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.

What is it Good For? – The Roots of War

Anyone who’s spent time among the bickering cliques of a high school (or, for that matter, read William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies“) will be unsurprised by cognitive scientist Steven Pinker’s assertion that “chronic raiding and feuding characterize life in a state of nature.” Pinker is not alone among prominent minds in declaring war to be rooted deeply in human nature, but a recently released paper in the journal Science suggests that this view may be misguided. According to Douglas Fry and Patrik Soderberg of Abo Akademi University in Finland, the evidence from the closest parallels to ancient humans, modern hunter-gatherer groups, does not support the hypothesis that war is integral to mankind.

Modern Gudigwa bushmen on the hunt, courtesy of John Gowdy

This is not to say that hunter-gatherer life is inherently peaceful. The researchers found 148 examples of “lethal aggression events” in the 21 groups they studied, as reported in ethnographic studies over the past century. War, however, is something more specific than violence alone; the authors separated the deaths into interpersonal events (what modern society would call homicide or murder) and intergroup events, which better follow an accepted definition of war as “actual, intentional, and widespread armed conflict between political communities.”

Following this division, only a third of deaths could be classified as due to war, and when an outlier group (the Austrialian Tiwi people) was separated from the analysis, only 15 percent of killings involved group on group violence. Of particular interest to today’s struggles over oil or water is the finding that only two of the reported killings involved the contention of resources; most were due to personal concerns like insults or infidelity. In Fry’s words, “When you look at these foraging groups, you see a great deal of cooperation. There are homicides on occasion, but generally people get along very well. Humans have a capacity for warfare — nobody’s denying that. But to make it a central part of human nature is grossly out of contact with the data.”

If war is not encoded in humanity’s genes, then it may be present in its memes. As coined by Richard Dawkins, a meme may be thought of as an idea that follows some of the principles of genetics. Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod explains that “they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role.” Certain societies, such as the Eskimos and Lepchas, have no concept of warfare; it might be said that the memes of interpersonal violence have not mutated into those of intergroup conflict among these people. Where war does arise, however, it tends to spread itself quickly, as a group that finds itself under organized attack will be pressured to imitate the meme and organize itself in defense.

Regardless of its origins, war is a fact of modern society. But the knowledge that war is not biologically inherent to humanity gives hope to efforts of peace.