels Richard Dawkins Appearance". Fox News. 13 October 2011. Retrieved 15 October 2011. 
  12. ^ "Atheist Richard Dawkins snubbed by Detroit area country club". Detroit Free Press. 12 October 2011. Retrieved 15 October 2011. 
  13. ^ "Rochester Hills Country Club Cancels Richard Dawkins Appearance". Fox Television Stations, Inc. Retrieved 15 October 2011. 
  14. ^ "Protest tonight against club's decision to cancel atheist's appearance". The Detroit News. 12 October 2011. Retrieved 15 October 2011. 
  15. ^ "UPDATE: Dawkins Event Banned – CFI to Pursue Legal Remedies". Center For Inquiry. 14 October 2011. Retrieved 15 October 2011. 
  16. ^ "Mich. club settles atheist discrimination suit". The Wall Street Journal. 26 February 2013. Retrieved 27 February 2013. 
  17. ^ Dawkins, Richard; Narrated by Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward (2011). The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True (Audiobook). Random House Audiobooks. 
  18. ^ Dawkins, Richard; illustrated by Dave McKean (2011). The Magic of Reality: How we know what's really true (iPad app). Transworld (Random House UK ). Retrieved 27 September 2011. 

External links[edit]