The Greatest Show on Earth

2009-10-08

in Books and literature, Science, Writing

Graffiti on metal

Despite the overwhelming evidence for evolution, Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution is depressingly necessary. Even in rich countries with good educational systems, large numbers of people believe patently false things about themselves, life, and the universe: among them, that the planet is less than 10,000 years old, that all life forms emerged simultaneously in their present forms, and that humans and dinosaurs co-existed. Dawkins refutes all of these claims with logic and scrupulous evidence: considering the fossil record, embryology, molecular biology, artificial selection (such as plant and animal breeding), and other demonstrations of how life and our planet have changed together. While some of the content is technical, this is a strong book for many audiences, from those already well versed in evolutionary theory and the evidence for it to those wavering and looking for more information to develop their own understanding.

Having personally read almost all of Dawkins’ books, this one nonetheless contained a lot of new and interesting information (as demonstrated by the string of posts it prompted while I was reading it). As ever, Dawkins is skilled at using analogies and examples to illustrate complicated concepts – a talent he shares with the best of science writers. The subject matter of this book also gives him the solid grounding necessary to come across as justifiably passionate, rather than the somewhat abrasive persona he sometimes projects when discussing topics less closely married to empirical evidence. Along with The Selfish Gene and Unweaving the Rainbow, I think this is Dawkins’ best work.

The evidence for evolution is truly overwhelming. The truth of it is shouted out by the embryological development of animals, by the common elements in the developing biochemistry of nature, by the genetic linkages between all species, by fossil records and isotope ratios, and by observations of evolution across human timescales, such as when bacteria evolve to resist antibiotics. Dawkins touches on all of these, using illustrative and often unusual examples. Even those who have studied a lot of biology are likely to find many of them novel and engaging. All this makes it rather tragic that there are still educational institutions that shrink from teaching it, or insist on presenting it alongside theories for which there is not only no evidence, but excellent evidence contradicting key tenets, such as the fact that the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old. Quite simply, students learning biology in a way not infused with evolutionary theory are being an inferior education and needlessly blinded when it comes to the true character of the world. Hopefully, Dawkins’ continued advocacy will help play a role in resisting that insidious phenomenon.

My one complaint about the book is that the hardcover edition seems to have been cheaply printed, on rough and fast-yellowing paper. A book that goes to such lengths to be a celebration of the wonderful character of life on Earth ought to display it all in a somewhat more splendid way. That said, I can appreciate how the advocacy agenda of the text favours a $25 printing, rather than the $50 kind usually associated with slick glossy nature books.

Prior posts inspired by the book:

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan October 8, 2009 at 10:01 am
. October 8, 2009 at 10:11 am

The evidence for evolution
It’s all there

Sep 3rd 2009
From The Economist print edition
How humans are related to chimpanzees—and to cheese mites and cherry trees too

A SCIENTIST on a flight across America falls into conversation with his neighbour, who turns out to be gratifyingly interested in his research on wild guppy populations in Trinidad. He probes deeply the scientist’s methods, his findings and setbacks. Then comes the big question: what is the theory underlying the work? Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, replies the scientist. The rest of the journey passes in chilly silence.

This anecdote was related by the biologist in question to Richard Dawkins, one of the ablest and certainly the most high-profile of the many scientists trying to dispel the belief that man, rather than descending from other animals, was created in his current form by some divinity. In his previous books the British biologist has presented new ways of looking at evolution, demolished barriers to understanding it and traced the family tree of all life back through its branching points to a single origin. These books all started with evolution. But in the bicentennial year of Darwin’s birth Mr Dawkins fills a gap in his oeuvre by setting out the evidence that the “theory” of evolution is a fact—“as incontrovertible a fact as any in science”.

And what a lot of evidence there is. The fossil record, far from the tenuous succession of gaps described by creationists, provides an admittedly incomplete but beautiful and coherent set of clues to life in the distant past. That any traces at all remain from so long ago is astounding, and anyway it is not the completeness of the fossil record but its consistency that matters. When asked what observation would disprove the theory of evolution, J.B.S. Haldane, a pioneering British geneticist, replied: “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian era.” But such anachronisms have never been found.

Then there is the evidence written on the bodies of all living things. The mammalian skeleton is consistently recognisable in creatures as various as bats, monkeys, horses and humans. Vestiges such as the stumpy wings of flightless birds, and the hairs that prickle on human skin just like the rising hackles on furry mammals, are further testimony to our shared origins. Glitches, like the laryngeal nerves that are so neatly laid out in fish but that must detour in animals with necks—by a crazy 15 feet (4.6m) in the case of giraffes—demonstrate the incremental, undirected business of evolution in touching detail. At the microscopic scale, molecular genetics connects the various parts of the grand family tree with fantastic detail and accuracy.

Alex October 8, 2009 at 12:57 pm

“The evidence for evolution is truly overwhelming.” I agree. At the same time I find the philosophical truth of (continuous) divine creation truly compelling.

Milan October 8, 2009 at 1:25 pm

You might find the chapter on evolution and theodicy interesting. Dawkins argues that there is a huge amount of pointless suffering in the natural world – such as that caused by parasites and wasps that inject their eggs into living animals. He argues that this doesn’t make sense if there is a benevolent creator, but makes perfect sense if it is all just the consequence of random change and natural selection.

. October 8, 2009 at 1:38 pm
R.K. October 8, 2009 at 2:37 pm

Quite simply, students learning biology in a way not infused with evolutionary theory are being an inferior education and needlessly blinded when it comes to the true character of the world.

This really is rather tragic. Depriving people of one of the key theories for understanding the world, just because it clashes with what some ancient pastoralists believed, has to be ranked among the stupidest things human beings do.

It is a testament to the superficial nature of human rationality that the level of evidence that now exists for evolution has not convinced everybody.

. October 9, 2009 at 10:28 am

“He [Dawkins] seems to have little appreciation for the cognitive structure of science. Philosophers of science, who are the arbiters of such issues, say science consists largely of facts, laws and theories. The facts are the facts, the laws summarize the regularities in the facts, and the theories explain the laws. Evolution can fall into only of of these categories, and it’s a theory.”

Whoa. Scientists everywhere are doing a spit-take at those words. Philosophers, sweet as they may be, are most definitely not the “arbiters” of the cognitive structure of science. They are more like interested spectators, running alongside the locomotive of science, playing catch-up in order to figure out what it is doing, and occasionally shouting words of advice to the engineer, who might sometimes nod in interested agreement but is more likely to shrug and ignore the wacky academics with all the longwinded discourses. Personally, I think the philosophy of science is interesting stuff, and can surprise me with insights, but science is a much more pragmatic operation that doesn’t do a lot of self-reflection.

. October 9, 2009 at 11:32 am

God Introduces New Bird
October 9, 2009 | Issue 45•41

THE HEAVENS—In what is being described by advance marketing materials as “the first divine creation in more than 6,000 years,” God Almighty, Our Lord Most High, introduced a brand-new species of bird into existence Monday.

“Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve, prepare thine eyes for the most exciting line of avian wildlife in millennia,” God announced as He released an estimated 14 million first-run models into the important bird markets of North America, Australia, and Eurasia. “This new bird has it all: slicker wings, a more streamlined beak, better-than-ever capacity for beautiful song. Plus, all of the grace and majesty you’ve come to expect from the Eternal Creator of Life Itself.”

“The bird is back,” God continued, His booming voice parting the very heavens. “And baby, it’s never looked better.”

According to the latest specs, etched in two tablets of stone and handed down from atop Mount Sinai, the new bird is anticipated by God to be His finest creation to date. Available in two colors-—male and female—the bird reportedly combines everything God has learned from His previous works into one “new twist on an old favorite.”

Milan October 15, 2009 at 4:52 pm

One convincing line of argumentation that Dawkins uses, and that I don’t recall having seen before, concerns the geographical distribution of species.

If you believe that all the world’s animals radiated out from Mount Ararat following the Great Flood, why on Earth are they distributed the way they are? Why, for instance, did all the lemurs proceed directly to Madagascar and to nowhere else? Why aren’t there even any lemur fossils on the route between Ararat and Madagascar?

The same can be asked of any of the species that have evolved only in certain parts of the world.

. October 20, 2009 at 4:43 pm

Proton-Powered Life

While evolution is one of the best-supported theories in science, one lay criticism is that it doesn’t explain the creation of life from non-life, or abiogenesis. This is a different problem domain, of course, as survival of the fittest hardly applies if there’s nothing alive yet. There have been many guesses over the years: the most commonly accepted is “the primordial soup”. That’s probably what you learned in school, the Frankenstein’s Monster approach to cell creation. Start with a random chemical bath, throw enough lightning at it, and mysterious magic happens, somehow resulting in life.

Dr. William Martin of the University of Düsseldorf, working with geochemist Mike Russell, has presented an actual theory of abiogenesis. It neatly explains both bacteria and archaea, describes fairly closely why they function the way they do, and shows why we don’t see new life being created now. Their suggestion: our original ancestor wasn’t lightning-zapped soup, but rather a proton-powered rock.

. October 30, 2009 at 10:55 am

“A RECENT issue of Science, the weekly journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was devoted to research into “Ardi” or Ardipithecus ramidus, a 4.4m-year-old hominid species whose discovery deepens the understanding of human evolution. These latest studies suggest, among other things, that rather than descending from a closely related species such as the chimpanzee, the hominid branch parted earlier than previously thought from the common ancestral tree.

In much of the Arab world, coverage of the research took a different spin. “American Scientists Debunk Darwin”, exclaimed the headline in al-Masry al-Youm, Egypt’s leading independent daily. “Ardi Refutes Darwin’s Theory”, chimed the website of al-Jazeera, the region’s most-watched television channel. Scores of comments from readers celebrated this news as a blow to Western materialism and a triumph for Islam. Two or three lonely readers wrote in to complain that the report had inaccurately presented the findings of the research.

The response to Ardi’s unearthing was not surprising. According to surveys, barely a third of Egyptian adults have ever heard of Charles Darwin and just 8% think there is any evidence to back his famous theory. Teachers, who might be expected to know better, seem equally sceptical. In a survey of nine Egyptian state schools, where Darwin’s ideas do form part of the curriculum for 15-year-olds, not one of more than 30 science teachers interviewed believed them to be true. At a private university in the United Arab Emirates, only 15% of the faculty thought there was good evidence to support evolution.”

. March 31, 2010 at 9:52 pm

For us, there is no longer a fundamental mystery about life. It is all the process of extraordinary eruptions of information.

. December 5, 2010 at 6:07 pm

“On December first, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear announced that a creationism theme park is expected to open in 2014. Park developers are seeking state tourism development incentives and could receive up to $37.5 million over a 10-year period. Gov. Steve Beshear said he does not believe the incentives would violate the principle of church-state separation because the 14-year-old tax incentives law wasn’t approved for the purpose of benefiting the Ark Encounter. The park will have a 500 foot replica of the Ark with live animals on it and a Tower of Babel explaining how races and languages developed. The park will be turned over to Answers in Genesis after it is built. They are a non-profit organization which may allow them to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion.”

. April 26, 2011 at 10:41 pm

“Evolution is surely most deterministic for those still unaware of it.”

-Richard Alexander

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