Darwin wrote in a letter to his friend Joseph Hooker in 1856, "What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horribly cruel works of nature." Distressingly for many commentators at the time and since, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection placed Nature's cruelty in a rational framework: it arises, with an aching inevitability, from the struggle for existence itself. As Richard Dawkins writes in the opening article to his new volume of selected essays, "Nature is neither kind nor cruel but indifferent.

Richard Dawkins
Weidenfeld & Nicholson
320 pp

Such kindness as may appear emerges from the same imperative as the cruelty." That imperative is the blind tendency for natural selection to favour traits and behaviours that increase one's genetic representation in future generations. It is why hyena litter mates attempt to kill each other and why we pamper our children.

Curiously, for many of the same commentators who find the world according to Darwin unpleasant and unhappy, the biological, behavioural and other consequences of evolution by natural selection come to be seen as an ethical prescription of the theory: the so-called conflation of 'what is' with 'what ought to be'. This means that Dawkins, who has so effectively investigated and interpreted evolutionary ideas, is often assumed to believe that Darwinism should dictate human affairs.

In choosing A Devil's Chaplain as the title of this volume, Dawkins is signalling — ironically one assumes — that there is more to him and his beliefs than his writings on evolution and natural selection. The book contains thirty-two contributions drawn from Dawkins' oeuvre over the past 25 years, including some previously unpublished works. There are essays on clear thinking (with a marvellously contemptuous dismissal of 'postmodernism'), viruses of the mind, education, religion, and morality. There is a touching open letter to his daughter on her tenth birthday, a poignant lament to Douglas Adams, and a sad eulogy to his friend and colleague Bill Hamilton, who was among the most influential of evolutionary theorists since Darwin.

It was Hamilton himself who remarked that Dawkins could accomplish as much in a verbal argument as many a theoretician could with mathematics. This is no small compliment coming from a man who so effectively used mathematics in his own work. I remember once the well-known evolutionary theorist John Maynard Smith chiding Dawkins for using a simple computer algorithm to explain a fundamental point about natural selection in his book The Blind Watchmaker. Maynard Smith's point was that the problem could easily be solved mathematically. He was right of course (and Dawkins knew the mathematical argument), but this missed the point that the readers would have been far less likely to follow the mathematics, whereas the computer-based argument was intuitive. This ability to make complicated ideas seem obvious and intuitive is what led — I believe it was Hamilton again — to comment that Dawkins' writing is pleasing because it makes you think that you had thought of the arguments yourself.

Outside of science, Dawkins may be best known for his attacks on religion and the muddled thinking that often attends ethical questions, such as debates about cloning. Dawkins famously thinks of religion as a dangerous virus of the mind, or 'meme', quite literally an illness of thinking that arises from a set of connected ideas that are easily and effectively passed along from generation to generation. Presented this way, the notion may seem cynical and slightly unkind. But readers unfamiliar with Dawkins' arguments about religion should read the essay in this volume entitled 'Viruses of the Mind'. He reminds us there that religion is largely acquired when one is young — a time that natural selection has programmed our species in particular to be receptive to teachings from our parents or elders — that part of the message is that faith (and therefore resistance to testing) is a virtue in itself, and that other faiths cannot be right: a recipe for the spread of the religion 'meme' and for what is currently something of a world-wide problem.

Dawkins brings his clear and concrete habits of mind to all of his writings. His rant about the jury system leaves one thinking "why didn't I think of that", and his foreword to the late John Diamond's book about his losing battle with cancer shows how science could effortlessly rid us of so-called 'alternative therapies', which Dawkins engagingly points out are by definition not effective (read him to see why). So, this book succeeds at several levels. We see Richard Dawkins as a father, friend, and social commentator, and we see him as someone just as troubled by ethics and social responsibility as he is by evolution. A Devil's Chaplain is intelligent, witty, forceful and at all turns a pleasure to read.

Mark Pagel is professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Reading

A Devil's Chaplain is available from Amazon (UK).