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."
Excellent introduction to the natural wonder that is evolution.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
One and a half thumbs up.
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?
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.
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)