The Greatest Show on Earth – Richard Dawkins

The stated aim of The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, by Richard Dawkins, is to prove that evolution is not a theory, that it is a fact. Confusingly though, having stated the aim of the book is to prove the “theory” of evolution, Dawkins in typically combative style says that “it is no longer possible to dispute the fact of evolution” – makes you wonder what the point of this book is at all then, doesn’t it? Also, is it not utterly unscientific to assume a theory (I am aware he calls it a fact and answer this below) is infallible? Worrying signs then, right at the start of this work, which purports to be a scientific proof of evolution.

I came to this book open-minded, genuinely anticipating the “proof” of evolution, as I had never quite fully believed all of it. For example, I wondered what the answer would be to evolution violating the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (the law of increased entropy), the attack on evolution on the micro-biological scale, the errors in Darwin’s initial timescales which were an essential element of the “theory”, and of course the fact that no transitional fossils had ever being discovered, nor any species observed throughout the history of humanity to “evolve” into another. I would leave the book extremely surprised and disappointed, that the “arch-darwinist”, as he calls himself, did not actually address any of these, to any sort of degree. As we will see, he has plenty of glib arguments, zealously and nastily attacks “creationists” and “history-deniers”, debates the meaning of the words “theory” and “fact”, questions whether species actually are distinct, but does not truly scientifically address any of the above. If that sounds like your cup of tea, so to speak, bully for you!

Presumably, if you come to this book wondering about evolution or perhaps sitting on the Evolution/Intelligent Design fence, you shouldn’t bother really, as Dawkins also reckons evolution is “no longer a doubt in any serious mind”. Your mind, fence-sitter, is presumably not a serious mind (maybe a playful or frivolous one?). Oh, and the reason he refers to the “fact” of evolution above? Well that is because “scientists speak, informally at least, of the fact of evolution” (emphasis is mine). I see…so informal talk among serious-minded scientists is sufficient to evolve evolution from theory to fact. Seriously, that is the explanation he gives for it being a fact. This all smacks of charlatanism and smoke and mirrors to me, but then again, maybe I do not have a serious mind.

Before going any further, I’d just like to describe the author’s tone and style in this book – its certainly unique, and is constant from start to finish. Throughout this book he frequently employs an underhanded attempt at censorship, with his frequent stating that serious, intelligent minds completely agree with evolution, implying that to do otherwise proves your ignorance. Also, he usually labels people as “history-deniers”, just because they disagree with him. This really got to me, and his use of “history-deniers”, making it sound like a crime, as if to disagree is akin to being a “holocaust-denier”, is particularly grating, annoying and worrying. It smacks of thought-police and political correctness to me. His arrogance and righteousness shine through in this book, or rather they glare through. Dawkins constantly picks on “creationists”, who are the easiest targets. In this sense, he resembles a bully. Why does he only seldomly target or address the questions his scientific peer’s have over evolution? For example, the case of “an award winning” Creationist website is touted in the chapter on carbon dating for special attention, the aims of which are to humiliate the creationists, heap yet more scorn on them, and by ridiculing their position regarding time periods, affirm evolution’s credentials. It begs the question though, why did he not pick a more “reputable” (no offense to the website in question) point of opposition to time periods in evolution to counter? If he is serious about proving evolution as fact, why should he fear the more difficult questions? It definitely appears as if he is avoiding them – if he’s not avoiding them, then surely he would have addressed some of their concerns. The juvenile tone and sneering language he commonly adopts was genuinely unpleasant – I only kept reading this as I wanted to see what Dawkins is all about – if his other works are as petty as this, I won’t be reading them (and I guess they are, so I won’t).

He attacks people who disagree with him as being closed-minded, which is extremely ironic as he himself is extremely closed-minded. He is not open at all, let alone tolerant, to the points of views of critics, or possible connections between ID and evolution. Should a true scientist not always be willing to test their theories? Why not consider the possible wisdom of alternate view points, instead of painting them as useless “history-deniers”? One very insightful episode into Dawkin’s arrogance, closed-mindedness and nastiness was the interview between himself and a female “creationist”, as he says. During this interview, he rudely and stubbornly does his best impression of Jeremy Paxman, but he just comes off looking like a thoroughly nasty little fellow. He must be aware of this, for he says that people may think he was being “needlessly obstinate” in that interview, whereas he explains he was actually conducting an “experiment” by treating her like that. Er, right…an experiment in rudeness, how very clever.

But let’s get back to the meat of the issue, namely his “proof” of evolution. Richard Dawkin’s first angle of attack on the challenge of proving evolution as a theory, is a pseudo-philosophical one. I say “psuedo”, as to be honest, it is laughable layman philosophy he employs here. He tries to argue about the philosophical meaning of the word theory, and how evolution doesn’t actually need to be proved, as if you consider the word “theory” in a certain way, then evolution matches that consideration or interpretation of the word “theory”. Convinced? Neither was I. Take this gem for example – his explanation as to why no-one considered the “truth” of evolution before Darwin (and Wallace), was that us humans have Plato’s “essentialism burned into our mental DNA”. If you think arguments like this hold weight, then please be my guest, and indulge yourself.

As he stated many times in the first chapter that he will offer incontrovertible “proofs” of evolution, I kept waiting for them to surface as I read this book. But alas, they did not. He undoubtedly does give some really useful, revelatory and fascinating information and insights, but an overall “proof” never emerges, or comes close to it even. About 30 or so pages in I got the most useful information from this book, and something I always wondered – what is Dawkins’ definition of evolution? He clearly and succinctly states that “when there is a systematic increase or decrease in the frequency with which we see a particular gene in a gene pool, that is precisely and exactly what is meant by evolution”. Wonderful, I thought, and I would wholeheartedly agree. However, reading this book, or anything he has ever written or commented on, it is clear that his definition his not limited to the above. For example, he also means all species having a single ancestor, there being no “intelligent designer” behind life etc. It is this much broader definition of evolution I personally would not agree with, and it is also this much broader definition which he sets out to prove in this book.

Much of the “proofs” are conjecture on his behalf, where he puts his opinion on certain experiments or behavior of species that suit his argument. An example would be when he claims that no chimpanzee evolutionary fossils have been found because, em…oh yes – because they lived in forests and were therefore more difficult to preserve. Of course another explanation could be that the fossils he wants to believe in never existed. He always seems to give a biased view of everything, which is quite astounding for such a renowned scientific mind. Biased as in, he never once (as far as I could see), mentions or alludes to inherent biases in some of his work which is referenced throughout, and the reader should be very careful and skeptical (as any good scientist would be) in unquestioningly accepting his acclamations of past experiments – they do not prove anything in my opinion. A case in point being the “Blind Watchmaker” computer program he references – he basically implies this computer simulation of gene selection results in symmetrical creatures, resembling real-life creatures, and therefore that creation is somewhat “blind”. Incredibly though, he fails to mention at all that he PROGRAMMED it to be symmetrical (thereby acting as a Designer I might add), so why are the results of symmetrical creatures surprising at all? This fairly takes the air out of his balloon, don’t you think, yet it is not mentioned at all. It is only reasonable to wonder how many of the other experiments he mentions have vital details missing from them. I won’t say he is deliberately attempting to pull the wool over our eyes, but what then was Dawkins’ reason for leaving out this information? At the very least it does not conform to any reputable, to use his own word, or scientific methodology.

Its not all bad of course, and I’d just like to mention some of the aspects of this broader theory of evolution that appeal to me, and that I feel have scientific merit – so please, feel free to skip this and the following paragraph if you’re not interested in a non-serious mind’s opinions! I think the case for natural selection or mutation is compelling in most circumstances, and the many cases he cites of organisms adapting to their environment through successive generations is truly amazing in parts. Also, the phenomenon of “local action” as he describes it is something that he makes a compelling case for, and there’s some wonderfully well-documented examples of it. However, I don’t feel he is justified in jumping to conclusions he does, from it.

It is possible that species share common ancestors, sure, and its well explained here why and how it would work. Even though the fossil record does not support this, despite his weak claims to the contrary here, I believe it is possible – but it is not PROVEN, despite Dawkins’ protestations that there really are no species as such, and therefore we shouldn’t worry about the fossil record. However, what is not explained at all here is his assertion that we (all species) share a SINGLE common ancestor – why does it have to be single? He again annoyingly states that to disagree with this is to be a “history-denier”. Enough already, please. Darwin himself states that there could have been a “few forms or into one” – Dawkins never explains why he insists on the “one” option, yet he vehemently defends this assertion, to the point of saying it is a “fact” – again, this is laughable.

Also worth mentioning as an example of a “proof” that to any serious mind would not be acceptable as a genuine proof, was the main proof he proffers for the contention of there being no Designer or Creator. This essentially boils down to both the author’s, and Darwin’s, assertion that because there are some “designs” that these two guys find abhorrent and “unintelligent” (to their serious minds), that there obviously and therefore is no Intelligent Designer or Creator. The main example he gives is an Ichneumon wasp, that paralyzes prey, before incubating larvae inside the victim. They both believe it would not be possible for a Creator to deliberately create such a horrible creature, therefore there is no Creator. Q.E.D, oh my God. If you think I am misrepresenting or overly simplifying his argument or “proof”, be my guest and read it for yourself – its on page 395 of my edition, right at the end of Chapter 12.

He is definitely very knowledgeable about the myriad species of animals inhabiting the planet, and is certainly not shy of demonstrating this encyclopedic knowledge. I personally found this a bit grating after a while, and I think its debatable whether it actually adds to his arguments or the purpose of the book (which is to “prove” evolution), or whether these passages of text serve more as a sidetrack, possibly as a vehicle to show-off his knowledge of obscure little creatures (it IS impressive, don’t get me wrong). Maybe I’m being too harsh, but given the zealous and total lack of understanding, leeway or tolerance he grants to “history-deniers”, “creationists” or anyone who disagrees with him, I’m not really in the mood to cut him some slack here!

As mentioned previously, the glee with which he continually eggs on creationists is frankly disgusting – why does their theory of creationism warrant such torrid and continual abuse? Granted he, and many millions of others might not agree with it, but since when was disagreeing with someone license to abuse them? But more than that, reading through this book you begin to realize how basic and simplistic a view he seems to have of religion in general, of the concept of a Creator and of Intelligent Design. Specifically, he seems to think all “history-deniers” believe in an extremely interventionist God, who constantly attends to the changing of minute details on all creatures, such as God changing the length of a single butterflies wings, God changing the colour of a rabbit’s tail etc. I don’t think most people who believe in God, or a Creator, or in Intelligent Design theory actually believe that sort of thing – yet Richard clearly demonstrates in this book that it is his belief that people do. He preaches evolution, and preaches at people to open their minds to it, yet he curiously has not opened his mind to the opposite side of the argument, which is unscientific at the least. He also is closing his mind to the fact that evolutionary theory does not necessarily exclude a Creator – why could evolution not be a mechanism of life, as programmed by a Creator or Designer?

An oft mentioned topic of discussion is whether belief is required to fully “sign up” to the theory of Evolution, as put forward by Dawkins, and having read this book I feel there is undeniably an element of “faith” needed to believe in evolution as ardently as Dawkins does. Why is that? Its because there are plenty of occasions where his “proof” amounts, and this is incredible really, to saying that because evolution is true, certain elements must of existed! Its the very reverse of what he should be doing. In proving a theorem, you obviously can’t have as your starting point the very thing you are trying to prove! Specifically, he says there “has to be a hairpin path” and a single ancestor that “we don’t know what it looked like” but “definitely had to exist”, BECAUSE evolution is true. Seriously, how he can say that is beyond me, and any true logician would surely agree he proves nothing there with this nonsense. But it does prove one thing, namely that “faith” is required to believe in the “hairpin path”, and especially the single original ancestor of all living beings. So therefore, if faith is necessary, it is not pure science, and not a proven theory in this regard. There is also faith required for some of the leaps he makes in drawing subjective conclusions from the available evidence. There honestly are too many examples to go in to here.

One final observation about this book, and it is yet one more thing about this book that surprised me, was the interesting fact that despite the author’s plentiful usage of Latin names and grand verbal posturing, he aims this book quite low on the intellectual ladder. I do not mean this snobbishly, or implying that it was not smart enough for me or such. I mean, he patronizes the reader quite a few times by explaining ridiculously simple things excessively, and also by usually keeping the actual details out of his descriptions. Two examples will give a concrete idea of what I am talking about – let’s see if you can understand this now, it is difficult, so pay attention now (to paraphrase the author). The first example, is when he uses an asterisk and footnote to explain to the reader what the word “suck” means. I kid you not. He explains that the verb suck describes what calves do when “sucking” milk from the mother cow’s udder, and to be very careful because to “suckle” is what the mother cow is doing. Tricky one Dicky, thanks for pointing it out, as they are after all two very similar looking words. Phew. Secondly, and in a later chapter, he warns us that the upcoming passages are particularly difficult to follow and understand, and that we shouldn’t read them if we are tired, or its late, or we are just back from work etc. Could you actually be more patronising and condescending? Especially as, in this case, the argument is most definitely not complex – it just takes a while longer than normal (about 5 pages) to explain. While it is admirable of course to explain things well to people, you’ve got to show them some respect, surely. I have the suspicion he does it because of a superiority complex maybe, that he possibly thinks he is so utterly and incredibly clever, we mere mortals would have difficulty understanding anything he says.

In conclusion, having read The Greatest Show on Earth, I am not convinced in Dawkins’ whole evolutionary package, although I do agree, believe and go-along with some of it. As mentioned priorly, his definition of evolution regarding the increasing (de)/frequency of genes in a gene pool, natural selection and the local action section to name but three, are all very interesting and fascinating theories I would be very partial too. Interestingly though, none of this is incompatible with a belief in God or a Creator, despite the author’s attempts to present “evidence” and claim otherwise. Gene evolution, natural selection and local action of organisms could possibly be inbuilt “functions” or “features” of nature in a universe which was created by a Creator or Designer. No evidence presented in this book proves anything to the contrary, nor do I personally see any reason that precludes such a belief. I will definitely read more books on Evolution and Intelligent Design (I read Behe’s excellent Darwin’s Black Box years ago), but by authors other than Dawkins on the Evolution side. I like to keep an open mind with regards to theories, of which evolution is still one, and so will be happy to check out both sides of the debate. Does that make me a “history-denier”, Mr Dawkins? If so, then maybe it is better to be that, than a pompous and ignorant “history-accepter”.

I definitely would have enjoyed this book more were it not for the author’s righteous, arrogant and sometimes offensive tone, and I suspect I would have afforded the content more credence if he hadn’t come across as being so obnoxious and all-knowing. Maybe in his next book his tone and style will evolve into something more pleasant and un-confrontational, and if it doesn’t (and I am joking here) I will take it as proof that evolution is hokum.

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