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The Greatest Shown On Earth

June 2011: “The Archbishop of Canterbury has no problem with evolution, nor does the Pope (give or take a wobble over the precise palaeontological juncture when the human soul was injected), nor do educated priests and professors of theology.  This is a book about the positive evidence that evolution is a fact.”


I strongly recommend that anyone involved with, or interested in, science reads this book. In fact, all mothers should read it. Young people should read it. Old people should read it. Those whose lives are governed by god and religion should read it. Atheists, without a shadow of doubt, must read The Greatest Show on Earth!


An original thinker, soon after he wrote the God Delusion, Dawkins discovered that his already low popularity with the religiously inclined had plummeted even further. Not that this concerned him, for the fraternity of scientists and evolutionists, the people whose opinions he does care about, richly lauded him for his work. This is more or less what Charles Darwin experienced soon after the publication of his now-famous On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, except that the disapproval of the clergy disturbed Darwin in no small measure.


Darwin and Dawkins, in their unique ways, both ended up challenging the dogma of all religions that suggested that the myriad species we see around us today were created spontaneously, on one day, and did not evolve gradually. This is what Dawkins says in his preface:


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 a fact as any in science.”


I have read almost everything that Dawkins has written from The Selfish Gene and Climbing Mount Improbable to The God Delusion and now The Greatest Show on Earth. Apart from voicing opinions and passing subjective judgment on his body of work, I doubt that any theologian or scientist alive could fault Dawkin’s basic surmise:


The aids to inference that lead scientists to the fact of evolution are far more numerous, more convincing, more incontrovertible, than any eye-witness reports that have ever been used, in any court of low, in any century, to establish guilt in any crime. Proof beyond reasonable doubt? Reasonable doubt? That is the understatement of all time.”


The Times observed that: “(The Greatest Show on Earth) is a beautifully crafted and intelligible rebuttal of creationism and intelligent design.” It is indeed. And, what is more, it punctures gaping holes in the wispy arguments of creationists and proponents of ‘Intelligent Design’ who continue to question evolution as scientific fact. Dawkins actually warms to battle against those who flail against science. His aggression and disdain are palpable and directed at all who deny evolution, which he (correctly) states has long passed from theory to fact. In his chapter, ‘Science in Slow Time’ he writes:


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 fact of biology but those of physics, geology, cosmology, archeology, history and chemistry as well.


Armed with evidence that was simply not accessible to Darwin, molecular genetics for instance, Dawkins builds on the stack of evidence offered by Darwin to create a cast iron case for the ‘fact of evolution’ (not ‘theory’) in an extremely persuasive work. Ironically, there is not a whole lot he reveals that is new to science. Its just a meticulous, relentless, compilation of truths we take for granted and truths that are so obscure that few people apart from academics or deep-science people are aware of.


He chides us for instance for speaking in glowing terms of ‘the’ mammalian skeleton. Not because it is not worthy of praise, but because we tend to forget that the vertebrate skeleton is a shared asset, which sprang from common ancestors, all ‘cousins’ of ours, ranging from bats whose skeletons we readily agree are remarkably like our own, to pterodactyls, ancient reptiles with a highly developed fifth finger that aided flying. He puts it thus:


Just as the vertebrate skeleton is invariant across all vertebrates, while the individual bones differ, and just as the crustacean exoskeleton is invariant across all crustaceans while the individual ‘tubes’ vary, so the DNA code is invariant across all living creatures, while the individual genes themselves vary. This is a truly astounding fact, which shows more clearly than anything else that all living creatures are descended from a single ancestor.


That is certainly not music to the ears of the many respondents of opinion poll after opinion poll who believe that all living things came into existence in a single week 6,000 years ago! At last count, that would include something like 40 per cent of all who live in the United States of America and just a touch lower for those living in Europe!


The book retraces many of the pathways that Darwin did, hurtling on through the selective breeding of dogs, the problem with half-necked giraffes, ‘missing links’ and the relationship we share with gorillas and chimpanzees, which Darwin incredibly surmised without the benefit of fossil evidence, which came much later. In this volume Dawkins also expounds on issues surrounding macro-evolution, geology, the evidence to be harvested from ‘living fossils’ (Stephen J. Gould’s brachiopods), horseshoe ‘crabs’ and the recently rediscovered coelacanths.


The purpose of the Greatest Show on Earth is to win humans over to the idea that we are part of the very complicated blueprint of life on our planet. Dawkins uses such mundane observations as the goosebumps you and I experience at some point or other to remind us of the experiments Darwin conducted in a zoo to compare how the hair of chimpanzees and peccaries would become erect even when shown a stuffed snake. Dawkins explains that:


The hackles are raised in anger. In fear also, hairs stand on end to increase the body’s apparent size and scare off dangerous rivers or predators. Even we naked apes still have the machinery to raise non-existent (or barely existent) hairs, and we call it goosebumps.


Thomas Henry Huxley an English biologist who died in 1895, famously became known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” because of his stout defence of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. I’d say that 106 years later, the mantle of Darwin’s Bulldog has been passed onto Richard Dawkins for turning theory to fact.


The Greatest Shown On Earth

the evidence for evolution: by Richard Dawkins

Published by Black Swan,
Softcover, 470 pages, Price: Rs. 399/-


Reviewed by Bittu Sahgal


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