Let’s Read The Greatest Show On Earth!
Richard Dawkins is better known among most people for writing The God Delusion than for anything else he’s ever done, which is a real shame. The God Delusion is what first introduced me to atheism, so it clearly worked for its intended audience, but I’ve long outgrown it and now see it as fairly immature in a lot of ways. I much prefer Dawkins’ other books, particularly Climbing Mount Improbable (Note: The version I linked to there has a catastrophically ugly cover. Try to get the UK paperback edition if you can). He has a gift for communicating extremely complex scientific ideas and lines of evidence in a way that makes them accessible even to non-scientists, and that’s a very rare ability indeed. But, as he himself has pointed out on numerous occasions, none of his books paid much attention to the actual evidence for evolution. Climbing Mount Improbable deals with the ‘common sense’ notion that structures such as complex eyes and wings couldn’t have evolved naturally, while The Ancestor’s Tale is a grandiose story of the interconnectedness of life. Somebody who already knows the evidence for evolution isn’t going to have a problem with either of them, but Creationists in particular are likely to assume that Dawkins is just pulling all those facts and fossils out of thin air. His latest book, The Greatest Show On Earth, was written to address the gap in his bibliography.
With that in mind, he starts things off strangely. I was expecting the book to leap headfirst into the familiar lines of evidence for evolution – DNA, the fossil record, biogeography – but instead he begins with an account of how humans have shaped and ‘moulded’ other species to their own liking before moving on to explain how other creatures have essentially done the same thing. Don’t get me wrong, this section is fascinating, but any Creationist reading it is likely to start asking how scientists know that, for example, a mantis’ clever mimickry of a leaf is actually an evolved trait. It’s obvious if you already accept evolution (why might looking more and more like a leaf convey a survival advantage?), but Creationists are nothing if not obtuse.
Having said that, I’m not much further into the book, so I’ll post my thoughts as I (slowly) work my way through it. Hopefully my assessment will change once it moves on to the nitty-gritty evidence. There’s also a lot to like even in these earlier sections; the writing is as good as ever, and the numerous colour photographs included at regular intervals in the text really liven things up. Rather than just imagining what a caterpillar with a rear-end that mimics a snake would look like, you can flip to the photographic inserts and see it in all its bizarre glory!
If you like Richard Dawkins as a writer, the theory of evolution or just biology in general, I’d already recommend The Greatest Show On Earth based on the first two chapters alone. The people it’s trying to persuade might not be quite so enthusiastic about it, at least if they don’t get past the earlier sections. (And I suspect that a lot of them won’t, if the maddening conversations I’ve had with Creationists online are anything to go by.)