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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News Flash – Bill Nye’s Great Creation Debate

PETERSBURG, Ky. — Not since the Scopes Monkey Trial have defenders of evolution and creationism had such a public forum as will occur tonight between popular science personality Bill “The Science Guy” Nye and Answers in Genesis founder Ken Ham. Starting at 7 p.m. ET, the two will share the stage of Legacy Hall at the Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky for a debate on the topic of “Is Creation a Viable Model of Origins?” Between the 900-seat capacity of the hall and the live stream of the event sponsored by Answers in Genesis, more than a million people are likely to hear the two’s arguments.

The Mixup in the Museum! Courtesy of Roadtrippers.

Nye made waves in 2012 with a YouTube video in support of evolution, in which he told proponents of creationism, “if you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it because we need them.” A third of American adults do deny evolution, according to the Pew Research Center, and are in agreement with the statement that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time;” roughly 60 percent agree with an evolutionary perspective.

Among white evangelical Protestants like Ham, however, these percentages are reversed, with 64 percent supporting creationism. Ham is the leading proponent of “Young Earth Creationism,” which interprets the Bible as giving the planet an age of approximately 6,000 years. In an interview with USA Today before the debate, Ham stressed that “[w]e certainly believe students should be allowed to critically analyze evolution. You can’t really believe both [creation and evolution] because it’s not consistent with the Bible. You can’t add millions of years to what the Bible teaches.”

Some science advocates have expressed reservations about Nye accepting the invitation to the event. John Rosenau, director of the National Center for Science Education think-tank, said his general policy was to discourage this sort of debate. “The biggest thing is that a debate on stage is not how science is decided. It’s entertainment, it’s theater,” rather than a careful series of observations and experiments. Others believe that the adversarial nature of the encounter further intensifies an unnecessary conflict between science and religion. Scientists such as the astrophysicist Joel Primack emphasize that the Bible’s answers to “why” questions are in no way compromised by evolution’s answers to questions of “how.”

Again, tonight’s debate will begin at 7 p.m ET and last approximately two and half hours. It will be streamed live and will also be available on YouTube following its conclusion.