Friday, March 05, 2010

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, by Richard Dawkins

In The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (Free Press, 2009) Richard Dawkins reviews systematically and with great clarity all the important evidence for evolution. The fossil record offers one small bit of evidence. Especially interesting is Dawkins’ explanation of why the so-called gaps in the fossil record do not amount to a weakness in the case for evolution. Also interesting are his explanations about DNA, the skeletal structure of mammals (all mammals share the same bones, however much they may differ in shape, function, and appearance), the interrelatedness of species, how the development of embryos reenacts the evolutionary process (this is the concept of embryology),the role of continental drift in evolution, and how the fact that all life on earth shares a common proportion of DNA means that life began on the earth only once, and that all life is descended from a single common ancestor.

For Dawkins evolution is a fact. We refer to it as a theory only because science defines a theory as a fact supported by evidence. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming.

Dawkins prefers the term natural selection to evolution.

Dawkins has no tolerance for evolution deniers. He refers often to the high percentage of people in the United States and England and the Middle East who believe that the earth is only 6000 years old and that all life is divinely created. He sees such people as threats to reason and education and enlightenment. There is no denying that. He is extremely effective at debunking and refuting their arguments, which at best are uninformed and at worst are deliberate distortions of fact, reason, and scientific evidence. Yet Dawkins often seems a bit too eager to deny religion and the possibility of any supernatural involvement in scientific processes. To me evolution (which I accept as fact) and God (whom I regard as unlikely but possible) do not cancel one another out. Natural selection seems a very logical way for a Creator to go about creating a world. On the other hand, natural selection is clearly the process that brought such a wealth of biological diversity in the world.

The only time in this book when my eyes glazed over (meaning that for a relatively experienced lay reader of science texts Dawkins’ explanations grew too technical) was in his discussion of various methods of dating—carbon dating, genetic dating, and so on. I also felt that his final chapter, a sentence by sentence analysis of the final paragraph of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, was a bit tedious in its belaboring of the obvious.

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