The Greatest Show on Earth : The Evidence for Evolution

by Richard Dawkins

Hardcover, 2009




New York : Free Press, 2009.


Sifting through rich layers of scientific evidence, Dawkins' "The Greatest Show on Earth" is a stunning counterattack on advocates of "Intelligent Design," explaining the evidence for evolution while exposing the absurdities of the creationist "argument."

Media reviews

This brings me to the intellectual flaw, or maybe it’s a fault just of tone, in Dawkins’s otherwise eloquent paean to evolution: he has let himself slip into being as dogmatic as his opponents. He has become the Savonarola of science, condemning the doubters of evolution as “history-­deniers” who are “worse than ignorant” and “deluded to the point of perversity.” This is not the language of science, or civility. Creationists insist evolution is only a theory, Dawkins that it’s only a fact. Neither claim is correct.
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The Greatest Show on Earth is Dawkins on top form: unambiguous, beautifully argued, with prose flowing like quicksilver.
Though he looses a shock-and-awe flurry of evidentiary darts (natural selection, fossil records, molecular biology, and much more), he also mutes some of the shriller tendencies that have unhinged—or at least made hectoring and unlovely—his previous works. The result is a sweeping, wryly joyous case for rationality, empiricism, and no God on this green Earth.

User reviews

LibraryThing member DirtPriest
What a touchy subject. Personally, I have no idea how someone can go through life abjectly ignoring science. I didn't need any convincing that evolution is a real process, but Mr. Dawkins wrote this book specifically to refute Creationism / Intelligent Design theories, none of which hold any water anyway. I can see how his smarmy tone would be a real put-off to a creationist reader who has an open mind, part of that is his Britishness seeping through, the rest is thinly veiled disgust.

Even with the tone, the book presents so much evidence and shows the holes in creationist theories to a highly recommendable degree. An example is the 'Show me the intermediates' argument in the fossil record. First, we are lucky to even have a fossil record, secondly, there is such a massive timescale involved that everything is intermediate, like I'm an intermediate stage between German, Polish and English on it's way to some other 'ethnic' group. The fact that every fossil has to be placed in a strict genus/species pigeonhole is also artificially restricting, on top of the fact that the amount of proto human remains are barely enough to fill a decent sized pickup truck.

More reliable evidence is to be found in the layering of the rocks that fossils are in, molecular analysis of the genome, which can be used to roughly calculate statistically how long the species under analysis has been diverging from an ancestor species. There are examples of micro-ecologies quickly diverging, just an overwhelming amount of evidence really.

There are some not very Intelligent Design aspects of anatomy, by the way. Such as the Vagas nerve, which bypasses the spinal column and descends directly from the brain, down into the upper chest cavity, and back up to the larynx. Not a big deal in a human overall, but a diversion of 15 feet or more in a giraffe. It and all 6 of these cranial nerves happens to exactly correlate to a brain to gill nerve in fish, which a human embryo matches almost exactly to a shocking degree at about 24 to 28 days of growth. Another is the fact that the vas deferens is looped up and over the ureters, a remnant of earlier ancestors that didn't have the curse of the exposed gonads, ripe for excruciating smashings.

The skeleton is the same in all mammals, only the individual bones are different. Whales have hands for flippers and a remnant of a pelvic girdle, horses run on their middle fingers (and toes), and so on.

Look at it this way (this is my own analogy, not from Dawkins). Let's say that a community needs workers to operate a new battery plant in a town. Some people will come from outside the area to work there, but most of the workers will be from the surrounding area and will modify their 'behavior' to get that fancy new job. After a small passage of time, that modified behavior becomes a prerequisite to earning a job there and becomes a standard, which needs a new environmental stimulus to change anew. That in a nutshell is the driving force behind natural selection and evolution in general. If a moth species discovers that it needs a longer nose sucker to get the yummy nectar out of a flower, then only those with the longest snout will successfully breed, creating over time a separate subspecies of extremely long snouted nectar sucking moths. It's that simple really.
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LibraryThing member JeffV
In this Year of Darwin, it's not surprising to see a new book from one of the leading proponents of Evolution. Dawkins has covered the topic from many angles in the past, this time, however, he's poking his fingers in the eyes of Creationists/"Intelligent Designers" (or, as he prefers to call them, "History deniers"). Dawkins begins by stating the dictionary definitions of the word "theory", a common entry point on Creationist dogma. The first definition of the term is, to paraphrase, "an explanation that describes a set of facts." This, he maintains, is what the Theory of Evolution is; a model which describes a set of facts. The "History deniers," however, insist on pointing to another definition of the term -- again to paraphrase, "a conjecture that describes a set of observations that have not been tested." By the end of the book, there is no doubt whatsoever that the first definition is the correct one when describing evolution.

Dawkins also purports to give readers ammunition they can use when going up against Creationist/Intelligent Designer pinheads. His examples superbly describe the evidence for evolution beyond any shadow of a doubt -- however, the examples are not of the sort that simpletons will readily understand or concede. He does debase another tiresome argument that the "fossil record is incomplete" and "riddled with missing links;" Dawkins goes on to explain how we can prove evolution without using a single fossil, and besides, we have plenty of "missing links," the deniers just keep saying that as if constant repetition will make the evidence go away. Some of the hard, indisputable evidence comes from experiments in microbiology -- which is where the ammunition gets a little sophisticated for use in your average bar fight.

The conclusion of the book in inescapable -- the Theory of Evolution is not dogma, to be taught alongside alternate opinions -- it is fact and needs to be taught as such. One of the staggering statistics he repeated often is that 44% of Americans actually believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old and that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. While there is some good stuff here to throw at them, most will just yell "la la la" when you try to make them less ignorant.
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LibraryThing member wendyrey
Dawkins on top form demonstrating the evidence for evolution in a lucid and elegant style. I wish he didn't feel it neccesary to make so many references to the inanities of creationists but I do follow his reasoning. He manages to explain complex scientific and mathematical ideas in an easy to follow way without presuming a scientific background. Only a little bit of ranting but I can sense his frustration at being willfully misunderstood and taken out of context.
Excellent introduction to the natural wonder that is evolution.
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LibraryThing member Sarij
One advantage to college is that it exposes you to subjects that you otherwise may not have touched. For me this is science. In high school I was encouraged to take agriculture as my science requirement because of my poor math skills. Since I lived on my grandparent’s farm during the summer months I laughed that I could take a class doing things I did on a daily basis. Needless to say I aced this “science” class, but my knowledge of general science was woefully lacking. During my early adult years I stayed away from science thinking I was not smart enough to get it. After taking a biology class three years ago, I found not only am I smart enough to get it, I love it and want to learn all I can. Most of my education has come from reading science books though I have taken three science classes since biology.
Early this summer I decided to learn more about evolution. Sure I had the basics down, but really not enough to hold a good debate with a creationist. Like most people what I “knew” came from what I had heard, not from what I read. One way to learn more about evolution was to read Darwin himself, but this turned out to be a very dry and boring read I am sorry to say. I looked for a modern guide to evolution; after all, we have learned so much since Darwin, surly there was someone out there who wrote about it in a way layman can understand. To my surprise it was Richard Dawkins who has written a book that I feel Darwin would have written if he had all the facts, terms and evidence we have now.
Like many of my readers I only knew Dawkins from The God Delusion and The Blind Watchmaker. I tried to read The God Delusion but was turned off by his attack on religion without giving it any credit for making people’s lives better. I did not know Dawkins is a biologist and a rather knowledgeable and engaging one at that. His latest book The Greatest Show on Earth, the evidence for evolution taught me and more importantly (at least in my mind) it got me asking questions. This is how I gage if I am truly learning anything, when I ask follow up questions.
The book reads like a course in evolution. Dawkins starts with examples of evolution or mutation by artificial means. What we all take for granted we may not understand is a type of evolution. Over thousands of years man has taken the wolf from a village scavenger to the many breeds of dogs we see today. A scientist in Russia did the same with foxes in the 1950’s and within just a few short generations had tame foxes that started to look and act like dogs, from the floppy ears to loyal behavior. Dawkins points to plant breeding; from our early ancestors changing wild plants to the grains and cabbages we have today, to the award winning roses we all know and love. Dawkins starts here so the reader becomes comfortable with the idea of evolution and gene mutation.
The book then moves on to how genes mutate and how DNA really works. Those who may not have been exposed to these subjects beforehand can take heart that Dawkins explains this in layman’s terms. Those who have a firm grasp on the subjects can enjoy Dawkins examples of rapid evolution. There is a great story of a biologist who does an experiment on fish to determine how long it would take for them to change their spot patterns depending on if they had local predators. I won’t spoil it for you, but will say I have some good ammunition loaded with facts for the next round of discussions with my aunt.
I will admit the middle of the book dragged a little for me. Here Dawkins goes through the nine months of gestation. Even Dawkins admits this is a little digression, but he did have a point to make. I think he could have made the point in less time. This is my only negative thoughts on the book; at times Dawkins eloquently explains something but then spends another page or two explaining what he just said. Either Dawkins does not have confidence in his ability to get a point across or he does not have confidence his reader will fully understand some key points. I found myself skipping some parts because of this.
Over all I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a better understanding of evolution or science in general. The book is has some English humor and is easy to understand. I think we all should have a good grasp on science if only to make us better consumers. Many books and late night infomercials rely on our lack of science based knowledge in order to sell us cheesy ideas or products. Dawkins may not stop you from purchasing a glass plant watering globe that magically knows when your plants are dry, but I bet you never look at a dog or plant the same way again. And for a really great book on all things science I recommend Bill Bryson’s A short history of nearly everything.
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LibraryThing member Sherm1
Dawkins does a nice job of collecting the evidence for evolution in one place, keeping the gloating mostly under control. I think there might be a few people already teetering on the edge who would read this book and find it enough to push them over, but mostly I think it will serve to fill gaps in knowledge for those of us who are not "history deniers" as Dawkins aptly describes creationists. I liked the update on missing link fossils, although I personally find molecular evidence the most compelling.

Dawkins throws in many self-indulgent asides in the form of long tiny-print footnotes. He says he knows they annoy some of his readers but he doesn't care. I enjoyed some of them; many were annoying.
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LibraryThing member Bookmarque
While I am not a scientist, I do possess scientific curiosity. All my life I've taken the theory of evolution as read, but this book reveals that while I was right to trust in its truth, I was taught incorrectly. Either that or my basic understanding became flawed. The 'hairpin species' explanation was my personal watershed. It makes so much more sense than my previous idea of evolution that I can hardly credit my "belief" in it. Contrary to popular understanding we (and every other modern life form) do not descend from a previous species in a ladder-like formation; instead we share an ancestor only. It is that ancestor that propagated not only it's immediately descended changed for, but others. The line of evolution forks at that species, does a U-turn as Dawkins describes and produces two new lines of change. I'd never thought of it like that and I'm so glad that I've got a fix on it now.

Ditto for the inherent flaws in current animal design as well as whole ecosystems. I'd never given any thought to the waste inherent in say the one-upmanship that goes on between predator and prey (Dawkins calls it an arms race, but I prefer my own term). If an intelligent force developed this system, it's a wreck and also cruel. Ditto for the simple idea of forests. Why do trees produce such massively tall trunks that do no good except to elevate them above other trees? The height itself, independent of its ability to furnish an advantage over other trees, does not help in energy gathering (photosynthesis) - tree trunks are not energy gatherers, but energy wasters in a pure sense. Now if an intelligent designer was at work here, why this needless waste? Trees are basically elevated meadows and are elevated because trees need to compete. If god really is benevolent, why all this clashing and striving? Why not just make all the trees the same height and be done with it? They'd be better off, growing wider and wider and gathering the same amount of sunlight as they do at their present heights, but without all that wasted effort of growing a trunk. Strange.

One thing that does bug me about Dawkins, however I admire his scientific dedication, is his lack of humility. He's convinced that his is the greatest intellect in the universe and there is nothing that he cannot understand or perceive. The idea that there might be something beyond his ability to sense or make sense of it just doesn't occur to him. It's a bit hard to stomach at times. He's a smug bastard at his core and a pedant to boot. After a while I was able to ignore his personality flaws and concentrate on the information he presents, because he does present it well.

This is my first reading of a Dawkins book because of this arrogance. I just can't stand a smug person no matter how I might agree with him, but since Douglas Adams waxes on about him so much I decided to give him a go. I may read another, but I've got to have a palate cleanser or ten in between. I may also have to listen to this one a couple more times. It's very information dense and I'm sure that many things sailed past me while I was trying to work out others. I feel sorry and ashamed that so many people do not understand science and instead cling to outmoded beliefs and argue which of their imaginary friends reigns supreme.

Lastly, I found the audio presentation by two narrators to be awkward and confusing at times. I'm not sure how they split the work precisely, it seems Lalla (what a name, what is she, 5?) read from others' works while Dawkins narrated his own commentary and contribution. I'm grateful to Simon & Schuster for choosing to include a digital booklet containing all of the printed book's illustrations. I wish more publishers would do this.
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LibraryThing member eihek
At first sight the focus of this book - the evidence for evolution - seems a bit strange. To anyone with basic knowledge of bilology, evolution is simply the modern scientific explanation of the way plants and animals appear and disappear in nature. The evidence for it is something you think about a bit when you first learn about it in school, in the same way that you learn about Rutherford's evidence for the existence of atoms, for example, and that's that. If you continue to have a keen interest in biology, you see with your own eyes how perfectly everything in nature makes sense in light of the theory of evolution by natural and other forms of selection (e.g., sexual), and wonder how it was possible that it took so long before scientists discovered it. On the face of it, no-one with a serious interest in biology should need a book about this evidence, whereas those who do need it are probably very unlikely to read a book like this.

Well, I personally, certainly, didn't need a book to convince me about the evidence for evolution, but I found it a very interesting and enjoyable book nevertheless. As usual, RD presents a huge amount of fascinating data from a wide range of biological areas, and as usual it is written in an brilliant and enjoyable (even beautiful and entertaining) way. The theme of "evidence for evolution", then, for me served mainly as a thread (or backbone) binding the different parts of the book together into a coherent, argumentative, logical whole.

Having said that, it is a sad fact that there is an industry of religiously motivated deniers of evolution, and this has had particularly strong influence in the USA. The book's appendix refers to various opinion surveys indicating, for example, that 44% of Americans think the earth is less than 10,000 years old. The situation in Europe is better, but even here about 22% seem to take a similar view.

So the book probably serves a good purpose in strengthening the resolve of educated people against this kind of reversal to pre-scientific ignorance.

As a final point, RD makes a clear effort to focus strictly on the evidence of evolution here, without linking it to advocation of atheism. In other words, this should not be an uncomfortable read for those who are happy to reconcile an educated understanding of biology with religious beliefs. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if they are the main target audience for this book.
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LibraryThing member g33kgrrl
This is Dawkins' latest book, a love story to evolution that clearly, painstakingly, and non-combatatively lays out the evidence for evolution. It's very well-written, and it is definitely a book meant to explain to people - reasonable people, who are open to science - why evolution is a fact. This is long-overdue, honestly, and Dawkins shows up a lot of his critics by being able to step back from the religous arguments and say (and this is a paraphrase, because I don't have the book with me, but it's close to a direct quote): "I already wrote a book about why I don't believe in god, so we're not talking about it here. Believe what you want about how the universe started, but now follow me on a journey about how life has transformed."

He still retains the Dawkins fire and punchiness, and makes no bones about his ... almost, I don't know, disbelief that there are so many people out there who are young-earth creationists (you and me both, Mr Dawkins!), but he has a specific purpose to this book and sticks with it. It's delightful, and well-done, and the joy of science shines through. This has surpassed The Selfish Gene as my intro-to-evolution go-to book now, which says a lot!
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LibraryThing member rivkat
Eh, for the completist, I think; Dawkins rants against creationists—I have less anger and more despair—and covers various refinements in the evidence over the years. To me, this sort of felt like “updates to all my previous books,” and, though united by one core idea, it still didn’t hang together in one well-organized structure. (Like, Dawkins might say, the path-dependent random walk of evolution itself.)… (more)
LibraryThing member mjmorrison1971
I am sure that this book will not change the views of the creationists but it does give a well argued case which clearly shows the rationality behind evolution.

Dawkins himself is a good clear writer, thought there are places where he does take some cheap shots that he could have left out to appear more dignified.

For myself this book filled in gaps in my own knowledge and provides good cases that should the stupidity of the "missing Link" argument and presents evidence for evolution both natural and human induced that clearly show it does happen. I would highly recommend it for anyone seeking to understand evolution and also to understand the illogical and frankly down right stupid arguments put by many creationist such as Kirk Cameron (as well as some of their attempts to appear more sophisticated in intelligent design). In particular I like the fact that Dawkins lays bare the truth of the statement "Nature is red in tooth and claw" and the harshness of the lives of most living creatures - Would you as a benign creator be this cruel?
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LibraryThing member rmckeown
Richard Dawkins, one of the foremost proponents of the “new atheism,” has returned to his first profession, evolutionary biologist. In this fascinating work, he lays down, in clear terms for the non-professional, all of the evidence from DNA to skeletal structure to behavior proving Darwin’s theory of evolution.

He starts off with some things I have argued for years. People who do not believe in evolution misunderstand the use of the term theory in that connection and fail to grasp the immense time scales involved. In fact, Dawkins describes quite a few things about evolution, which seemed to be mere common sense to me. Bi-lateral symmetry and similar skeletal structures for example.

Near the end, he sums all this up in a neat little package. Dawkins writes,

“What Darwin didn’t – couldn’t – know is that the comparative evidence becomes even more convincing when we include molecular genetics, in addition to the anatomical comparisons that were available to him.

Just is the vertebrate skeleton is invariant across all vertebrates while the individual bones differ, and just as the crustacean exoskeleton is invariant across all crustaceans while the individual ‘tubes’ vary, so the DNA code is invariant across all living creatures, while the individual genes themselves vary. This is a truly astounding fact, which shows more clearly than anything else that all living creatures are descended from a single ancestor. Not just the genetic code itself, but the whole gene/protein system for running life,…is the same in all animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, archaea [microbes that live in extreme environments] and viruses. What varies is what is written in the code, not the code itself. And when we look comparatively what is written in the code – the actual genetic sequences in all these different creatures -- we find the same kind of hierarchical tree of resemblance. We find the same family tree [emphasis by Dawkins] – albeit much more thoroughly and convincingly laid out – as we did with the vertebrate skeleton, and indeed the whole pattern of anatomical resemblances through all the living kingdoms. (315)

On one or two occasions Dawkins does become a bit overly technical, and some passages required a slower and repeat reading, but overall this is a thoroughly readable and enjoyable account of the present state of the theory of evolution. (5 stars)

--Jim, 1/14/11
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LibraryThing member jontseng
An excellent, approachable treatment of the topic. Dawkins does best when on home turf.
LibraryThing member cajela
Lots of fun with popular science, covering several of the main lines of evidence for evolution. It's a nice commemoration of Darwin's centenary year. Dawkins writes very clear and readable prose. It's a very enjoyable read - and comes with some very cool colour picture inserts in this trade paperback edition.

I'm oscillating between mildly amused and mildly annoyed by his humorously pedantic footnotes, and his love of coining new words. Memes, concestors, and this time it's theorums. erk.

And if you do keep up with popular biological science, through science blogs or panda's thumb or the like, you won't really learn anything new. I suppose I'm not really the target audience, though. I'd definitely recommend it for newbies.
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LibraryThing member mcandre
If you read this book cover to cover and still don't believe in Evolution, you must be crazy.
LibraryThing member Maggie_Rum
This is a wonderfully descriptive work about the inner workings of evolution; truly, the greatest show on earth. It is readable to anyone with the most basic scientific education, and the evidence is presented in an understandable way. Perfect!
LibraryThing member gopfolk
Well written book...I enjoyed this book as it walks you through the concepts that most creationists fail to acknowledge or if they do, completely dismiss. Dawkins makes the argument simple by using common facts to get his point across but then takes the time to walk through much of the detail to back the points up.
LibraryThing member Niecierpek
Dawkins at his best.
LibraryThing member psiloiordinary
Beautifully written. More poetry than polemic. Intricately educational without being lecturing. One of Dawkins best and all the better for being accessible to all. Hardback version also has tremendous illustrations and a comprehensive bibliography. Basic coverage of some of the fields of evidence that support modern biology. Creationists have nowhere left to hide, which anyway won't stop them of course.… (more)
LibraryThing member michael.d.dillon
This should be used in all high school science classes.
LibraryThing member AriadneAranea
Fascinating. Very clearly sets out, chapter by chapter, the case for evolution, based on evidence from plant and animal breeding, fossil records, geographical distribution, "design" failures, comparisons between modern animals and lots more.
LibraryThing member Differenti
The philosphy behind this book is nice but rather awkward: a biologist trying to bring up as much 'proofs' for evolution as possible to give other 'evolution believers' some solid ground when they find themselves in a discussion on the subject with 'non-believers' (creationists or believers of intelligent design). I do not believe Dawkins really achieves this goal, but that doesn't take away that the text is an elegant, well-written, amusing and often astounding bunch of stories and anecdotes on wonderful creatures, intelligent research and original chains of thought.

The word 'bunch' indicates the main downside of the book (in my opinion). It lacks some form of story grouping everything together, other than the simple sentence 'evolution is true'. The chapters are often arbitrarely chosen and some more summaries would be welcome. Sometimes Dawkins doesn't know when to stop telling a story, and other times he repeats the same phrase over and over again, but that hardly influences the reading pleasure. It might not 'convert' many non-believers, but it's an amusing read and offers a great view on the wonderful and amazing world we live in.
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LibraryThing member branjohb
Great book, almost too much for the those who only have a passing interest in evolution. If there are creationists who can read this book and still believe the world is 5000 years old, I do not know what to say.

One and a half thumbs up.
LibraryThing member kanegreen
A pretty good read in itself with some good examples of evolution in action. All written in Dawkins' brilliant style with his wonderfully lucid metaphors.
The chapter on carbon dating, although probably the most dry, was my favourite as I genuinely learned something new.

My only reservation is that anyone who has read much of Dawkins' work, or has a more than passing interest in evolution will find this a little dissapointing....I felt I knew much of this stuff before, if not the specific examples, then the principles or similar examples.

A good introduction to Dawkins, but not for a reader well versed in the great man. This is not a negative review in any way. It is an excellent book for the right reader.
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LibraryThing member Avinash_maarga
Do you want to know where you came from, do you want to know who your real ancestors are, do you want to know who your closest cousins are, and do you want to know how every animal on this planet is connected to another, read this book. This book is not just for all those skeptics who doubt evolution; it’s for everybody who wants to understand themselves better.… (more)
LibraryThing member alecclews
Useful review of arguments for evolutionary science. Arm yourself against the zealot idiots. Discusses geology, palaeoecology and biology.



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