Dawkins Weaves a Fascinating Evolutionary Polemic in The Greatest Show on Earth


“There is grandeur in this view of life.”

It is these words that are affiliated with the final moments that cap Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in a poetic flourish, as Richard Dawkins explicates in the final chapter of his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth.

It’s an unfortunate conception believed by many people that assent to evolution contravenes the ascendancy of man, that we’re merely the sum of what got us here (which, by the way, says nothing about the actual veracity of evolution), but no one can doubt that the boundless joy with which Dawkins celebrates evolution is proof of humanity’s cultural and intellectual triumph, we being the only species currently living that can rediscover our long lost heritage (and as all humans are separated in relatedness by degrees of difference in DNA, so too are we related to all species in larger degrees of differences, in that all life on Earth forms one spindly family tree).

The natural world may sometimes be ugly, and it may sometimes be beautiful, but it is always full of wonder, and it is this kind of intellectual curiosity that one hopes Dawkins can transmit through literary osmosis.

Evolution is an elegant theory indeed (and Dawkins makes it clear that while evolution is an ever-changing body of assertions, like gravitation or germ theory, descent with modification is a historical fact, as much of a fact as an apple falling to Earth instead of ascending); as you read the book, you can almost feel the texture and weight of the pieces of evidence from the genetic, geological, and fossil records come together to form one rich tapestry within the folds of your mind.

Likewise, each page of the book contributes to a cohesive argument. Take, for instance, the chapter on embryology (embryology, by the way, sheds light on evolution, but not like Ernst Haeckel had conceived, because all of us “evolve” step by step over the course of nine months into an independent organism, along the way functional and alive by the coarsest definition, only that the genetic information is already in place). Watch how his argument on development evolves, as he searches example by example for an analogy, from car manufacturing to origami, takes life down to its very building blocks of amino acids and enzymes, and then comes back around to discuss the cascade of triggers that start at the moment of conception and continues until life has fomented.

Dawkins is so good with scientific details that his book reminds me of a more contiguous version of Darwin’s Ghost, which its author, Steve Jones, also filled to the brim with individual examples, such as canine domestication and molecular biology, in much the same chapter order. Dawkins does offer an exquisite example of molecular evidence but in general isn’t as comprehensive as Steve Jones in this area. The real strength of Dawkins is his writer’s instinct for clarity and language combined with a scientist’s skill of deduction and understanding; he constantly prefaces and preps in extemporaneous delineation like a lecturer who seeks to present and not just explain.

Dawkins, who has been called strident and assiduous in the past, is rarely callous, in my opinion, but he’s certainly never been diffident about stripping a little of the sheen away from the ineffable. In The Greatest Show on Earth he demures, instead standing arm-in-arm with theists who count evolution as a fact against those who actively deny evolution.

He refers to this second group as history-deniers, comparing them to those who would deny the existence of the Roman Empire or the holocaust. He recounts anecdotes of creationists, who, as otherwise curious individuals, obstinately ignore the evidence or throw a reactionary fit. Dawkins seems to be saying that if only they’d open their minds honestly to the evidence, they would begin to understand. Occasional refutations threaded throughout each chapter are meant to mollify creationists to the basic facts of evolution.

As such, from a religious angle, this book is more for those whose misconceptions are prevalent but not a deal-breaker. Dawkins attempts to wedge free some basic errors, such as the human tendency to attribute to every species a nature, like a “humanness” or “rabbitness”, immutable and firm, instead of regarding each organism as a mere genetic gradient along a distended path of evolutionary change.

In fact, Dawkins does theists a favor. Instead of attributing the parasitoid wasp (its larvae eat caterpillars from the inside out) to a just and loving God, who at least would have to impart this repulsive behavior upon creation, devoting to the impossible conception of such an organism subsisting in paradise, it can be attributed to the callous and rudderless agent of evolution. Dawkins goes so far as to take the unique route of discussing a kind of “theodicy” of evolution. Otherwise, he steers clear of evolution’s impact upon theology, having already discussed it in his previous books.

This may be Biology 101 to those who have read Dawkins in the past, but it also serves the secondary purpose of exposing the basic mistakes that plague even the most advanced works of Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer. Dawkins has also gone the extra length to fortify his book against quote mines, but he still appears to be burdened with the inadequacy of the English language to describe the entire concept of purposeless action.

The pattern of proof he presents is conventional (there are only so many ways to explain the general theory of relativity too): start with recent examples of evolution that have happened “before our very eyes”, such as dog breeding or Richard Lenski’s E. coli experiment, in which the bacteria gained the ability to transport citrate, (another example is HIV, which Steve Jones uses in Darwin’s Ghost) and then show the proof for change over sober amounts of geological time.

In this latter category falls such evidence as the rigorous alignment of fossils in geological layers (there is no rabbit in the Jurassic layer, for instance), whale and amphibian transitional fossils, the mammalian make-up of dolphins, and the way in which evolution modifies what it already has to work with instead of treating each species unburdened from any other, like one would imagine of a designer’s MO. Consider the giraffe, which has so many feet of spaghetti-tangled wiring that it would make an electrician blush. We may be wonderfully made, but sometimes it’s a bang-up job.

Richard Dawkins named his book after a T-shirt which read, “The greatest show on Earth, the only game in town.” Evolution is the only theory that explains the divergence of life on Earth, connecting us all through the necessity and struggle of each form that came before, not by the capricious whim of a designer, but by the motility out of the simple origins of a single-celled organism and into all niches that the planet can support. It is elegant, and it is a virtue to accept it as truth.