Dawkins: The Greatest Show on Earth

November 7, 2011

The Greatest Show on Earth
The Evidence for Evolution
Richard Dawkins
(Free Press, 2009)
480 p.

The Darwin anniversary year in 2009 called forth a stack of books on various aspects of Darwinian theory from the world’s publishing houses. Amid the glut, there was certainly room for a straightforward and sober book that presented, neatly and clearly, the various lines of evidence supporting the contemporary theory of evolution, as a primer for interested readers.

Unfortunately, this is not that book, and for two principal reasons. First — and I am not quite sure how best to say this — the prose is gassy. This surprised me, because I know that Dawkins is a very successful popular science writer, and I expected to encounter writing that was crisper and more direct than what I found. In this book, at any rate (and this is the only one of Dawkins’ books that I have read), he takes a long time to say things, and I found myself, too frequently, flipping ahead to find where he would finally arrive at the point. Certainly he does describe the evidence for evolution — the observed variability of creatures under artificial selection, the immense age of the earth, the fossil record, the observed geographic distribution of species, molecular genetics, and so forth — but he goes about it in such a diffuse manner that clarity is impaired. The book could have been, and in my judgment should have been, about half its present length.

The second defect is that Dawkins is himself distracted from his stated purpose. There is a bee — a terribly irritating bee, evidently — in his bonnet, and he cannot resist interrupting the discussion to swat at it. The bee is, of course, ‘creationism’, that anti-scientific hydra whose many heads not even the entire Department of Education has been able to slay. To a certain extent his recurring animadversions to creationism are defensible, for polls show that a significant segment of the population, as high as 50% in the United States, deny the basic idea of biological evolution in deference to a (usually) biblically-based belief in divine creation or, occasionally, in intelligent design. That fact is rightly a matter of concern, and understandably of irritation, to evolutionary biologists like Dawkins, and it is legitimate to acknowledge the problem in a book of this sort. Likewise, a presentation of the evidence for evolution can justifiably take the time to highlight evidence which is incompatible with this or that creationist theory, and Dawkins does so. All that is fine. The problem arises, in my judgment, from the intemperate tone that dominates his writing on this matter. He indulges himself in mockery and emits great sighs of exasperation. His ridicule is directed not so much, or not only, at creationism, but at the religious faith of those who adhere to it. One gets the distinct impression that he is enjoying himself as he heaves and splutters, and the spectacle is not very attractive.

I have to wonder about this tactic. If, speaking hypothetically, one really cared to teach people important truths about the world, but encountered resistance because of a prior, sincere commitment in one’s audience to a set of ideas which they believed were at odds with said important truths, how ought one best to proceed? It seems to me that a fruitful approach would be to come alongside one’s audience to explore the alleged conflict, to see if there might be some hope for harmonization, some re-interpretation, some re-examination of assumptions that would soften or remove the difficulty. This would take some time and effort, but it would inspire trust and good will. The worst course would seem to be to emphasize the conflict, to sneer at efforts to moderate it, and to insist that the prior, sincere commitment in one’s audience must be overthrown and abandoned. This is a bad approach not only because, human nature being what it is, it is unlikely to be very successful, but also because it is quite possibly unnecessary. (It is unnecessary in this case.) Yet this worst course is the one Dawkins takes, and this makes him, despite his reputation as a leading popularizer of science, an ineffective advocate for the ideas he seeks to promote.

As for the scientific content of the book, it is fairly well presented (although, as I said, not as concisely as I would have liked). I am not sure that I learned anything from it — maybe a little something about genetics and biochemistry. One interesting claim Dawkins makes is that the evidence for the theory of evolution would still be persuasive even if the entire fossil record was erased. After thinking it over, I can believe that that is true now, but I am not convinced that it is true historically; that is, I believe that study of the fossil record was crucial for the actual historical formulation of the theory. A related claim he makes is this: even if we only knew the present-day distribution of species in South America and Africa and the measured rate of continental drift between the two continents, these data alone would be enough to strongly suggest an old age of the earth and the idea of descent with modification. That, of course, doesn’t get us all the way to neo-Darwinism, but it does get us a considerable part of the way, which is a quite interesting observation.

The ongoing failure of evolutionary theory to present itself in a way that wins widespread acceptance among the general public (and, although rates of denial are highest in the United States, the problem exists in Europe too) is quite remarkable. Some of the blame for the stand-off belongs with popularizers of science, like Dawkins, who portray evolutionary biology as a refutation of religion and a triumph of atheism. Blame also rests with those churches that likewise, on account of a commitment to a particular way of reading the Bible, insist on the irreconcilability of evolution with Christianity. From my point of view, these last especially need fraternal correction because of the disrepute they bring on Christian faith itself. Perhaps at a future date, probably many moons hence, I will have opportunity to write a little more on that subject.

8 Responses to “Dawkins: The Greatest Show on Earth”

  1. Janet Says:

    It’s ironic, isn’t it, that Dawkins work is more influenced–almost driven–by Christianity than that of many authors that are Christian?


  2. Janet Says:

    I love it when I see the grammatical error as the text disappears.


  3. cburrell Says:

    Oh, don’t worry about that. I could fix it if you’d like.

    Dawkins has, as you know, become something of an atheist celebrity in recent years, and it is possible that he believes that his audience expects him to tilt at ‘the other side’. But it is a distraction.

  4. My first year biology professor had the same bee in his bonnet and I found it distracting in his lectures too. It did, however, make it easy to do well on his multiple choice tests: in cases where all the answers had some truth to them, you just always had to pick the one that contained some reference to the untruth of creationism. I got an A in that course.

  5. cburrell Says:

    It is always nice when someone drops clues like that.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Thank you for this.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    The real cost of creationism is that 50% of the U.S population are effectively dissuaded from pursuing a career in scientific research. I think that’s the main source of everyone’s irritation.

    As a (former?) evangelical drifting toward the Anglican church, I can appreciate the challenge that evolution poses to the Christian faith. Namely, that most/all of the stories in the old testament are myth originating from oral tradition. One is then left with the virgin birth/resurrection of Christ as a recent supernatural anomaly interrupting 2.5 million years of completely natural human progression. In spite of this simplistic description, I still find that evolution (together with textual and historical criticism of the bible), makes overt divine intervention seem capricious.

    Unhappily for evangelicals, their/our entire faith is built on the notion that the bible is infallible and inerrant (sola scriptura). Obviously, Catholics, Anglicans, and mainline Protestants don’t have this problem. But the historicity of the resurrection still grates on the mind (of the latter group at least).


  8. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Jonathan. Apologies for this late response; it has been one of those weeks.

    Even if it were true that most of the Old Testament stories are myths — a claim about which I have no special expertise but which I expect is highly debatable, to say the least — I know of no way to argue from “Some Biblical stories with supernatural elements are myths” to “All Biblical stories with supernatural elements are myths”. Consequently I do not see how the scientific accuracy or inaccuracy of Genesis has any bearing on the historicity of the Resurrection.

    If evolutionary theory does pose a threat to Christianity it is, I believe, in the special challenges it presents to the doctrine of the Fall. But this is a logical (indeed, a theological) problem, not an impressionistic one.

    The notion that God works through, rather than in spite of, the regularities of the natural world can seem to make God more distant, or even superfluous. To remedy this, I believe we need to renew our understanding of classical theism, in which God is not a being among beings who tinkers with the world when it is convenient to do so, but as the transcendent source and ground of all being, on whom all depends in the most radical way. This understanding does not, of course, preclude the miraculous, but it does prevent God’s being attributed with scads of miracles the net effect of which looks exactly as if no miracles had occurred.

    As for your search for a spiritual home: hang in there. Love God, ask Him to convert you to Himself, and follow your nose. I was once an evangelical myself, and even spent a few years with the Anglicans before I found rest for my weary bones. Hang in there.

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