The review of The Greatest Show on Earth, The Evidence For Evolution by Richard Dawkins. This was submitted as a take-home assignment for a philosophy course entitled “Darwin & Philosophy.” It got a 9 out of 10, with the following criticism from the instructor (paraphrased): “You could have inquired further into the philosophical aspects of Dawkins’ ideas and supplemented them with your own.” Citations omitted, some corrections made.
“If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law” says American philosopher Daniel Dennett, who is also a good friend of Richard Dawkins. Since it was first published in November 1859, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has passed every scientific test it has encountered with flying colors. It has proven to possess immense explanatory power in biology, so much so that Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the founding fathers of modern evolutionary synthesis, have aptly proclaimed that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Indeed, without the hindsight of evolution, facts of life were merely collected data, unexplained and unconnected. With the hindsight of evolution all those facts could be understood and explained by a robust mechanism. (This demarcation is reminiscent of the difference of Einstein’s theory of gravity with that of Newton’s. In Newton’s theory, nobody knew how gravity affected things; it just did. In Einstein’s theory, however, a field permeated otherwise empty spacetime that was bent in the presence of energy and that’s how bodies were affected by gravity. In other words Einstein explained gravity where Newton only described it. Likewise, the fact of life is explained with the arrival of Charles Darwin). That robust mechanism, namely natural selection, not only provided a general framework in which scientists could understand hitherto puzzling adaptations and diversity, it is also one of the simplest of all scientific ideas: the organisms with what it takes to reproduce and flourish, outreproduces and outflourishes those who do not. Simple as it may be, Darwin’s idea of natural selection is, as Dennett continues with his quote, “not just a wonderful scientific idea. It is a dangerous idea.” That seems like a fair observation, given the never ending controversy since 1859. But just what is it that makes evolution by natural selection such a dangerous idea?
The alarming nature of the answer (or rather, answers) to that question lies in the very heart of why Richard Dawkins wrote The Greatest Show on Earth, The Evidence for Evolution (its working subtitle was “The Only Game in Town”). Right from the beginning Dawkins makes it clear why this book is necessary. He quotes recent opinion polls regarding the acceptance of evolution and the figures are very much depressing. In USA, more than 40 percent of the population deny that humans evolved from other animals. The figures are equally worrisome in Turkey, where only 27 percent of the population accept the proposition that “human beings, as we know them, develop from earlier species of animals.” Dawkins doesn’t cite other Muslim countries, but argues that their figures cannot be better than that of Turkey’s. He seems to be implying that at least some of the opposition to evolution is stemming from religious convictions. And it’s not hard to see why he would think that. Historically the most vocal critics of evolution have often been religiously inclined. Today this is almost exclusively the case; if you find someone who doubts evolution, it is safe to assume that he/she is not an atheist than to assume otherwise.
But even though Dawkins is known for his unwavering and uncompromising atheistic stance, he doesn’t go as far as to put all the blame on religion. He cites another poll, which “pathetically consoles” him. According to this second poll, 19 percent of the British population believe that it takes one month for the Earth to go around the sun. Given the lack of religious underpinning of this shocking finding, he, as an evolutionist, is “consoled” by this result because it seems to imply that there is a general ignorance of science per se, not just a religiously motivated denial and ignorance of evolutionary biology. Presumably that’s one of the reasons why he delves straight into explaining what science is and how it works. As the subtitle of the book suggest, the main aim of this well-written book is to show the relevant evidence for evolution, without being sidetracked by the social or political perception of evolution. In due course, without a single critisicm of religion (“it’s another T-shirt” he says), which indeed may be the main cause of scientific ignorance, he soldiers on to dismantle what exactly a theory is and how it differs from the everyday usage of the word. And he does that with an analogy.
Given that a good case can be made that the ignorance of evolution pales into insignificance when compared to the ignorance of mathematics, it is a remarkably courageous move on Dawkins’ part to develop his theme with a mathematical analogy to explain what a theory is. It runs the risk of shutting down even the sympathetic but mathematically uninitiated reader, but Dawkins seems to pull through. He coins the term “theorum” to contrast with a mathematical theorem. Theorems are provable, he says. And once they are proven, they are true forever. But theorums, results that have been subjected to scientific scrutiny and unambiguously survived, are not, even in principle, provable. And that’s because science does not prove anything but fails to disprove things. Even a theorum like “the world is round” cannot be proven to be true to the satisfaction of a mathematician, but it doesn’t follow from this that treating the world as not round is reasonable. It has been shown to be true with several lines of corroborating evidence and today every rational lay person on Earth agrees with this (barring some unhelpful philosophers). This is a useful distinction because much of the heat evolution is receiving stems from the erroneous claim that it is only a theory and not, say, a law or a fact. By explicitly stating that, strictly speaking, nothing in science, not even Earth being round, is proven or a fact, he is shaking the already shaky ground beneath the creationists. He quotes the different dictionary meanings of the words like “theory” and “fact” and discusses the comparative meanings of them at length. By doing this he lures the reader into thinking that something is wrong with this particular criticism, that it is just a confusion of categories. If earth being round is a fact, Dawkins implicitly argues, than so is evolution. That’s a particularly clever move for beginning a book about the evidence of a theory, for after this point sinks in, it becomes crystal clear to the open-minded reader that if evidence is there for evolution, it’s true, regardless of the almost derogatory word “theory” being attached to it. And the rest of the book is dedicated to accumulate all the evidence in favor of evolution.
Dawkins’ admiration for his hero, Charles Darwin, runs deep and thus, perhaps not surprisingly, he follows Darwin’s footsteps right from the start of the book; he explains natural selection by comparing it to artificial selection. This is precisely how Darwin demolished the barrier in the minds of his Victorian readers regarding the immutability of species. The message in Darwin was pretty straightforward; if humans could transform domestic breeds so drastically by choosing who reproduces and who doesn’t, why shouldn’t nature do the same, over much longer periods of time? Wouldn’t nature’s selection eventually produce different species? It was, and still is, therefore of essential importance to enumerate the effects of artificial selection so that a proper analogy can be established with natural selection. Just like Darwin, Dawkins chooses his battles and focuses on a few species to demonstrate the power of artificial selection. He documents the immense variety among dogs, cows and cabbages. He sums up the basic rules of thumb of artificial selection in order to ease the reader into accepting natural selection (he calls it the primrose path): a selecting agent, a barrier to breeding of different varieties, breeding certain types of properties within varieties. But unlike Darwin, he has a particularly cute novelty at his disposal: computers. Dawkins, it turns out, is somewhat of a computer geek. He mentions the computer program he compiled years ago, named Blind Watchmaker, which simulates artificial selection on two dimensional computers screen of the entities he charmingly calls “biomorphs.” In each generation you breed biomorphs for a certain characteristic you have in mind and the end result after very few generations is tantalizingly similar to what you had originally in mind. Another clever move, for not only he at once wins the hearts and minds (or, perhaps most importantly, ears) of his younger readers, he also conveys the point that if even in such a rudimentary embryology you achieve these stunning results (and they are stunning), what nature can achieve in eons must be orders of magnitude more complex and impressive.
The remaining chapters are dedicated to document the proper evidence for evolution. These parts are, central and interesting though they may be, anticlimactic from a philosophical point of view. He cites almost all the lines of evidence for evolution by piling all sorts of data from different branches of sciences to make the case that the central claims of Darwin, namely common descent and natural selection, are correct. He tells us about clocks that scientists use to measure the age of things; tree rings, radioactive clocks, molecular clocks. He tells us about the evolution of humans and addresses the infamous missing link problem in human evolution and tells us how scientist show that this is no longer a problem. He tells us about the transitional forms in the fossil record, a requisite for evolution to be true, documenting the immense variety of them. He tells us about how history is written all over us, not just all over humans, but all over living things as such and how it only makes sense if all living things are linked with a common ancestor. He tells us about the direct observations of evolution, particularly about a strain of bacteria that acquired a new trait in slightly more than 20 years. He tells us about perhaps the most convincing line of evidence of them all, molecular evidence, and shows us how it can singlehandedly “prove” that evolution is a theorum. He cites one data after another and walks through the reader to show how they hang together to paint a certain picture of the living world. Once he has done that, the conclusions that follow from them seem inescapable (hence, philosophically uninteresting). At no point in the argument you feel lost or cheated by a slight of hand; just like Darwin’s evolution, Dawkins’ book depend heavily on a gradual progress. He never assumes anything as given and elaborates about everything in every single turn. And by the time you reach the end of it you are left with a feeling of grasping the simplicity of the evidence for evolution, which is apt given the simplicity of the idea of natural selection.
In order to sum up his book, Dawkins utterly unleashes his artistic license and dissects Darwin’s immortal concluding paragraph of The Origin of Species, which deserves to be quoted in its entirety:
Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
This paragraph has a Biblical ring to biologists, it epitomizes the revolution that Darwin inflicted on our societies, it marks the culmination point of Darwinian way of thinking. Dawkins names each of the segments of his book’s final chapter with a phrase from that paragraph in order to make points that are not necessarily about the evidence for evolution. This chapter, which is called “There is grandeur in this view of life” would best be regarded as somewhat distinct from the dominant narrative of the book. He makes points about God, origin of life, perpetual motion machines, physical laws etc. He even invokes some sort of an anthropic principle for why we see green wherever we look. He seem to be rewarding the reader who bore with him thus far. In other words, he tries to end with a high note (in fact the process starts with the penultimate chapter). It is a classic Dawkinsian move, which presumably is intended to wet the appetite of the reader to go out and read more. “If you liked this, there is plenty of this out there. Just go ahead and give them a try” seems to be the subliminal message. But would they? Would the reader, after such an overdose of in-your-face kind of science, which is sometimes explicitly assumed to be at odds with religion, go out and inquire further? That is the question I would like to tackle before wrapping up.
It has to be said that Dawkins does not pull punches. He often has harsh words against people who deny evolution. For instance, he says that the people who think the world is less than ten thousand years old are “deluded to the point of perversity”. He pays little or no attention to what the consequences of that utterance may be. He is the kind of person who cares about what’s right, rather than how people would react upon hearing that truth? This may seem like an unfortunate character trait in author that purports to “convert” people to evolution. “Who in the United States will read Dawkins’ new book (or ones like it) and have any sort of epiphany, or change his or her mind?” ask science writers Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, presumably rhetorically. After all, would a creationist continue to read the book after that comment? Can one really hope to convince people by insulting them? This is a very widespread criticism against the book that it must be addressed in a review.
Firstly, when Dawkins does insult people’s cherished beliefs, he is often right. Young earth creationists are deluded to the point of perversity, given the true age of our world. They are wrong by many orders of magnitude and if the culprit of this massive delusion was something other than religion nobody would accuse Dawkins of being strident or offensive. If, say, the adherers of geocentric view of cosmology was as vocal and tax-exempt as the adherers of young earth creationism, we would all be outraged, we would defend people who oppose the geocentric view, we would urge people to get a hold of reality. Religion is peculiarly exempt from criticism and that is mainly why people react so strongly at even a hint of Dawkins’ opposition, even though he is right in what he says. In the age of political correctness and multiculturalism, there is something exhilaratingly noble about someone who would take none of it.
Secondly, he doesn’t go on insulting people throughout the book, as the critics suggest. As already mentioned, right from the get go he makes it explicit that he is not after religion. He only draws certain religious conclusions when addressing the claims of the adherents of religious doctrines, like the claims of intelligent design, which is necessary to address the misinformation put forward by certain religious people. It’s not a head on assault to religion.
Thirdly, we should refrain from assuming that the world is divided into two types of people; evolution-doubters (history-deniers, as Dawkins calls them) who, at the very first feeling of cognitive dissonance would shun evolution, and the choir, whom Dawkins is preaching. In other words, excluding the middle is a fallacy. No doubt there a lot of people out there that are on the fence about science, who have not thought about such mattes one way or another in their lives and would come to change their minds once they are exposed to hardcore facts (with a proper narrative, obviously).
Fourthly, and this is my personal favorite, as of now there is not a shred evidence that an in-your-face attitude regarding science is not helpful, that it is turning people away from science. This argument is always in the form of a gut feeling, the critics just know that Dawkins is hurting the scientific cause by doing what he is doing. The question “who would listen to your insults?” is almost always rhetorical; it is assumed that the answer is obviously “not religious folks”. Well, argument from gut feelings is one of the lowest forms of evidence in science and the charge is all the more ironic once you remember the credentials of its adherents. And in any case, many people’s gut feeling says just the opposite; they believe that a good case can be made that being vocal and uncompromising in these issues are better in the long run. Dawkins’ website, for instance, is brimming with such people, many of whom were in fact “converted” by Dawkins, so they know where they are coming from; they were once the very people that the critics claim do not exist. There is a growing community on the internet who are fed up with wishy-washy ways approaching the problem that would also agree. They may be right, or they may be wrong. The point is that there is, of course, always going to be scientifically uninitiated people who would distance themselves from the Dawkinsian approach because of his rhetoric (notwithstanding the claim that this is a rather condescending view, as some argue, to accuse people of saying, in effect, “I don’t like what you’re saying, so I won’t listen”), but there are also many people who wouldn’t. Once being one of the latter, I resent the insinuation that my (former, admittedly) view point is irrelevant. And until relevant evidence comes up that shows that he is doing a disservice to society (a very hard thing to quantify, of course), we should avoid rash conclusions.
In conclusion, The Greatest Show on Earth is a well-written book but that is somewhat of a truism, for Dawkins seems incapable of writing a bad book; this is his tenth good book. But it is also not a polemical book, contrary to what the critics would have you believe. It does not pollute its central message by messing with religious sensitivities. It focuses almost exclusively on the science of evolution and lays out all the lines of evidence for it, without assuming any prior knowledge on the part of the reader. In due course, we learn what science does, how it does what it does, and what are the scientific implications of its findings. We do not just learn the evidence for evolution, but also the importance of evidence in science. His feeling of awe is apparent throughout the book and dripping from the pages; he is celebrating life and its diversity. We are led, step by step, with due diligence, following the food steps of Charles Darwin, to conclude that
[e]volution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact. The evidence for evolution is at least as strong as the evidence for the Holocaust, even allowing for eye witnesses to the Holocaust. 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.
And we are lucky to have such an eloquent proponent of the greatest show on earth, the only game in town.