The Greatest Show on Earth, by Richard Dawkins

The Greatest Show on Earth

Richard Dawkins of course is the most zealous of defenders of science, and evolution in particular, against religious anti-science. He is the author of multiple books in that area.

Is there justification for yet another one? Sort of.

There’s plenty of overlap between The Greatest Show on Earth and his previous books, at least on a general level. Which is to say that, for example, while he does not simply repeat the identical anecdotes about his encounters with disingenuous or clueless creationists from his other books, he does recount encounters with disingenuous or clueless creationists. He also articulates additional arguments for his same conclusions about evolution from earlier books.

What he does more of in this book than his previous books is explain some of the evidence for evolution, and how it nicely brings together the data from a multitude of scientific disciplines. It isn’t just that some narrow area of biology would be cast into chaos if evolution were removed as an allowable explanation of phenomena; large areas of science would be full of bizarre and inexplicable surprises and coincidences.

As always, some will be turned off by Dawkins’s frankness. If he thinks something is false, dishonest, fallacious or lacking in evidence, then he says it’s false, dishonest, fallacious, or lacking in evidence. By doing that, instead of dancing around the issues, using a lot of euphemisms, assuring the reader repeatedly of the good intentions of his opponents and his respect for them, or taking a relativist line that everyone’s beliefs are true for them and that’s all that matters, he opens himself up to accusations of incivility or worse.

I think that’s silly for the most part, for to water down his criticisms in any of these ways would be itself dishonest. Maybe it’s the kind of polite dishonesty that’s expected in certain quarters, but it’s not something I would urge on him.

I like Dawkins as a writer. He’s skilled as a popularizer, as someone who can present scientific material in a way that is understandable and often entertaining to a general audience.

One of my favorite passages in The Greatest Show on Earth occurs in the very beginning. Dawkins uses very apt hypothetical analogies to explain how ludicrous and offensive it is that science teachers who teach evolution are treated the way they are.

Imagine, he says, that similar obstacles were placed in the way of a historian teaching about the Roman Empire, or to use a more recent example, the Holocaust. What if teaching about the Holocaust meant constant pressure to give equal time to Holocaust denial theories? What if parents wrote you angry, abusive letters and pulled their kids out of your class? What if a sizable number of your students sullenly stared at you with arms crossed, or routinely interrupted your lectures with emotional recitations of points and questions they’d memorized from Holocaust denial books and websites? What if other academics weighed in with postmodern points about how dogmatic it is for you to teach the Holocaust as true, rather than as simply one of multiple, equally valid, points of view on the matter? What if you were denounced for your unwillingness to, if not teach Holocaust denial as fact, at least “teach the controversy”?

The analogy is dead on. It’s just that Holocaust denial is a fringe position substantively and numerically, while creationism is a fringe position substantively, but religious bigots have seen to it that it is absolutely not a fringe position numerically.

There may be some very, very small number of people who believe in creationism who are open-minded enough to be persuaded to change their position if they read this book. But realistically, this kind of book is always more for those who are already on the same side as the author. It’s a welcome reminder that there really is not justifiable controversy about evolution as far as science is concerned. (Evolution in general terms, that is. Certainly there are details that specialists in the field disagree about and hash out in scientific journals and such.)

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