Book Review – The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

If I’ve been posting a lot of book reviews lately, it’s due to the long, lazy days of summer and the fortuitous proximity of the Campbell County Public Library. But I’ve been trying to keep my reading list on the somewhat enlightening side, and to that end, I recently picked up “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” by famed (and infamous) biologist Richard Dawkins. Evolution is far from new territory for Dawkins and his books, but as he explains, in none of his previous works has he attempted to provide a comprehensive overview of the support behind the central tenet of biological science.

“The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” by Richard Dawkins. Courtesy of Amazon.

And in this respect, Dawkins largely succeeds. Starting much like Darwin and “On the Origin of Species” in his reliance on artificial selection in domesticated plants and animals, the author segues through selection by nonhuman animals (such as that of insects for floral nectar production) before explaining the impersonal forces of natural selection proper. He addresses geological dating in a particularly lucid overview of the different radioactive “clocks,” gives examples of rapid evolution, and challenges the fallacy of the “missing link.” Perhaps the best chapter in the book uses embryogenesis to demonstrate how change on the smallest biological level can propagate upward, causing drastic alterations in an organism’s form upon which natural selection can operate.

When Dawkins becomes engrossed in the details of a scientific concept, as in a pages-long description of the Lenski Long-term Evolution Experiment, his writing is powerful and convincing. Yet he seems not to recognize this strength, and it is here that the book begins to falter. Too often he chooses to gloss over the finer points of a given example, waving away the complexities with a dismissive and superior tone. “For reasons that need not concern us here” and “I won’t pursue the matter further” are common phrases throughout; in other places, he chooses to make amusing digressions or employ footnotes instead of continuing the thrust of the argument in the main text. One gets the sense that his celebrity as one of the “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism caused the editors of the book to take a lighter hand, and the work suffers for it.

Perhaps most importantly, Dawkins takes an openly combative stance towards those whom the book purports to reach: advocates of creationism and intelligent design, whom he designates as “history deniers.” For example, he devotes an embarrassingly large amount of space to a transcript of an interview he conducted with a creationist over fossils of humanity’s ancestors, taking a perverse glee in the inability of his subject to look at the evidence as it stood. But the book itself is about that evidence, and presumably about giving those not yet convinced of the beauty and truth of evolution another perspective. A calmer, friendlier tone may not attract the media coverage Dawkins seems to crave, but it might go a long way toward winning over the other side.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review – The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

  1. Good review. I haven’t read it yet but have some expectations based on past books by him. Have you read Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne? I read that and much of the description sounds similar.

    Interesting comments on The Greatest Show on Earth. You mention that Dawkins doesn’t go in as much detail as you would like in some areas. I think there may be a reason for that. I think he may be experimenting with his ideas on memes, a term he originally created. The idea being that shorter descriptions will attract more readers, perhaps younger readers, it will be more entertaining, more will read the book to the end, and it will be more accessible via new reading platforms like tablets and smart phones.

    I have noticed that in some of Dawkins’ later books on evolution he has employed this approach. He also recognizes, probably correctly, that long descriptions of topics in evolutionary biology can become overly technical or boring to general readers. He has also begun to explore social media, twitter posts, etc. in recent years.

    As for the harsh tone toward other perspectives on evolution, what do you think about this element of the book?

    • I haven’t read “Why Evolution is True,” but I’d definitely be interested in comparing the two books and seeing how different authors approach the same subject. I’m also intrigued by your point on “memes” as an organizing principle for shorter explanations; it makes some intuitive sense, as a simpler idea is easier to take up and spread. I guess I’m just not sure what the audience of the book is really meant to be. It’s not exactly written at a “young” reading level, and its hostility towards creationists seems likely to drive them away instead of leading them gently through the evidence. I feel like Dawkins’s harshness is a liability here.

      • Yeah I agree.

        On the audience for the book, I think he appeals both to scientists/students of science as well as general readers (usually adults or young adults as you say). He has become popular with younger audiences as well; I think he wrote one book for kids (The Magic of Reality?) but I haven’t read it yet.

        And yeah, he can be very argumentative. Some people probably find such “debates” more entertaining, but as in debates between political parties, for example, it seems more likely to divide than unify perspectives.

        That reminds me of another thing, on the subject of evolutionary theory, that some people might not have noticed, is that sometimes Dawkins is very critical of scientific views on evolutionary theory that do not agree with his own as well. In some cases this has hurt the social reputation of scientists who, right or wrong in their conclusions, were only trying to interpret the evidence rationally. For example he was harsh on James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, Lynn Margulis’s ideas on endosymbiosis, Stephen Jay Gould’s punctuated equilibrium, and Edward O. Wilson’s ideas on group selection (Dawkins wrote an article called “The Descent of E. O. Wilson,” which is online).

        Anyway I still read Dawkins’ books and my view is that it is important to consider all the perspectives. I just wish they’d all relax a bit I guess and not debate so much.

  2. Pingback: swordofscience | Book Review – Death by Black Hole

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