It’s been a while since my last book review and I’ve read lots of books in the intervening time, so it’s time I put fingers to keyboard again.

I was given this book by my mother, who probably found it at a discount somewhere, but was very glad to read it as I generally enjoy Dawkins’ books.

Before I go further, I should probably explain what conceptual baggage I bring to this review. I am an evolutionary biologist by profession and by training, and I was actually lectured to by Dawkins as an undergraduate. At the time I was more open to religious thinking than I probably am now (ironic gasp from people who know me), but even then was struggling to reconcile it with science and biology. At the time I didn’t think greatly of Dawkins as a lecturer – he had, I think, a rather dry delivery style, plus there wasn’t much in his lectures that you couldn’t get from his books, which most of us undergraduates had already read anyway. I think his lecturing has improved enormously in the last decade, at least from what I’ve seen on YouTube. However, I’d loved reading his books (at the time there were three: The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker and The Extended Phenotype) and read them straight through in a small number of sittings from cover to cover. They were formative for me in giving me a framework for viewing the biological universe, which I still use today. In fact I would say that the ethos of Richard’s books infiltrates my whole field of work (evolutionary ecology) so completely that without it my job would be impossible. So I’m a fan of what he thinks. I didn’t, and still haven’t, read his next two books, River out of Eden and Climbing Mount Improbable, both of which seemed to repeat a lot of the material from his previous books.  But I enjoyed greatly, apart from the extreme length, The Ancestor’s Tale, which is an idea that I wish I had had myself…..I have toyed with books on phylogeny and human ancestry, but never hit on the Canterbury Tales analogy, for which I still kick myself.  I bought Unweaving the Rainbow, and, though I feel it contains some of his best writing in places, found it a strangely difficult book to keep going with…..it just seemed to go on and on and on about rainbows. The God Delusion was another formative book for me, as I have written elsewhere on this blog. Never before or since have I found my own thoughts about religion so completely confirmed by someone else. So now we come to The Greatest Show on Earth (TGSOE).

TGSOE was written to coincide with the 150th Anniversary of The Origin of Species (something I marked myself on that day, in a Behavioural Ecology lecture, by some carefully chosen passages from The Origin). It was one of two popular books by evolutionary biologists in that year (the other being Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True, which I haven’t read) outlining the evidence for evolution. I hadn’t actually read anything about the evidence for evolution since I was a teenager, because it all seemed wrapped up for me then, and the basic forms of evidence haven’t really changed. Since evolution is mandatory science teaching in schools, you’d think that there would be no need for a popular book on this for adults today either. It is necessary, as Dawkins shows, because some 40% of the US adult population, and 20% of the UK population believe in a literal interpretation of Biblical Genesis. I think it’s fair to say that there are few things that make me quite as distressed for my fellow human beings as hearing statistics like that, because to me Evolution by Natural Selection epitomizes the beauty of science, and I do science for a living because I think it’s beautiful. If you want to appreciate the pinnacle of human accomplishment, I would point you to Darwinism every time. Never before or since has such a simple idea explained so much about the universe that was previously utterly mysterious. It quite simply explains how we came to be, why life works the way it does, and our relationship to other living things. To live life without understanding and accepting the scientific truths contained in modern Darwinism is to live an impoverished life. How lucky we all are to be here living in this Post-Darwinian era.

Many creationists are not content merely with their own disbelief in Darwinism, but want us all to disbelieve it too. That amounts to nothing less than a desire for society to reject the scientific method, return us all to the dark ages, and recapture the good old days of superstition, the supernatural , and theocracy. In the US, as well as to a lesser but growing extent in the UK, these people present a political lobby that tries to infiltrate creationism into schools. One of the ways in which the UK government allows this to happen is through their programme of faith schools, free schools and academies, which is one of the reasons why I would encourage any readers of this blog to oppose such programmes. See:   http://www.humanism.org.uk/campaigns/religion-and-schools/countering-creationism

We know why creationists will not accept that life is evolved; because their Holy Books trump all other reality for them. What chance then that a non-holy book could change their minds? Very little I suspect, at least overnight. But there may be a long term benefit; by getting a general population more informed to make the case for Darwinism, and to do so openly, to the extent that creationists become embarrassed to present their own opinions, we might beat down those percentages in the long term. Creationists generally don’t think about evolution, but when they do, they generally argue against Darwin and The Origin of Species, not against modern evolutionary biology in all its force. They just have no idea of the detail which we can now put to, for example, human origins, or the history of life, or which species are related to which other species, or how species form, or how certain genes evolve. The weight of evidence should, and ought to, must inevitably, crush the life out of creationism. The only way that Creationism can survive this weight of evidence is by indoctrination, suppressing the truth, encouraging ignorance, and denying freedom of speech, and I guess I see all those as rather bad ideas. A book like this, which spreads the truth of Darwinism, can only be a good thing.

Incidentally, I tend to agree with Dawkins, that creationists have got one thing right: Darwinism, understood properly, is a great threat to theistic beliefs of all types. It clarifies that the standard fate of organisms on Earth is a curtailed life with an often violent and painful death; that we are merely one of millions of other species; that life existed for over three billion years without us, in fact existed for nearly 2 billion years just as bacteria; that for human beings to evolve required a series of highly “fortunate” events that stretch the notion of a universe designed for humans to the limit.  Indeed, the vast majority of human existence occurred long before anyone invented monotheism, or any creator felt it fit to send a prophet or saviour to tell us to not to gather sticks on the Sabbath.  I could go on (more tentatively)…..that mind comes from matter; that souls are just made up; that morality and virtue are just our species’ solution to the challenge of living in societies; that you don’t need a designer to create the illusion of design in the universe; that humans have a natural propensity towards religious viewpoints as a consequence of adaptive (evolved) psychological tendencies. If you really accept Darwinism, then you are forced to consider seriously that we don’t need a creator to explain life, or humans, that religion is man-made, that we don’t need religion for morality, and that any creator God is either vindictive and duplicitous, or totally uninterested in humans. It’s no small wonder that the vast majority of evolutionary biologists are non-religious (but also live very fulfilling lives). It’s also no wonder that the current Pope, despite his predecessor having the sense to change the Vatican’s official stance on evolution, doesn’t actually accept Darwinism (http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/04/24/the-damn-pope-doesnt-understand-evolution/), and nor does our own lovely primate Rowan Williams (http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/04/29/the-archbishop-of-canterbury-is-a-pompous-old-gasbag-who-doesnt-understand-evolution/), despite both claiming (presumably to avoid ridicule) that they do.

So, having laid out why I support the notion of this book rather strongly, what is it actually like? Pretty good I think. Most of the punchy evidence is included, and described with punch like it needs to be. Richard draws on some particularly impressive and modern examples, and uses them to make a decent storyline. He is very good in developing the initial arguments for natural selection, using first selection under domestication (dogs, cows and cabbages, Siberian foxes), then naturally selected versions (flowers and bees, lizard diets), experimentally induced evolution (rat teeth, maize oil yield, bacterial body size, guppy body colour), and cases of rapid evolution (elephant tusk size and others). The examples are detailed, up-to-date, and well rounded. This thread takes up about half the book, and is punctuated with two diversions; the first on why evolution is just like any other scientific field (a common creationist straw man is that it isn’t), and on how we know how old life and the Earth is (because creationists aren’t just denying evolution, but also physics, chemistry, geology, cosmology and astronomy amongst others).

If I have any major point of criticism about the book, it is what is left out of this section. First, it would have been very good to show something of the volume of evidence as well as its quality. I know Tables look awkward in popular books, but a Table of, say, all the selection experiments published in peer reviewed evolution journals in just one year would go a long way. Artificial selection should not be illustrated by a few isolated examples; it is a routine research tool. At any one time, dozens of selection experiments are being run in research institutes and universities around the world. I could say the same for the evidence for natural selection in the wild. Second, mention, and a list, of examples of speciation in action would have been good. A common creationist tactic is to accept microevolution, but then state that macroevolution (e.g. speciation) can’t be seen, and hence isn’t supported by evidence. This is simply untrue, and we now have dozens of examples of species that have been observed forming since Darwin, or that represent putative species in the process of formation.

The rest of the book proceeds to the other sources of evidence for evolution; for example, the fossil record and transitional fossil forms. In the years since I was an undergraduate student, there have been many notable discoveries of beautiful transitional fossil forms that have clarified what were previously mysterious evolutionary events; perhaps the best known are the dino-birds (transitional fossils between dinosaurs and birds), largely found in China, but there are many others. Dawkins uses two other excellent examples; the fish- amphibian transition, and the ungulate-whale transition, both now beautifully illustrated by several well preserved fossil species. He then, superbly, goes on to look at the ape-human transition, again now illustrated in detail by many excellent recently discovered fossil intermediates. Chapter 8 is another diversion; this time about animal development and embryology. Although this was interesting, I wasn’t entirely convinced about the need for it in this book. Dawkins sets it up is answering another creationist straw man argument; that a human is too complex a thing to have evolved. Showing the detail in which we currently understand animal embryology does serve to emphasize how far we have come since Darwin, and also how the evolving genes contribute to evolutionary change. But for me this chapter seems to stand apart too much from the main thread of the book.

In contrast, I love the next three chapters which cover the biogeographic evidence for evolution, the tree of life, and evolved imperfections. I especially love the way Dawkins uses the global distribution of organisms to trash the Biblical story of the flood. On the subject of the tree of life, Dawkins shows how molecular and other evidence makes it certain that all organisms evolved from a shared common ancestor. The “spiritual” implications of this fact are really under-appreciated in my opinion, for when you look at a cat, or a tree, or a sponge, or a bacterium, you really are looking at your own extremely distant relatives. Think about it. Finally, Dawkins lists some of the imperfections of evolutionary design that blow to pieces the concept of an intelligent designer. Most famous of these is the recurrent laryngeal nerve in giraffes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recurrent_laryngeal_nerve).

The final two chapters of the book cover evolutionary theodicy and an homage to the last paragraph of The Origin of Species. Under theodicy, Dawkins departs once again from the evidence for evolution to make more of a case against creationism; he points out that we live in a biological world which is vindictive to the core, where dog eats dog, and that squaring that both with a created world and a beneficent creator requires some bizarre feats of mental gymnastics. In the homage to Darwin, he takes each phrase of the famous poetic last sentences of The Origin, starting with “There is grandeur in this view of life”, and makes a modern commentary on them. As with some other bits of the book, I didn’t feel that this quite squared with the thread of the rest of the book, although it was a decent enough and informative read.

All in all then, Dawkins gets six out of five from me for good intention, and three-and-a-half out of five for product. It’s a good read (not his very best book, but not his worst either), it does the job pretty well overall and very well in places, and I would gladly recommend it to any adult. Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True” is now on my list for a comparison, and I look forward to that.

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