Book Review: “The Greatest Show on Earth” by Richard Dawkins.

Von cw

This is the fourth book from Richard Dawkins that I have read with pleasure.

Please forgive me if I indulge a lexicographic whim; I shall coin the word “evolute” as synonym for “living thing”. This neglects that other things also evolve.

“The Selfish Gene” corrects a common misconception that genetic evolution works to benefit evolutes, races and/or species. The book points out that it works (just) through genes, each of which tends to reproduce itself as much as possible. This often but not always “benefits” the associated evolute, race and/or species.

Dawsins“The Blind Watchmaker” explains how it is possible, contrary to the opinion of Fred Hoyle, for complex structures such as the human eye to evolve. “The God Delusion” explains that there is no good reason to believe in God, (while admitting that this belief may be part of most people’s nature).

“The Greatest Show on Earth” steps back from these tricky topics, because Dawkins has become painfully aware of how few people believe in evolution. The evidence that the Earth is a few billion years old, and that all evolutes have gradually evolved during most of that time, is overwhelming.

There is more such evidence than that the Earth is not flat, and is smaller than the Sun. I guess that more than half of all scientific knowledge supports evolution. Dawkins points out that the word “theory” is used with two meanings. It may be applied to a hypothesis, or to a fact like the theory of evolution.

Dawkins explains that fossils are only a small part of the evidence, but still more and more “missing links” turn up, and not one counter example (such as a fossil rabbit a billion years old).

This book is needed because about 40% of US Americans believe that humans did not evolve from other animals, but were created by God within the last 10,000 years. The figures for Europe are a bit better, but may be getting worse under American influence. It is hard to argue against dollars.

Some European percentages agreeing that “humans evolved from earlier species of animals” are as follows:- Iceland 85%, Britain 79%, Germany 69%, Greece 55%, Turkey 27%.

Similarly disagreement that “early humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs” is as follows:- Sweden 87%, Germany 80%, Britain 64%, Romania 42%, Turkey 30%. Do the British watch “The Flintstones” too much, or do some regard birds as dinosaurs?
Dawkins explains that selective breeding can work quite fast, and is driven not just by humans. E.g. flowers “breed” insects to pollinate them, and insects breed the flowers they need for nectar. Thus “natural” and “unnatural” selection merge together.

He explains how we know that the Earth (as well as life on it) is a few billion years old. He explains about continental drift. Surprisingly many people believe in the drift, but think it all happened after Noah’s flood. (I put this down to seeing globes when young, and seeing how well Africa and South America fit together).

He explains how creationists go on about all the fossil “links” that are missing, but that meanwhile a great many have been found. Interestingly quite a few early “human” remains have been found, but none from chimps or gorillas. Presumably the “ape” habitat is not good for fossilisation. I do not know why Dawkins assumes that the common ancestor of chimps and humans walked like a chimp. The earliest relevant fossils were over half way back to this animal, and were well adapted for upright walking.

He explains about how each multi-cellular evolute starts life as a single cell. He mentions the old half-joke that if a human can develop from one cell in nine months, it should not be hard to believe that the species developed from single cells in billions of years.

Above I have mentioned about half the topics he covers as evidence for slow evolution. He does this with his nice (British) lightness of style and enthusiasm. He is very unhappy that it is easier for a crackpot religion to get tax-exempt status, than it was to get this status for a foundation to spread knowledge of science. He was asked to provide evidence that such spreading is beneficial!

He probably aims this book at people who need to argue with creationists. He can hardly expect the creationists themselves to read it. But I get an impression that his heart is not fully in this! It seems to me that he is beginning to despair about the scientific ignorance and superstition in the rich countries and the whole world. For the first time, I have found small slips in his logic, if only one per 100 pages!

I do not think he thought enough when trying to deal with Wendy Wright of CWA. He advised her to go and look at fossils in museums. But to a non-scientist, these bits of bone are not very convincing missing links. And she would have to travel a lot to see many ape-men fossils. She asked him why he is so keen for people to believe in evolution. He should consider instead the wonderful communities built by God-fearing people, (I think she meant in USA)

Dawkins responded that evolution is not a matter of belief, because evolution is a fact. Here he makes a serious mistake. It is a matter of belief in the methods and culture of science. Ms. Wright is clearly prepared to trust preachers more than scientists. Dawkins needs to write another book about the culture and achievements of science, in contrast to those of religion. Some of the arguments were there in “The God Delusion”.

For instance there were statistics showing that religion does not make people better. But he has not written enough about how scientific discoveries have proved themselves for normal people, in terms of medicine, telephones, television, motors, etc. In contrast to this, “You shall not kill”, so why do so many “God fearing” Americans want to have guns?

(The lady’s name reminds me of a silly joke. Men often spend years looking for “Miss Right”, but after marriage realise that her first name is “Always”).


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