The Greatest Show on Earth

Monday, May 31, 2010



Richard Dawkins, 2009



The Greatest Show on Earth is both a lovely, careful step-through of the process of evolution via natural selection, an explanation of many of the mountains of evidence supporting it, and a call to solidarity against those who would deny such evidence.  On this level alone I recommend this book in the strongest terms.

This is the third book I've finished by Dawkins, and by now I'm getting a sense of the hallmarks of his style.  They include an easy confidence combined with infectious enthusiasm for his subject, a ready humor tinged with a bit of didacticism, acknowledgment of retread ground, and friendly recognition of criticism with merit.

In a sense, this occupies a middle ground between the two previous works I read, with a similar amount of scientific explanation as The Selfish Gene while tempering the righteous anger of The God Delusion to a frustration tinged with hope.
Evolution is a fact.  Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact....It is the plain truth that we are cousins of chimpanzees, somewhat more distant cousins of monkeys, more distant cousins still of aardvarks and manatees, yet more distant cousins of bananas and turnips...continue the list as long as desired.  That didn't have to be true.  It is not self-evidently, tautologically, obviously true, and there was a time when most people, even educated people, thought it wasn't.  It didn't have to be true, but it is.
There weren't many basic ideas or subjects presented here that I was unfamiliar with, for example: carbon-dating, parallels with artificial selection, lab-created amino-acids, protein folding, etc..  Many of the details, however, I was unaware of or had slipped my mind.  The chapter on embryology was particularly fascinating for me; a subject I hadn't considered in years.  It is all laid out in an easily accessible style, and clear illustrations abound.

Highlights for me included a reproduction of the Hillis group phylogenetic tree, several fascinating examples of the balance between predator pressure and sexual selection, an explanation of daisy-chaining tree-ring calendars, and a first hand account of the dissection of a giraffe.

Dawkins does dwell a bit too long on his own poetical lauding of Darwin's foresight, but offsets this by including plenty of right-up-to-press-time information which covers cutting-edge developments.

He doesn't bother with some of the old discredited chestnuts like the eye or the wing, except to remind us that the eye is 'installed' backwards, and to touch on the vast range of wings developed by gliding mammals or discarded by flightless birds and insects.

The last chapter is an appendix which runs down the depressing poll statistics that make this book and others like it necessary.
One example: http://www.gallup.com/poll/21814/Evolution-Creationism-Intelligent-Design.aspx

Far more depressing for me, however, was an account tucked in an earlier chapter, a transcript of an argument between Dawkins and Wendy Wright, excerpted in part below:
Wendy:....if evolution has had the actual evidence then it would be displayed in museum not just in illustration.
Richard: I just told you about Australopithecus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo sapiens – archaic Homo sapiens and then modern Homo sapiens – that's a beautiful series of intermediates.
Wendy: You're still lacking the material evidence so...
Richard: The material evidence is there.  Go to the museum and look at it...I don't have them here obviously, but you can go to any museum and you can see Australopithecus, you can see....Why do you keep saying 'Present me with the evidence' when I've done so? Go to the museum and look.
Wendy: And I have.  I have gone to the museum and there are so many of us who still are not convinced...

Richard: Have you seen, have you seen Homo erectus?  .....
Wendy: ...If they were in the museums which I've been to many times, then I would look at them objectively, but what I go back to is...
Richard: They are in the museum.

It goes on like that for a while.  This is the real terror for me, not the numbers, but the intractability.  How does one converse with someone who has no interest in engaging?

Luckily, I deal with no outspoken evolution deniers in my day-to-day life, but gladly consider myself forearmed.

I admit to a level of anger where the willfully ignorant are concerned.  For others, I must admit to a level of pity.  I have a vivid memory of one of the first times I felt that, a conversation I had with a close friend in eighth grade.

Me: So, do you really believe in that whole 'Adam and Eve' thing?
Her: I guess
Me [dumbfounded but curious]: Why?
Her: Because I'm scared if I didn't I would go to Hell.

I have never forgotten this interchange, and it informs my worldview even now.  I strongly agree with Dawkins' goal: inspiring others to a deeper understanding of and greater fascination with the universe.

So I'm going to leave it, this week, with a little inspirational music:




4 Stars - A Really Good Book

Next Week: Phantastes, by George Macdonald

2 comments:

Robert Hagedorn said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lindsay said...

PS. I don't feed trolls. Especially moronic trolls.

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