Monday, 19 October 2009

The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

Lowdown: The evidence for evolution by natural selection.
I know it’s weird to say it about a book, but Richard Dawkins’ latest, The Greatest Show on Earth, is a haunted book. On a personal basis, it is haunted by the high expectations I have of anything coming out of Dawkins’ brains, given the high regard with which I hold him (probably the highest regard I hold anyone). More importantly, though, The Greatest Show on Earth is a book haunted by its mega successful predecessor, The God Delusion. It is as natural as evolution to pick up this new book and regard it as a God Delusion sequel; and while it isn’t, the former's shadow is just too much for the new kid to live with.
So let’s start by spotting the differences. The God Delusion was a book telling us using rational arguments how silly our religions are (and I’m using the term “silly” because I have found the book to be quite a funny read). The Greatest Show on Earth, on the other hand, does not directly point a finger at religion; while Dawkins is unable to stop himself from pointing a finger at religion from time to time, he only does so when the occasion is begging for such pointing to take place. What The Greatest Show on Earth is, first and foremost, is a popular science book specifying the evidence for evolution by natural selection. Sure, resistance for evolution often comes under religious guises, but as Dawkins argues at he beginning of the book, religious beliefs do not automatically imply the countering of evolution. He even identifies allies for evolution within top religious circles.
Having read so many of Dawkins’ books, I was curious to know how it is, exactly, that Dawkins intends to list us the evidence for evolution. Curious, because he had done so many a time in his previous books; yet those cases were inconsequential, cases where evidence was provided as a side dish. Expectations wise, while I could recognize a development in Dawkins’ writing style from the more scientific paper oriented "to the point" approach to a more approachable "eye to eye" conversation level, I was still expecting The Greatest Show on Earth to be a lengthy list of bullet point like list of evidence. I was wrong.
The Greatest Show on Earth sets off by explaining what a scientific theory is. Indeed, I agree this is a mandatory beginning: the last two months alone I was approached twice by people seeing the copy of Scientific American on my desk and reacting to it by informing me that evolution is just a theory that has never been proven. I would have said such people deserve a complimentary copy of Dawkins’ latest book if I had any reason to believe they’d ever read it, but the point is that The Greatest Show on Earth is, indeed, aimed exactly at such people and not at people such as yours truly. More than being an account of the evidence for evolution, the book is the evolutionist’s answer to creationists. It does so by providing evidence for evolution in laymen terms, but it also goes the God Delusion way and makes a mockery of creationism and its foundations. Thus while I would have preferred to have less of my time wasted stating the obvious, Dawkins spends significant energies taking care of sporadic fires lit by creationists. Annoyed as I may be with Dawkins’ approach, I can see exactly where he’s coming from: those two evolution deniers at my office alone are justification enough for Dawkins’ approach, not to mention the countless others throughout the world. Things are bad in Australia, things are bad in the UK, things are bad in Israel (where evolution is not even mentioned in schools), and things are really bad in the USA and throughout the Muslim world.
Following the mandatory expositions, Dawkins goes on to systematically review the various types of evidence in favor of evolution: the evolution we can see before our very eyes, the evolution of domesticated animals and plants, the evolution we see in our bodies, fossil records, the genes we share with all other living things, and much more. As I have stated already, there is not that much more in there that hasn’t been discussed to one extent or another in Dawkins’ previous books; Dawkins does seem to ignore less noble evidence, such as the behavior of football supporters or, come to think of it, the way footballers celebrate their goals.
While always going for the serious, Dawkins' trick is in the way things are told. By aiming at those contemplating evolution from creationism, Dawkins’ explanations are dead simple to understand. Language wise, Dawkins’ amusing style is entertaining but not as entertaining as it was in The God Delusion; I guess the subject matter is not as good when it comes to providing raw comedic ingredients.
More often than not, Dawkins digresses and strays off the beaten path of evidence in order to fascinate us with the working of nature. Some times these digressions are useful, as in the case of his explanations of fossil dating techniques; some other times, though, these digressions are bit tedious, reminding me again that The Greatest Show on Earth was not directed at those already firmly on evolution and science’s side. The fact I still enjoyed the book is not coincidental, though, but rather a tribute to Dawkins’ talents as a writer.
Overall: As good as it is, The Greatest Show on Earth is unable to avoid the shadow of its predecessor. 3.5 out of 5 stars.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the review. Now I'll get the book and see for myself.
Moshe Zeevi, Melbourne

Moshe Reuveni said...

It felt weird to receive an email informing me that Moshe left a message on my blog. Thanks, and enjoy the book.