Archive for November, 2011

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.

The beauty of Bach

November 2, 2011

A beautiful visualization of the Prelude from Bach’s Suite No.1 for solo cello, made by Alexander Chen. It takes a few seconds to find its feet:

(Hat-tip: Alex Ross)

This is not the first such thing that I have seen: a couple of years ago I found a Mobius strip visualization of one of Bach’s canons.