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.

Liveblogging the #CreationDebate!

As discussed in today’s main post, science advocate Bill Nye the Science Guy and creationist Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis will be debating on the prompt “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” starting at 7 p.m. ET tonight, with a live feed of the speakers available here. I will be liveblogging the event on my Twitter feed, @DanielWWalton, and I encourage you to join me as I comment on this exciting spotlight for science in society.

The official debate banner. Courtesy of the First Baptist Church of Cambria.

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.

Book Review – The Voyage of The Beagle

Some readers might joke that I’m roughly two centuries late with this article, and I admit that they have something of a point. Charles Darwin’s “Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by the H.M.S. Beagle, Under the Command of Captain FitzRoy, R.N., from 1832 to 1836(more popularly known as “The Voyage of the Beagle“) was first published in 1839, two decades before his landmark “On the Origin of the Species.” This latter work has obviously attracted significantly more attention and controversy over the years, but in its own quiet way, “The Voyage of the Beagle” is just as fascinating a window into Darwin’s life and thought. The work that first made him a celebrity in the scientific circles of London is worthy of consideration even now.

Perhaps the most important reason to read “The Voyage of the Beagle” is the way it humanizes Darwin, one of the most revered figures in all of science. High school biology textbooks usually present the naturalist in a photograph like this one:

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Darwin’s public image follows from this portrayal as a proper, elderly, luxuriantly bearded English gentleman. Yet as Tetrapod Zoology blogger Darren Naish argues, this image lends itself to a stereotype of scientists as “oddballs that operate on the fringes of society.” Naish fears that students may fail to identify with this depiction, believing that science is something for the old and serious rather than the young and curious. “The Voyage of the Beagle,” in contrast, shows the reader a youthful Darwin, a man closer to the following fresh-faced portrait:

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Anecdotes from throughout the book give life to Darwin as a young man, closer in many ways to a frat boy than a Fellow of the Royal Society. He tries to ride the famous Galapagos tortoises when he first encounters them; he tempts temperate Tahitian islanders into sharing swigs of spirits from his flask; he nearly knocks himself out with a pair of bolas as a crowd of sniggering Argentinian gauchos looks on. He is far from all-knowing or authoritative; he is simply a young scientist out in the world, trying to make sense of it all while having fun in the process.

The way the book hints at this process is its other great strength. “On the Origin of Species” is a singular, towering argument, a comprehensive outline of the evidence for evolution and a thorough discussion of the objections that could be raised against the theory. At the time of “The Voyage of the Beagle,” however, Darwin was very much still piecing the theory together. The reader can see hints of the future with Darwin’s treatment of the Galapagos finches or the fossil history of South America, but there is also an obvious frustration, a sense that the scientist is perplexed by the evidence and lacks a complete framework into which it can be placed. The book is a humbling reminder that science takes time, that a great discovery is almost always the result of years of painstaking work instead of a sudden flash of insight.

Although “The Voyage of the Beagle” is a long read, it is certainly a rewarding one. Young scientists can take heart from its portrayal of the great Darwin as one of their own, while the general public can enjoy learning more about the thought process behind what is arguably the most important scientific theory ever to be devised. And all readers can delight in the beauty of Darwin’s eloquent descriptions of his travels, such as this extract from his time sailing towards New Zealand: “It is necessary to sail over this great ocean to comprehend its immensity. Moving quickly onwards for weeks together, we meet with nothing but the same blue, profoundly deep, ocean. Even within the archipelagoes, the islands are mere specks, and far distant one from the other. Accustomed to look at maps drawn on a small scale, where dots, shading, and names are crowded together, we do not rightly judge how infinitely small the proportion of dry land is to water of this vast expanse.”