The Greatest Show On Earth

Thursday, October 29, 2009 20:33 | Filed in Books, Reviews, Science

Richard Dawkins annoys me at times. I find his anti-religion rhetoric haranguing, no more pleasant than that of a gentleman wandering round the centre of town yelling that all sinners will “burn in a lake of hellfire”. To me, it doesn’t really matter which of them are right; it’s not polite, it’s not nice to go on in such a way.

Richard Dawkins: The Greatest Show On Earth (Amazon)

And this is a shame, because one of the things he does do well — extremely well — is to write a compellingly and captivatingly on evolution. I know this from having read his other books (The Blind Watchmaker, The Extended Phenotype et al), and this is what made me pick up his latest — The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.

Before I start on the book, I’m going to expand on why it’s a shame. It’s a shame because his attitude towards religion will cause some religious people to see him as the enemy and not want to read it. Indeed, when I was reading this book on the bus, I had someone actually say to me “I used to really like him before he went off on one about religion; he’s a bit of a nutjob in that respect, isn’t he?”.

And it’s that perception which will probably make some religious people unwilling to pick up this book. And that really is a shame; if you have any doubts over the truth of evolution, you ought to pick up this book. What Dawkins does well in this book is to put the question of religion to one side (he makes it clear he’s an atheist, but readily admits that’s an argument for elsewhere) and sets out here to make a case for one thing, and one thing only — evolution.

And he does it extremely well…

There is a note in the first chapter where he speaks of Emmanuel College in Gateshead. This place is very close to me (some of my relatives went there), but what Dawkins — along with a group of bishops — wrote a letter about was to complain about the way evolution was taught there as a “theory”.

Yes, it is a theory. But Dawkins goes some way to identify the differences between accepted scientific theory, and the idea strung together by the man in the street which he brands as his “theory” about the Kennedy assassination. Sadly, he missed the chance to use my favourite argument: if you don’t accept scientific theory, why not treat all forms of “gravitational theory*” with the same disrespect. And, to show I’m scrupulously fair about this, if you can float about, unencumbered by gravity, I might even concede the point.

*for the physics nerds, yes, I know it’s part of general relativity.

Moving on from my rant about Dawkins probably having already alienated the people who should be reading this book, I’m going to move onto the evidence itself. He provides evidence not only for evolution (though that is the central aim), but also delves into plate tectonics, radioactive dating and radioactive decay, to provide the evidence that the world is not 10,000 years old. No, we’re talking billions.

He lists ways evolution could have been proved wrong (but wasn’t); predictions made which were found to be true, demolishes arguments about ‘missing links’ and so on. Every chapter provides a different angle of attack, different sets of evidence all laid out neatly, all supporting evolution.

As an hardline agnostic myself, I find something quite beautiful in the concept that a creator could define a mechanism as simple and as capable of producing such seemingly miraculous change as natural selection: I don’t see that there needed to be a creator, but if there was, natural selection for me would add to the beauty of creation rather than detract from it — and you can add stuff like plate tectonics to that list too.

Unfortunately, he can’t quite resist attacking people: instead of suggesting that people who have drawn a different conclusion are mistaken, or haven’t considered all the relevant evidence — maybe haven’t been taught the relevant information, he takes a much harsher stance:

…those who think that the world began less than ten thousand years ago are worse than ignorant, they are deluded to the point of perversityThe Greatest Show On Earth, p85

…yes, they are obviously wrong, but only a sub-set of the people who believe that will have had Dawkins’ level of education, training and understanding in science; only a sub-set will deliberately have turned their back on the evidence; others may simply not be aware of it, and Dawkins does them an injustice here.

Of course, if any of those people were reading, and have managed to avoid throwing the book down in disgust at being insulted, he then goes on to provide the evidence that the earth is simply not that new.

But, to give him credit (at least in comparison to some of his works), this sort of thing is kept to a minimum, and the tale of evolution is told, explained, and expanded on, including one of my own personal favourites — that of the Octopus eye and convergent evolution (want to know why the octopus eye has evolved without the major design flaw ours have? read the book…)

One of his passages on species is perhaps the most instructive for those who do not have a biological background. Non-scientists have raised questions before (apparently) about “I’ll believe in evolution when I see a monkey give birth to a human”. Obviously this is a load of rubbish but Dawkins explains with crystal clarity why evolution would specifically not expect this to occur:

…the common ancestor would have looked a lot more like a monkey than a man, and we would indeed have called it a monkey if we had met it, some 25 million years ago. But even though humans evolved from an ancestor that we could sensibly call a monkey, no animal gives birth to an instant new species, or at least not one as different from itself as a man is from a monkey, or even from a chimpanzee. That isn’t what evolution is about. Evolution not only is a gradual process as a matter of fact; it has to be gradual…The Greatest Show On Earth, p155

It’s only later when scientists start poring over fossils that they make the decision “this specimen looks more like group B, so we’ll classify it as group B” simply because each specimen must sit somewhere. While he’s on, he also takes the time to take potshots at some other common misconceptions about evolution (that it is a ‘ladder’ with animals gradually and inexorably becoming more complex over time and so on).

If you have any concerns over whether or not evolution is fact, please do take the time to read this book, even if for no other reason than to prove you are not closed-minded. Even if you already do accept evolution as fact, it’s still a marvellous story, full of colourful examples and there are bound to be some stories in there relating to the ingenuity of nature — and the fact that while evolution and natural selection are (in my opinion at least) proved, there’s also some arguments showing where, if there had been a designer, you’d have expected him to do a lot better, as much of it appears to be a bodge job at best.

Dawkins has managed to rein in his hectoring fairly successfully, and in so doing, has produced a wonderful work, which ought to sit on everyone’s shelf.

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4 Comments to The Greatest Show On Earth

  1. Care says:

    November 1st, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    Thank you for this. I’m putting this book on my wishlist now.

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