Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Let The Show Continue

I'm just finished with Richard Dawkins' latest opus, The Greatest Show On Earth: the Evidence For Evolution.

This book follows on his very successful The God Delusion, which was one of a suite of recent books (comprising what is called "the new atheism") seeking to specifically debunk religious faith. Much as I sympathize with and cheer the motivating force behind The God Delusion, I'm happy to find that The Greatest Show On Earth returns Dawkins to his home field of biology and Darwinian evolution. As I've said before, this is where "Darwin's rottweiler" is at his very best. The God Delusion is most certainly not ineffective, but I think (as I said in my review of that book) the people who most need to have their faith in the literal truth of the Bible shaken will refuse to read a book with this title, and those who are eager to read this book are likely already converted. I like to think--I hope--people even of fairly staunch faith are willing to read a book on biology (though these people have been increasingly marginalized by evangelical Christianity and the mantra that education is "liberal" and science is somehow subversive and not to be trusted). Faced with the simple evidence of the world, it becomes much harder to dismiss Darwin.

Has anyone done more in modern times to promote Darwin's miraculous and far-reaching discovery than Richard Dawkins? Recently retired from the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, Dawkins has written 10 or so books about evolution, both explaining Darwinian theories with fantastic lucidity and wit and also putting forth some theories of his own. This body of work--The Selfish Gene, the Extended Phenotype, the Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow, River Out of Eden--constitute a massive and eloquent popular primer of evolution for the non-scientist, a magnificent treasure trove of human wisdom. And now The Greatest Show On Earth, which is a most worthy addition to the canon.

This book takes the form of the others, starting with simple precepts and using evolutionary evidence as exhibits in an increasingly-complex argument. Some of the chapter titles reference creationist claims: Only a theory?; The primrose path to macro-evolution; Missing link? What do mean, 'missing?'; The ark of the continents; etc. He begins his book with some very basic parsing of terminology, addressing common (and clumsy) misuses of the terms 'theory' and 'selection,' and talking about basic scientific methodology, including radiometric clocks (with a delightful explanation of how radio dating definitively debunked the so-called Shroud of Turin) and the like. He spends some time--a lot of time throughout the book--debunking the bumbling failure of creationists to grasp the concepts and ramifications of evolution; for example, creationists love to claim that evolution posits that "humans descended from monkeys" ("so why are there still monkeys?" they ask triumphantly). The truth, of course, is that humans and, say, chimps share a common ancestor which is neither human nor chimp. There are a lot of these not-so-subtleties that are regularly misunderstood or willfully misconstrued. He talks about the lessons learned from artificial selection, which has given us every breed of dog. Talking of Darwin's time:

Everybody knew about artificial selection, or at least everybody with any experience of farms or gardens, dog shows or dovecotes. But it was Darwin who first spotted that you don't have to have a choosing agent. The choice can be made automatically by survival--or failure to survive.

From simple steps he moves into more and more complex elements until we have a whole picture of evolved life before us. And along the way we are treated to a delightful (and instructive) assemblage of nature's oddities, including remarkable instances of co-evolved, codependent species and of effectively unrelated creatures evolving to similar habitats from very different backgrounds to arrive separately at amazingly similar forms. Specifically, he talks of Australian marsupials (marsupials exist most prolifically in Australia), some now recently extinct, which are the ecological equivalents of mammals: wolves, cats, rabbits, moles, shrews, lions, flying squirrels and more (some taking very similar forms). It's a fabulous argument, and he does not tread lightly.

Once again, I am sorry to have to take a sledgehammer to so small and fragile a nut, but I have to do so because more than 40 percent of the American people believe literally in the story of Noah's Ark. We should be able to ignore them and get on with our science, but we can't afford to because they control school boards, they home-school their children to deprive them of access to proper science teachers and they include many members of the United States congress, some state governors and even presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

There's an especially fascinating section about a long-running experiment by bacteriologist Richard Lenski at Michigan State University involving e. coli bacteria (an introduction to which can be read here and the project website here). I'd really love to reprint Dawkins' whole section, as the experiment is so bloody fascinating; but alas, it's too long for me to type. But given the asexual nature of bacterial reproduction and the rapidity with which they reproduce, the experiment has enabled the scientists to closely observe tens of thousands of bacterial generations. The study has gone on multiplying flasks daily for years, and has demonstrated a great deal of evolution right before the experimenters' eyes. (It's thrilling to see the creationist blubbering over the incontrovertible findings of this ongoing experiment. The creationist weasel Andy Schlafly, head of the website Conservapedia--because the world found in Wikipedia just doesn't have the proper right-wing slant, apparently--has tried with risible feebleness to take on Dr. Lenski, only to have his ass handed back to him in a smoldering heap.)

The breadth of the body of knowledge encompassed in Dawkins' arguments here is really astounding, taking in mathematics and geology and archeology and biology and morphology and on and on. I should be thrilled to be conversant in 1/4 of these fields, and yet Professor Dawkins brings them all to bear on his argument, finding supporting evidence in nearly everything he looks at. The end result is such a wall of evidence and argumentative weight that one would need to put one's head in the sand to turn away from it. But there remain a lot of people who do just that, and in a depressing variety of ways:

Shooting the messenger is one of humanity's sillier foibles, and it underlies a good slice of the opposition to evolution that I mentioned in the Introduction. "Teach children that they are animals, and they'll behave like animals." Even if it were true that evolution, or the teaching of evolution, encouraged immorality, that would not imply that the theory of evolution was false. It is quite astonishing how many people cannot grasp this simple point of logic.

This reminds me of a similar passage from The God Delusion (which I quoted in the review above):

There must be a God, the argument goes, because, if there were not, life would be empty, pointless, futile, a desert of meaninglessness and insignificance. How can it be necessary to point out that the logic falls at the first fence? Maybe life IS empty. Maybe our prayers for the dead really ARE pointless. To presume the opposite is to presume the truth of the very conclusion we seek to prove. The alleged syllogism is transparently circular. Life without your wife may very well be intolerable, barren and empty, but this unfortunately doesn't stop her being dead. There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else (parents in the case of children, God in the case of adults) has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point.

He finishes with an epilogue that shows a series of recent statistics of religiousness of various nations, and of the specific content of these peoples' beliefs. America fares quite badly in these statistics, and with our continuing failure to emphasize math and science in public education (a problem which assuredly does not exist in China), the outlook of our country to remain in a privileged position is grim indeed.

For this and so many reasons, I think this book--and all of Dawkins' work--is not just recommended but vitally important. I wonder at his energy and stamina to face this fire of ignorance all day, every day.


dbackdad said...

Nice review. I've read the God Delusion and have several of Dawkins' evolution books (Ancestor's Tale, Selfish Gene) that I've yet to read. I've been meaning to pick up the one you reviewed.

CyberKitten said...

This is definitely on my Summer to-read list.