REVUES FROM THE REV: “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” by Richard Dawkins

dawkinsFrom the Preface:  “The evidence for  evolution grows by the day, and has never been stronger.  At the same time, paradoxically, ill-informed opposition is also stronger than I can remember.  This book is my personal summary of the evidence that the “theory” of evolution is actually a fact — as incontrovertible a fact as any in science.”

Reading Dawkins is fun.  For one thing he is actually a very adept popularizer of science.  For another, he makes no attempt to conceal his own enthusiasm about his subject when he is fast upon it, and neither is he able to disguise his bewilderment at the persistence of what he calls the “history deniers”.  It is in the latter mode that he imagines a teacher of Latin confronted by a vociferous protest from a student who insists that the Romans never existed, and that all the evidence for this culture is a fabrication.  This, Dawkins explains, is the challenge current teachers of science face from religious students (Christian and Islamic) who insist that the Biblical account of Creation be treated as a valid competing “scientific theory”.

But what, exactly, is a theory?  The definition that applies here is that quoted by Dawkins from the Oxford English Dictionary (emphasis mine):  “A scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts; a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed.”

In short, it is only ignorance and “history denial” that allow anyone to consider “young earth creationism” to be anything approaching a scientific theory.

I’ve personally come to rather cherish the ubiquitous barbs that Dawkin’s critics inevitably throw at him, which boil down to either “Why is he so angry” or a description of his tone as “arrogant”.  From the standpoint of the imagined Latin professor enduring repeated interruptions of “But there’s no real proof the Romans ever existed!”, isn’t a bit of frustration — even exasperation — not understandable?

This book is as Dawkins describes it in his introduction:  it is his own deeply personal (and deeply factual) defense of the scientific theory of evolution.

This book is rich with detail and truly enlightening descriptions of all of the major underpinnings of evolution.  And it is a brand new book and, hence, about as current as a book can be in a realm of constant discovery (I’m now reading a book from about 7 years ago on a very similar subject in which I occasionally run into a passage that has already been rendered out-of-date by subsequent discoveries).

Dawkins does sometimes feel like he’s rhetorically reaching for a certainty more than scientific,  but I can forgive that.  For Dawkins is foremost a scientist and then a storyteller, and the storyteller in him will always follow the scientist.

I’ll close with a couple of extended quotes where Dawkins addresses the twin notions of the “futility” of life, and the claim that Darwin’s theory somehow diminishes the value of human life:

“Futility?  What nonsense.  Sentimental, human nonsense.  Natural selection is all futile.  It is all about the survival of self-replicating instructions for self-replication.  If a variant of DNA survives through an anaconda swallowing me whole, or a variant of RNA survives by making me sneeze, then that is all we need by way of explanation.  Viruses and tigers are both built by coded instructions whose ultimate message is, like a computer virus, ‘Duplicate me.’  In the case of a cold virus, the instruction is executed rather directly.  A tiger’s DNA is also a ‘duplicate me’ program, but it contains as almost fantastically large digression as an essential part of the efficient execution of its fundamental message.  That digression is a tiger, complete with fangs, claws, running muscles, stalking and pouncing instincts.  The tiger’s DNA says, ‘Duplicate me by the round-about route of building a tiger first’.  At the same time, antelope DNA says, ‘Duplicate me by the round-about route of building an antelope first, complete with long legs and fast muscles, complete with timorous instincts and finely honed sense organs tuned to the danger from tigers.'”

“On his (Darwin’s) world-view, everything about the human mind, all our emotions and spiritual pretensions, all arts and mathematics, philosophy and music, all feats of intellect and of spirit, are themselves productions of the same process that delivered the higher animals.  It is not just that without evolved brains spirituality and music would be impossible.  More pointedly, brains were naturally selected to increase in capacity and power for utilitarian reasons, until those higher faculties of intellect and spirit emerged as a by-product, and blossomed in the cultural environment provided by group living and language.  The Darwinian world-view does not denigrate the higher human faculties, does not ‘reduce’ them to a plane of indignity.  It doesn’t even claim to explain them at the sort of level that will seem particularly satisfying, in the way that, say, the Darwinian explanation of a snake-mimicking caterpillar is satisfying.  It does, however, claim to have wiped out the impenetrable — not even worth trying to penetrate — mystery that must have dogged all pre-Darwinian efforts to understand life.”

t.n.s.r. bob

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