The Greatest Show on Earth
The Evidence for Evolution
by Richard Dawkins
FREE PRESS, Copyright 2009
480 pages, hardcover
Review by Jim Walker
Dawkins calls young earth creationists, history deniers. Similar to holocaust deniers, the history deniers deny evidence of evolutionary history regardless of how strong the evidence. This gave Dawkins a reason to write this book - to explain the vast evidence of evolution and its theory, natural selection, through time. Since over 40 percent of Americans do not accept evolution, this book serves to educate them about that evidence.
Unlike Dawkins last book, The God Delusion, this book does not push atheism over religion. Instead Dawkins returns to teach science. It does, however, address the creationists because they have created religious propaganda and political tools to prevent the teaching of evolution in schools and have spread falsehoods about evolution to the public. (Go to this site for an example of a typical gross misunderstanding of evolution spread by creationists: http://www.scienceprovesit.com. Notice there's no email address for replies.)
Surprisingly, most religious leaders, as Dawkins explains, accept evolution (albeit, with the condition that a god started it all) but they don't spend the time to explain it to their congregations. Thus the problem of misunderstanding evolution gets spread from misinformed creationists and intransigent believers who do not understand science because no one has ever taught it correctly to them. In Dawkins past science books, he provides explanations for the theory of evolution but without going into detail about how scientists gather evidence. This book addresses the evidence from fossil, geological, DNA, and natural clocks used to determine times (tree rings, radioactive clocks, and molecular clocks).
To deny natural selection amounts to denying the facts of life and its millions of years of its history. It gets worse. Dawkins points out that if you deny the facts of evolution you also have to deny the tools that has established them - the sciences of which include biology, physics, geology, cosmology, archaeology, history and chemistry. Moreover, one would have to dismiss the lines of evidence that include: fossil, homologies, DNA, distribution in time and space, and evidence by experiment.
No doubt everyone has heard the clarion cry from creationists: "No one has ever watched evolution happening before our eyes" (I wonder if they also deny that grass grows because, lets face it, no one actually sees grass growing before our eyes either do we?). Dawkins brilliantly dispels the "no one ever watched evolution" misconception by using an analogy of a detective coming upon a scene of a crime after the event and making interferences. You don't have to actually see the crime to come to a conclusion as to how the crime happened.
Step by step, Dawkins takes us through the "criminal" evidence starting with (like Darwin in his Origin of Species), domestication of animals called artificial selection. Anyone can understand artificial selection, and as Dawkins says, "Natural selection is the same, with one minor detail changed." Some creationists actually accept evolution of this kind calling it microevolution (as opposed to macroevolution) without realizing that all of evolution works this way. Creationists think that new species would have to come from macroevolution which they claim never happens. Apparently they think scientists believe that a species must macro jump into existence by chance. They don't understand the scientific meaning of macroevolution (coined by the Russian entomologist, Yuri Filipchenko in 1927). Macroevolution to the scientist means the compounded effects of microevolution over time. Today, biologists rarely use the term because it can mislead one to think it works differently than microevolution as if it meant a different kind of evolution.
The book also covers the "missing link" misconception. Apparently some people think that once one finds these illusive links that evolution will prove itself without realizing that we already have these links. Lots of them. Dawkins explains that all fossils represent missing links. Every fossil and, indeed, every living life form gives evidence of either a transition between two forms or, in the case of modern species, a transition between a previous specie and a specie in the future not yet determined by natural selection (which may or may not occur depending if it survives or goes extinct). Amazing as it may seem, Dawkins reports that we don't even need these missing links to determine evolution: "[W]e don't need fossils in order to demonstrate that evolution is a fact. The evidence for evolution would be entirely secure, even if not a single corpse had ever fossilized."
I enjoyed Dawkins explanation of the epistemological barrier to evolution. He asks, "why did it take so long for Darwin to arrive on the scene? What delayed humanity's tumbling to that luminously simple idea?" The barrier came in the form of Plato's language of essentialism, a belief that limited humans for thousands of years. As a philosopher once observed, "You don't need to take drugs to hallucinate; improper language can fill your world with phantoms and spooks of many kinds." The evolutionary view of life, Dawkins explains, proves radically opposite that of essentialism. Once you clear your head of unnecessary beliefs, it leaves open to Darwin (or a Wallace) to explore new scientific territories.
Creationists also continually misunderstand the concept of entropy claiming that life forms contradict the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Dawkins gives about the best explanation I've yet seen as to why living things don't contradict the Second Law. It further embarrasses the creationists because it shows that they don't understand physics any more than they do biology.
Some people have argued against Dawkins because he calls those who don't subscribe to evolution as ignorant, fatuously ignorant, or ridiculous. "Who, exactly, is supposed to read this book? Is Dawkins preaching to the choir or trying to convert the uninformed?" they ask. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions." Dawkins, however, doesn't ridicule through ad homenims but rather, indirectly by explaining the evidence.
Imagine a group of workers (say 100) inside an industrial building with no windows where five of them claim that it's not raining outside. These five people have convinced everyone that it's not raining except for one person. This one person (lets call him Darkins), notices a sound on the roof that resembles raindrops falling on the roof. He decides to investigate further and walks outside (despite the rule that workers shouldn't leave their work stations). Low and behold, Darkins discovers that it's pouring rain. He goes back inside and tries to convince the people that it's actually raining outside. A few skeptics listen to Darkins and walk outside to see the claimed evidence for themselves. Unfortunately, the five rain deniers continue to convince 40 percent of the other people that it's not raining. Darkins tries to explain the rain to them and implores them to look at the evidence. They accuse Darkins of being angry, shrill, and strident. The stubborn rain deniers don't even want to consider the rain theory because they find the no-rain hypothesis more comforting and they don't want to drive home in a pouring rain, and besides, their "god" favors the no-rain hypothesis. How dare anyone contradict us! However, when the work day ends the people leave the building to go home only to discover that it's raining cats-and-dogs. Instantly, all of them are convinced that it's raining except the five original rain-deniers. Not only do the rain-deniers look ridiculous, the other people who once believed them feel deeply embarrassed for them.
The moral of the story: Although the diehard rain-deniers may never accept the rain theory, anyone who has a scintilla of reason and has the will to look at the evidence can see the rain for themselves.
Well, this book provides the rain of evidence against the creationists and, indeed, the evidence makes them look absolutely ridiculous.
A few quotes from the book:
Evolution is a fact, and this book will demonstrate it. No reputable scientist disputes it, and no unbiased reader will close the book doubting it.
Why did it take so long for a Darwin to arrive on the scene? . . . For Mayr, the culprit was the ancient philosophical doctrine of - to give it its modern name - essentialism. The discovery of evolution was held back by the dead hand of Plato.
Indeed, psychologists studying the development of language tell us that children are natural essentialists.
Darwin gave so much prominence to domestication at the beginning of On the Origin of Species. Anybody can understand the principle of evolution by artificial selection. Natural selection is the same, with one minor detail changed.
The theological mind takes a delight in the niceties of dietary laws and the ingenuity required to dodge them. In South America, capybaras (sort of giant guinea pigs) were deemed to be honorary fish for the purposes of Catholic dietary laws on Fridays, presumably because they live in water. According to the food writer Doris Reynolds, French Catholic gourmets discovered a loophole that enabled them to eat meat on Fridays. Lower a leg of lamb into a well and then 'fish' it out. They must think God is awfully easily fooled.
If the history-deniers who doubt the fact of evolution are ignorant of biology, those who think the world began less than ten thousand years ago are worse than ignorant, they are deluded to the point of perversity. They are denying not only the facts of biology but those of physics, geology, cosmology, archaeology, history and chemistry as well.
Animals generally can't digest cellulose without the aid of bacteria or other micro-organisms, and many vertebrates set aside a blind alley in the gut called the caecum, which houses such bacteria and acts as a fermentation chamber (our appendix is a vestige of the larger caecum in our more vegetarian ancestors).
Just think what you might see in three of four decades if you followed the evolution of bacteria, whose generations are measured in hours or even minutes, rather than years!
[W]e don't need fossils in order to demonstrate that evolution is a fact. The evidence for evolution would be entirely secure, even if not a single corpse had ever fossilized.
J.B.S. Haldane famously retorted, when asked to name an observation that would disprove the theory of evolution, 'Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian!'
It would be so nice if those who oppose evolution would take a tiny bit of trouble to learn the merest rudiments of what it is that they are opposing.
When we say that 'fish' emerged on to the land, we have to remember that 'fish' like 'reptiles', do not constitute a natural group.
To an evolutionist, as we just saw in the example of reptiles and birds, a 'natural' group of animals is a group all of whose members are closer cousins to each other than they are to all non-members of the group.
If we had a continuous and unbroken fossil record, the granting of distinct names to species and genera would become impossible, or at least very problematical. It is a fair conclusion that the predominate source of discord among paleoanthropologists - whether such and such a fossil belongs tin the species/genus or that - is deeply and interestingly futile.
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter. There is no overall plan of development, no blueprint, no architect's plan, no architect. The development of the embryo, and ultimately of the adult, is achieved by local rules implemented by cells, interacting with other cells on a local basis. What goes on inside cells, similarly, is governed by local rules that apply to molecules, especially protein molecules, within the cells and in the cell membranes, interacting with other such molecules. Again, the rules are all local, local, local. Nobody, reading the sequence of letters in the DNA of a fertilized egg, could predict the shape of the animal it is going to grow into.
[M]ost, if not all, of the millions of evolutionary divergences that have populated the Earth with such luxuriant diversity began with the chance separation of two subpopulations of a species, often, though not always, on either side of a geographical barrier such as a sea, a river, a mountain range or a desert valley.
It is almost too ridiculous to mention it, but I'm afraid I have to because of the more than 40 percent of the American population who, I lamented in Chapter 1, accept the Bible literally: think what the geographical distribution of animals should look like if they'd all dispersed from Noah's Ark. Shouldn't there be some soft of law of decreasing species diversity as we move away from an epicentre - perhaps Mount Ararat? I don't need to tell you that that is not what we see.
Nevertheless, strong as the fossil evidence is, I again want to emphasize that it is not the strongest we have. Even if not a single fossil had ever been found, the evidence from surviving animals would still overwhelmingly force the conclusion that Darwin was right.
Just as the vertebrate skeleton is invariant across all vertebrates while the individual bones differ, and just as the crustacean exoskeleton is invariant across all crustaceans while the individual 'tubes' vary, so the DNA code is invariant across all living creatures, while the individual genes vary. This is a truly astounding fact, which shows more clearly than anything else that all living creatures are descended from a single ancestor.
Given that a cave salamander lives in perpetual darkness so has no use for eyes, why would a divine creator nevertheless furnish it with dummy eyes, clearly related to eyes but non-functional?
[J]ust as we should expect if the survival of the fittest, rather than design, underlies the world of nature, the world of nature seems to take no steps at all to reduce the sum total of suffering.
Natural selection cares naught for any comfort. Why should it? For something to happen in nature, the only requirement is that the same happening in ancestral times assisted the survival of the genes promoting it. Gene survival is a sufficient explanation for the cruelty of wasps and callous indifference of all nature: sufficient - and satisfying to the intellect if not to human compassion.
If animals aren't suffering, somebody isn't working hard enough at the business of gene survival.
Even if it were true that evolution, or the teaching of evolution, encouraged immorality, that would not imply that the theory of evolution was false. It is quite astonishing how many people cannot grasp this simple point of logic. The fallacy is so common it even has a name, the argumentum ad consequentiam - X is true (or false) because of how much I like (or dislike) it consequences.
When creationists say, as they frequently do, that the theory of evolution contradicts the Second Law of Thermodynamics, they are telling us not more than that they don't understand the Second Law (we already knew that they don't understand evolution). There is no contradiction, because of the sun!
We are surrounded by endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful, and it is no accident, but the direct consequences of evolution by non-random natural selection - the only game in town, the greatest show on Earth.
Chapter 1: Only a theory
Chapter 2: Dogs, cows and cabbages
Chapter 3: The primrose path to macro-evolution
Chapter 4: Silence and slow time
Chapter 5: Before our very eyes
Chapter 6: Missing link? What do you mean, 'missing'?
Chapter 7: Missing persons? Missing no longer
Chapter 8: You did it yourself in nine months
Chapter 9 The ark of the continents
Chapter 10: The tree of cousinship
Chapter 11: History written all over us
Chapter 12: Arms races and 'evolutionary theodicy'
Chapter 13: There is grandeur in this view of life
Appendix: The history-deniers
Bibliography and further reading
- To obtain this book, click below:
The Greatest Show on Earth
Other books by Richard Dawkins:
The God Delusion (hardcover)
The Ancestor's Tale : A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (hardcover)
A Devil's Chaplain (hardcover)
Unweaving the Rainbow (hardcover)
Climbing Mount Improbable (paperback, hardcover)
River Out of Eden (paperback )
The Blind Watchmaker (paperback)
The Selfish Gene (paperback, hardcover)
The Extended Phenotype (paperback)