This year (it’s still 2009!) marks two notable anniversaries, Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, and the sesquicentennial of his most renowned treatise, On the Origin of Species. It comes as no surprise, then, that Richard Dawkins and myriad other prominent biologists chose this year for the publication of their own books on the subject of evolution. Dawkins’ book, The Greatest Shown on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, was perhaps the most droolingly anticipated of the lot. Due to being tied up with a full semester of school, I hadn’t the time to read the book until now, between semesters. Previously, the book sat on my shelf for months, pristine and waiting to be read, staring at me like a lidless eye, ever-watching, wreathed in dust-jacket, whispering my name as if Sauron calling for his ring. OK, perhaps I’ve gone a bit too far, but I did really really want to read it! And behold, after much anticipation, I began reading.
Having read all of Dawkins’ previous books, and having seen probably every YouTube video and documentary featuring him, I started the book a bit concerned that I wouldn’t learn much new material. I am not only a fan of Dawkins, but of the science of evolution in general, and therefore know many of the exemplary experiments commonly rehashed by popular science writers in their books on evolution for the layperson. While there was one (short) section on an experiment dealing with the natural selection of guppies that I have heard elsewhere, Dawkins kept me riveted in his account of the experiments performed by Richard Lenski and a team of colleagues on the evolution of twelve lineages of baterial colonies. This experiment then comes full circle in its dismissal of the common Intelligent Design objection to evolution, called irreducible complexity. My initial worries were correct, but certain redundancies from book to book are to be expected; Dawkins has to supply the reader with the basic concepts and terms to aid in the understanding of future chapters. While not learning anything new initially, I am always left agape with how many different ways Dawkins has of explaining nearly the same thing from book to book. I hope I am not turning you off from reading other books by Dawkins, implying that they’re all the same, no no no, it’s just that each of his books necessarily have a chapter (or two) dealing with introductory, boiler-plate concepts for the newcomer. Here is my take on Dawkins’ book. I will give my overall impressions, but won’t ruin it for you by giving spoilers.
Dawkins pulled it off. He kept someone, who should frankly be sick of him by now, glued to each and every one of the book’s 437 pages (including the Appendix!). While it normally takes me two weeks to finish a book of that length, I blazed through it five days. Just when I thought the man couldn’t teach me anything new, he blows me away with a chapter on natural clocks, ranging from dendrochronology (tree ring dating), radioactive clocks, namely, the potassium argon clock, and carbon-14 dating. Of the latter I knew some, of the former I new nearly nothing, initially. This is an important chapter, because one cannot get a sense for evolutionary time without a sense of geological time, and also geological activity, which he deals with in later chapters as well. It is a frightening fact, as Dawkins puts it, that over 40% of Americans believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. I share in his concern. The in(s)anity of those 120 million Americans is truly astounding, and anyone making it to the end of chapter four will see why.
Dawkins then deals with the common, public misconceptions/misunderstandings of evolution, either of the kind from honest ignorance, or the kind fueled by religious angst. Common conundrums such as, “If we evolved from chimpanzees, then why are there still chimpanzees around?” or, “Show us the missing link!” are here clarified with a proper understanding of evolutionary theory. A quick review of the fossil record in a subsequent chapter, and you’re on your way to understanding evolutionary science better than probably upwards of 90% of the American population! I only wish I were kidding.
One of my favorite chapters was the one Dawkins devoted to developmental biology, and how it explains many of the “unintelligently designed” aspects we see in nature. I would love to go into more detail, since I loved this chapter so much, but I don’t want to spoil anything for you future readers. Just know that it’s FANTASTIC! Especially when he goes into enzymes, and proteins as enzymes, and then, ooh, I have already said too much! Future chapters come back in cyclic form, like a good author as much in command with his field of science as he is in his command of the English language, to reiterate, and drive-home the concepts of developmental constraint due to common ancestry, and then RNA enzymes as potential candidates for the first forms of life, from which all life subsequently evolved. Enough! I will say no more in praise of his book, I leave the rest for you to read and enjoy.
So far I have given nothing but praise for Dawkins’ work, and it is praise that is wholly deserved, but I also have criticisms for his book that I feel need to be presented. For those who don’t know, Dawkins, while greatly known in science as an accomplished evolutionary biologist and ethologist, is (perhaps sadly) best known to the general public as the world’s most famous atheist, because of his previous book, The God Delusion—Dawkins’ no-holds-bar criticism of organized religion, and faith-based thinking in general. While I am in agreement with Dawkins in that I do not believe in the supernatural, or God, I feel that he may have come out rather too strong in the opening pages of his new book. Dawkins mentions that those 40% of Americans are “among those [he] is trying to reach in this book.” I feel, however, that he may be instantly losing those readers in the first few pages, who so desperately need to read this book, by referring to them as “history deniers.” I don’t disagree with Dawkins in that they are history deniers, but perhaps he could have made the first chapter a bit more neutral, and less off-putting, for the fence-sitters who, as I said, need to read this book the most. I felt like the book was mainly geared toward people like me; that is, the last people on the planet that should be reading this book! I already agree with the stated objective from the very beginning. I didn’t need to read it. I don’t need any more convincing. But there are plenty who do, and I feel that they won’t make it past the first five pages without feeling offended for being compared to Holocaust deniers.
However, despite my above objection, Dawkins claims another, perhaps more important reason for writing the book, and that is to adequately arm those who are not ‘history deniers’, but feel inadequately equipped to argue their position, with swaths of facts and evidence covering a large base. That is a noble cause indeed, and perhaps I am a bit too naïve to think that the ‘history deniers’ will even buy the book in the first place. If they were at all curious about the evidence for evolution, and valued logic and reason, then they wouldn’t need to read the book, because they would already have accepted evolution, the only game in town, the greatest show on earth.