Monday, May 23, 2011

Richard Dawkins - The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution - Book Review

I recently finished reading one of Richard Dawkins’ books called “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.” The book was great for offering a clear presentation of what evolution actually is and the verified position it holds in the realm of scientific knowledge. Before this book the only other book I had read by Richard Dawkins was “The God Delusion.” I was assigned to read “The God Delusion” in a philosophy course I took while at Fuller Theological Seminary. Out of curiosity I looked back and found a short book review I wrote about “The God Delusion” for the class. I wrote:

Reading Richard Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion” has been of great interest for me. Dawkins writes very clearly and with conviction about his thoughts making his book easy and fun to read. His expertise in biology cannot be ignored and he brought to light many things I had previously misunderstood about natural selection and he uses this knowledge and his experiences to move into analyzing questions outside of the realm of biology and he does well. His use of and understanding of history is for the most part laughable and I admit makes it harder for me to take him seriously but when it comes to science I know I would come across as awkwardly has he does when discussing the humanities. So it is Dawkins arguments from science that I take most seriously.

Dawkins addresses Cosmological, Ontological, and Teleological arguments about the existence of God. He spends most of his energy upon the teleological arguments seeing them as truly the only valid ones worth refuting. This is another point where Dawkins spurns chances to gain a wider audience. He so clearly writes off cosmological and ontological arguments that he comes across as if he doesn’t understand them himself. Throughout the book he belittles theists who argue against natural selection or atheism whose arguments prove they lack an understanding of the issue. And when Dawkins speaks of these arguments of the existence of God, in particular the ontological argument, he comes across in exactly the same way. The temptation is then to write off everything he says the way he has clearly done with the numerous philosophers and theologians who have discussed these issues. But this cannot be done for again he offers important insights that must be addressed and valued.

I would be like to have a meal with Richard Dawkins. I would want to begin by thanking him for explaining the subject of Darwinism, in particular, natural selection to me in a clear and understandable way. I would desire to discuss the specific arguments he makes to better understand his line of thinking. In many cases I agreed with his process and his conclusions. It is his ultimate conclusion that there is no God, which I clearly disagree with. I do not believe it is possible to ‘prove’ the existence of God and if we did find something that we could measure and quantify and point to as God it would no longer be God. Similarly I agree with Dawkins that even if we could ‘prove’ God existed we would have no way of knowing which god existed. I would challenge Dawkins presentation of his material because his condescending tone often distracts from the arguments he is making and he often doesn’t give conflicting arguments the attention they deserve. I would definitely contest Dawkins understanding or lack of understanding of history. His use of history to forward his arguments is shaky at best and for the most part just plain wrong. He often quoted authors who said something that he liked but never legitimates their authority on the subject or demonstrates the complexity of the claims and issues being dealt with. At times the authors don’t even make the point he thinks they do. Unlike with science, the simplest answer is not usually the correct one when it comes to history; people are just too complicated for that. It would be a fun meal from which I would certainly be frustrated, challenged, and confused, but I would be better for having had it. 

I wrote this in January of 2008, which was about a year before I myself stopped believing in God, specifically the Christian version I was raised on so it was interesting for me to see how I was approaching the issue of God’s existence when I read Dawkins book.

The significant difference between “The God Delusion” and this book “The Greatest Show on Earth” is that “The God Delusion” focused on issues of philosophy, theology, history and science to deal specifically with the issue of God’s existence whereas this new book is solely a science book meant to introduce the facts of evolution that, sadly, are more often than not unknown or outright denied by a majority a people in America. So Dawkins potential weaknesses as a historian or even a philosopher do not show themselves in this book rather his mastery of biology and understanding of anthropology, geology, physics and astronomy are displayed.

Now even back when I was a Christian I came to accept the validity of evolution because the simple fact is it just cannot be denied by any educated person. At this point it is like denying that the earth revolves around the sun or claiming that the earth is the center of the universe. And while experts still debate the particulars of evolution the theory itself is an established fact. But despite my acceptance of evolution I can’t pretend to say that I understood it very well. My understanding of evolution was on par with my “understanding” of Einstein’s theory of relativity or DNA or black holes. I know these things exist and I know they are true but if one asked me to explain them I would not be able to. So too with evolution I have known for a while that it was true without knowing many of the particulars about it. This book was a great introduction into that topic and provided wonderful material for those seeking to better understand what evolution is and how it works.
With that said it is sad that this type of book still needs to be written. The facts it presents are things regular high schoolers should be learning in class but many of them, particularly in America, are not. Dawkins gave a great analogy at the beginning of the book to explain what biologists and anthropologist and other scientists have to go through when dealing with deniers of evolution. He compared the biologists fight to prove the validity of evolution before they can actually do their job (teaching or research) to a Latin teacher who faces the constant burden of having to prove the Roman Empire existed before she is allowed to teach or study Latin. Despite all the obvious evidence surrounding these people they continue to deny the existence of the Roman Empire and thus continue to hinder the Latin teacher from actually dealing with important issues in her field. This analogy made Dawkins perspective very clear to me. I could fully understand the frustration and general weariness that would come from continuing to deal with people who remain unwilling to acknowledge the truths of evolution that are so obvious and thus encumbering your actual work.

So I would recommend this book to anyone seeking a better understanding of evolution and the process of natural selection. I would of course encourage those who do not accept the fact of evolution to read this book so they at least have a better understanding of what they are rejecting and then perhaps ask themselves why they believe the earth is round, or that the earth revolves around the sun? My guess would be it is because they were taught that. The Copernican revolution took place early in the 14th century and yet there were people who denied it for over a hundred years afterwards. Eventually truth wins out and so too in the future evolution will simply be accepted by everyone and taught the way it already should be but that does not make it any easier right now for those of us left dealing with evolution deniers who might as well still claim that the earth is flat. I am grateful that scientists like Dawkins are writing books like this but I do hope they will not need to much longer and that they will be able to devote more of their time to more important issues then “proving” what has already been proven.