The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

Richard Dawkins Free Press, New York August 24, 2010
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Dawkins begins with the claim that he repeats several times throughout this book: “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 as any in science” (p. vii). Although he has written several other books on evolution, Dawkins calls this book his “missing link,” since he has not elsewhere explicitly set out the evidence for evolution (ibid.).

In the opening chapter, “Only a Theory?” Dawkins states his thesis: “Evolution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact. The evidence for evolution is at least as strong as the evidence for the Holocaust, even allowing for eyewitnesses to the Holocaust. It is the plain truth that we are cousins of chimpanzees, somewhat more distant cousins of monkeys, somewhat more distant cousins still of aardvarks and manatees, yet more distant cousins of bananas and turnips . . . continue the list as long as desired.  . . . We know this because a rising flood of evidence supports it. Evolution is a fact, and this book will demonstrate it. No reputable scientist disputes it, and no unbiased reader will close the book doubting it” (pp. 8–9). Strong statements like this are found throughout the book, putting anyone on the defensive who interprets the evidence differently from the way he does.

Typical of Dawkins’s writing style in his other works, he demeans and derides those whose views differ from his. He particularly heaps scorn on those who believe in a young earth. Here is one example:  “If the history-deniers who doubt the fact of evolution are ignorant of biology, those who think the world began less than ten thousand years ago are worse than ignorant, they are deluded to the point of perversity. They are denying not only the facts of biology but those of physics, geology, cosmology, archeology, history, and chemistry as well” (p. 85). Such inflammatory rhetoric is unlikely to gain the respect of those who hold the views that Dawkins finds so offensive, but that is not the audience for his book. On the other hand, if creationists are able to stomach such rhetorical flourish, there is much in this book to appreciate. At the very least it is helpful to understand how Dawkins defends his views and how he believes the evidence is overwhelming in favor of his conclusions.

Dawkins argues that the earth is approximately 4.6 billion years old (p. 81). As evidence he discusses the age of trees through counting tree rings, the known rate of decay of radioactive isotopes, carbon decay, and the molecular clock. He argues that there is evidence of evolution happening before “our own eyes during one lifetime” (p. 111). He cites the example of lizards on two islands off the Croatian coast as well as laboratory studies of bacteria and guppies. He discusses the evidence of human evolution through embryology. A fascinating chapter criticizes the “continental drift” theory in favor of a “modern theory of plate tectonics” (p. 274). Also he argues that the “pattern of resemblances among the skeletons of modern animals is exactly the pattern we should expect if they are all descended from a common ancestor, some of them more recently than others” (p. 295).

Dawkins explains that evolution affirms common ancestry, not transitional creatures. Thus the search for “missing links” or for transitional creatures is flawed. In short, “Every one of the millions of species of animals shares an ancestor with every other one. If your understanding of evolution is so warped that you think we should expect to see a fronkey [an intermediate between a frog and a donkey] or a crocoduck [an intermediate between a crocodile and a duck], you should also wax sarcastic about the absence of a doggypotomus and an elephanzee. . . . Of course hippopotamuses are not descended from dogs or vice versa. Chimpanzees are not descended from elephants or vice versa, just as monkeys are not descended from frogs. No modern species is descended from any other modern species” (p. 153). He concludes, “Once again, humans are not descended from monkeys. We share a common ancestor with monkeys. As it happens, the common ancestor would have looked a lot more like a monkey than a man, and we would indeed probably have called it a monkey if we met it some 25 million years ago. But even though humans evolved from an ancestor that we would sensibly call a monkey, no animal gives birth to an instant new species, or at least not one as different from itself as a man is from a monkey, or even a chimpanzee. That isn’t what evolution is about. Evolution not only is a gradual process as a matter of fact; it has to be gradual if it is to do any explanatory work. Huge leaps in a single generation—which is what a monkey giving birth to a human would be—are almost as unlikely as divine creation, and are ruled out for the same reason: too statistically improbable. It would be so nice if those who oppose evolution would take a tiny bit of trouble to learn the merest rudiments of what it is they are opposing” (p. 155, italics his).

This book can help creationists understand what evolutionists believe. And this book can also help creationists avoid the fallacious reasoning that Dawkins identifies in this book.

In addition creationists might hope that Dawkins would follow his own advice and learn what it is the creationists actually believe instead of dismissing and mocking those views. But his harsh rhetoric and ignorance of what theists believe about creation does not justify creationists responding in kind. This book is written at the level that an educated nonspecialist can understand. It is a helpful resource for those interested in understanding what one prominent atheistic evolutionist believes. 

—Glenn R. Kreider

October 1, 2011
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2011 vol. 168 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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