THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH
The Evidence for Evolution
Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
This book is expressly aimed at readers who are more or less uncertain about the truth of evolution. As such, it may have less relevance for those who do not need any persuasion on this score, but it would still be useful for biology teachers and others who find it necessary to convince their students. And even for those who are not in either of these categories, Richard Dawkins is such a fine writer that his books always repay reading—they are never dull.
The book covers all the topics one would expect and offers an overview of the modern understanding of evolution. Right at the outset Dawkins clarifies the meaning of 'theory' in science. To speak of the theory of evolution does not mean that there is serious doubt about its correctness; evolution is as much a scientific fact as is gravity. The evidence for its truth comes from many directions. The fossil record is important, of course, but even if we had no fossils our knowledge of comparative anatomy and of genetics would make acceptance of evolution inescapable.
Dawkins largely avoids voicing his hostility to religion explicitly here, but he doesn't pull his punches when it comes to criticising biblical fundamentalism and its toned down version, Intelligent Design. Although animal bodies, including our own, give the appearance of having been designed, there is nothing intelligent about it. Many aspects of our structure and function are the reverse of intelligent, but that is exactly what would be expected if evolution is true. They have arisen by the modification of pre-existing adaptations by natural selection and natural selection has no foresight. For example, the back-to-front structure of the mammalian retina and the improbable course of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in the neck make no sense on the assumption of design but are beautifully explained by their evolutionary history.
Religion also comes in towards the end of the book, where there is a discussion of 'evolutionary theodicy'. Theodicy is a theological term and refers to the attempt to reconcile the existence of a benevolent God with the presence of human and animal suffering. But Dawkins gives it a naturalistic twist, when he considers the nature of pain.
The natural world contains an unimaginable amount of suffering—prey being torn apart by predators, hosts being devoured alive from the inside by parasites. We don't know that prey and hosts suffer pain - Dawkins hopes fervently that they don't—but we cannot assume it. And our own experience shows that agonising pain is a feature of life.
It is not clear from an evolutionary perspective why pain should have this extreme intensity, but Dawkins offers a possible explanation. If pain were not so intense we might choose to ignore it, which might reduce our evolutionary fitness.
This would be a good book to give to a pupil who was beginning to learn biology at school. And it should serve to reassure anyone who thinks that the arguments of the intelligent designers merit serious consideration—Dawkins shows why they don't need to bother. But it is very unlikely even to be read by dyed-in-the-wool creationists.
Dawkins provides an appendix with abundant evidence from polls showing that 44% of Americans reject evolution totally. The figure for Britain is better, but not by much. A teacher in the USA reports that students burst into tears when told they would have to study evolution.
These attitudes reflect a more generalised degree of scientific ignorance: 19% of people in Britain think it takes one month for the earth to go round the sun, and more than 20% in Ireland, Austria, Spain and Denmark think the same.
5 May 2011
%T The Greatest Show On Earth
%S The Evidence for Evolution
%A Richard, Dawkins
%I Bantam Press
%G ISBN 9780593061732
%P ix + 470pp
%O hardback, colour plates
New Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects