“The Greatest Show on Earth” by Richard Dawkins

So, he’s done it again. Richard Dawkins, the world’s leading atheist (whatever that means) has reached the best-seller lists with his new book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. What are my thoughts? Let’s first see what Dawkins says about it.

“This is a book about the positive evidence that evolution is a fact. It is not intended as an antireligious book. I’ve done that [most explicitly in his 2006 best-seller, The God Delusion] … The history-deniers* themselves are among those I am trying to reach in this book. But, perhaps more importantly, I aspire to arm those who are not history-deniers but know some – perhaps members of their own family or church – and find themselves inadequately prepared to argue the case” (pg. 6, 8 ) *Note – “history-deniers” and “40-percenters” are terms Dawkins uses to refer to anyone who isn’t a proponent of a strict Darwinian evolution (which ironically is just about everyone in the world but him, as he foolishly considers himself to be an arch-adaptationist).

So what did I get out of the book? I got an incredible view of the majesty of God, and of the beauty and incredible complexity of his creation. I don’t think Dawkins would be too pleased to know that’s what  I think.

Before I go on, I would just like to say two things. First, in order to get this book, I had to go all the way to the Kings College library (they didn’t have it at Taylor Library at the time). If you go to Western, you know what that means; but if you don’t, it means they didn’t consider to actually be science. Although, to be fair, the U.S. Library of Congress did classify it in the natural history and biology section (QH366.2.D374 2009, since you obviously wanted to know).

Second, I feel I need to give Dawkins at least some credit, for a number of reasons. First, he wisely refrained from using the commonly ill-cited “evidences” of evolution that have already been proven to be false. Just to name a few that come to mind – the Miller-Urey experiment, comparative embryology, and the many fraudulent fossils and skeletons. Second, he did (mostly) keep his word about not being anti-religious. He didn’t discuss the existence of God (until the very end of the book), although I suppose he did spend alot of time bashing 6-day creationism (which is pretty much necessary in a book defending evolution). That being said, he  did occasionally jab Christianity and Islam, with the occasional mocking of the Levitical law or of Noah. He wrote things far more insulting towards the end of the book (and I’ll mention them later if I remember), but for the most part he avoided the topic of religion. Third, he actually did justice to the sincere question, “where are the missing-links?” which he usually brushes off as ignorance of the concept of evolution. Although, in the end he mocks people for wanting to be shown intermediates (I’m confused as to why he then applauds scientists for looking for them).

So all that being said, now for my thoughts on the book. It was essentially a review of highschool level genetics, biochemisty, and (obviously) evolution. He didn’t say anything new, or anything that I’d never heard before. It was just the same old information, retold in a less dry way. He was very quick to discuss evidence for micro-evolution, and he spent a majority of the book discussing that. However, when discussing macro-evolution (the controversial aspect of evolution) he was incredibly vague at best. There were very few concrete examples, and even then he constantly used phrases like “presumably,” “almost certainly,” and “should expect.” Even his chapter that I assumed would be about macro-evolution (The Primrose Path to Macro-Evolution) continued to be about micro-evolution. For a book that is supposed to outline the evidence of evolution, there was an awful lot of speculation, and he left me feeling thoroughly unconvinced.

As could obviously be expected was the typical circular reasoning of evolutionary thought, and a poor philosophical analysis of the science behind it. I was expecting to see some stronger reasoning, as this is supposed to be the culmination of his previous books. Many people far smarter than I have already provided arguments showing this fallacious reasoning, and if you’re interested in checking those arguments out, read William Lane Craig, read Phillip Johnson, read Stephen Meyer, read other authors, use Google, it’s all out there. I would like to point out one video of why Dawkins deserves far less of a reputation than he already has.

Dawkins was fairly clear about a number of areas where evolutionary theory falls short, even though he was brief on them. He had a small section dealing with the problem of evolutionary theodicy (which I assumed was going to have to do with the Intelligent Design movement and its attempts to reconcile theodicy with evolution, but turned out to be nothing more than a confusion about why natural selection has caused the evolution of pain reception in the way that it has). He also admits that evolutionary theory can’t currently discuss the origins of life, and he quotes Darwin about this (“It is mere rubbish, thinking at present of the origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter”).

I also want to point out that the first chapter (Only A Theory?) was an attempt to redefine “theory” in order to make “the theory of evolution” a fact. In my opinion, he failed horribly at this attempt, and made me more convinced that evolution is just that – a theory. I was expecting that Richard Dawkins, arguably being the world’s leading apologist and defender of evolution, would’ve provided a stronger case. Apparently my expectations were too high.

Now I want to discuss an area of the book where Dawkins deals with the idea of God. Here are a few quotes: talking about the eye, “it’s not just bad design, it’s the design of a complete idiot” and it displays the “obvious stupidity” of the creator (pg. 354, 356); “if you think of it as the product of design, the recurrent laryngeal nerve is a disgrace” (pg. 356); discussing the vas deferens, “if this were designed, nobody could seriously deny that the designer had made a bad error” (pg. 364); and Dawkins’ pinnacle of disrespect, talking about Ichneumonid wasps, “whose designer, if there were one, must have been a sadistic bastard” (pg. 370).

I am by no means a scientist, but I want to quickly discuss why these “imperfections” are more proof for design than for evolution. Look at the vas deferens (not literally please). Apparently it makes a crazy long detour around the ureter, for no clear advantageous reason (I’m going to need to take Dawkins’ word on this). Dawkins makes the claim that this is clearly evidence of natural selection, because a designer wouldn’t be dumb enough to do this. But wouldn’t natural selection favor the males that don’t have this problem? Especially since there’s no clear trade-off being made that would give a reason for making this detour. I’m confused about his argument, unless I’m just misunderstanding things. And I’m saying this as someone who would (somewhat) subscribe to Leibniz’s theodicy (if you don’t know what that means, Wikipedia knows all, but it’s not really all that important). I have no problem believing that God created the best-of-all-possible-worlds and yet having the vas deferens rerouted around the ureter. Because God didn’t create the world for my glory as a human male.

So overall, this book isn’t worth reading, especially if you’ve already studied highschool-level biology. Unless you’d like a short (437 page) recap on current evolutionary thought at a readable level.

I hate to end this post this way, but I need to take Dawkins’ side on two issues. First, if you’re going to choose to argue against Dawkins, or against any evolutionist, understand what you’re arguing against. Please don’t talk about fronkeys and crocoducks – it’s embarrassing. And don’t quote the Second Law of Thermodynamics to discredit natural selection. And please please please don’t use the poorly formulated argumentum ad consequentiam, that teaching evolution encourages immoral behavior, therefore evolution must be false. Even if it were true that teaching evolution encourages immorality, that doesn’t make it false. Another bad one is that if we evolved simply by natural selection, life is pointless; therefore, we didn’t evolve by natural selection. Don’t do that. Just because natural selection causes the life of man to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” doesn’t mean natural selection didn’t occur (unless you can take the argument a few steps further, but most people can’t). Understand what you’re arguing against.

And second, don’t quote-mine. Just because Dawkins does it doesn’t mean you can. We’re never going to get anywhere if we keep misrepresenting each other’s sides by taking quotes way out of context. It amazes me how many times Dawkins wrote things to try to prevent this – “I must be clear here,” “please don’t be mislead by my use of a phrase like…”, and my personal favorite, “you know what I mean, don’t be pedantic.” Don’t quote-mine, it’s not helpful.

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~ by Jeff on December 17, 2009.

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