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The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
Richard Dawkins transformed our view of God in his blockbuster, The God Delusion, which sold more than 2 million copies in English alone. He revolutionized the way we see natural selection in the seminal bestseller The Selfish Gene. Now, he launches a fierce counterattack against proponents of "Intelligent Design" in his latest New York Times bestseller, The Greatest Show on Earth. "Intelligent Design" is being taught in our schools; educators are being asked to "teach the controversy" behind evolutionary theory. There is no controversy. Dawkins sifts through rich layers of scientific evidence—from living examples of natural selection to clues in the fossil record; from natural clocks that mark the vast epochs wherein evolution ran its course to the intricacies of developing embryos; from plate tectonics to molecular genetics—to make the airtight case that "we find ourselves perched on one tiny twig in the midst of a blossoming and flourishing tree of life and it is no accident, but the direct consequence of evolution by non-random selection." His unjaded passion for the natural world turns what might have been a negative argument, exposing the absurdities of the creationist position, into a positive offering to the reader: nothing less than a master’s vision of life, in all its splendor.
||September 22, 2009|
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236 of 252 found the following review helpful:
Great tutorial on evolution, however there are superior argumentsNov 19, 2009
By Michael Heath
Given the plethora of evolution books published recently, I argue it's imperative to consider this book's worthiness against these other recent publications.
Richard Dawkins' objective with TGSOE is to present his ". . . personal summary of the evidence that the `theory' of evolution is actually a fact - as incontrovertible a fact as any in science." [1st pg. of the Preface]. This appears to make this book an argument for evolution, especially considering the subtitle, "The Evidence for Evolution". This framing also matches exactly to the explicit motivation expressed by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne in his book, Why Evolution Is True.
Having read both I'd recommend Coyne's book if one is looking for an optimal argument on why Science considers evolution a fact and why there are no remaining hypotheses able to challenge evolution as an explanatory model for the evidence or discredit the findings supportive of evolution. It's much more concise, sticks more closely to peer-accepted findings, is more transparent about hedging on explanations where confidence is not yet overwhelming, and presents its findings in a manner easier to understand to someone not well educated in biology.
However, given that I think even the Coyne book falls short on its argument I also recommend molecular biologist Daniel Fairbanks' Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA to provide additional evidence contained within all of life's DNA that evolution is both true and convincingly falsifies all prior arguments made by creationists and intelligent design creationists. Coyne makes an arguable assertion on why he didn't include a specific chapter on the evidence in our DNA though he weaves it into other chapters; I think that missing chapter is why Coyne's book is not a masterpiece. I'll post the link to his argument in the comments section of this review.
What I like about TGSOE and why I still recommend purchasing it is Dawkins' skill as a teacher. I quickly left by the wayside that this book was an argument and instead treated it as a tutorial. What I especially liked about Dawkins' book which makes for a poor argument but a great tutorial is his use of analogies and thinking exercises. Dawkins provides examples not merely because they provide devastating arguments for evolution, but instead because they are teachable moments. His reporting on the guppy and the Lenski experiments were as effective as any of Coyne's examples as arguments. However, Dawkins' distinguishes himself in providing examples that allow the stories and principles to resonate well after having read them. He asks questions, and guides us to how the evidence answers those questions. This makes for a lengthier book than Coyne's, but also helps reinforce the topical matter. The numerous photographs in the book also helped reinforce his examples and were an unexpected surprise.
An example of a powerful teaching moment was that Dawkins starts with how hominids acted as an agent to evolve wolves into an astonishingly broad collection of domestic dog breeds in the blink of evolutionary time. At first I thought this was too simplistic; I was wrong. Dawkins' builds on that reportage by then showing how plants and animals' dependent on those plants each act as agents causing the other to evolve. This eases the beginner (which I'm not though I'm also not an expert) into better appreciating how natural selection works. This initial primer on natural selection is not where it ends, instead Dawkins' excels at teaching natural selection from several aspects in a manner that optimizes retention of the principles discovered and the evidence falsifies other proposed mechanisms. Given the fact this makes for a bigger book than Coyne's, Dawkins' book is superior at taking on topics at a more advanced level. Dawkins begins at an even more elementary level than Coyne does, but then uses chapter after chapter to build upon what was learned in the previous chapter to flesh-out our understanding of evolutionary topics, particularly natural selection, how the variation in our DNA provides a map to our ancestral heritage, and how an intelligent designer is a ludicrous notion once we've understand all the evidence collected to date which not only validates evolution but frequently falsifies the idea of a designer - where the score is an uncountable number of observations for Science to zero for design advocates (which is a primary reason they don't publish in relevant peer-reviewed journals).
Where Dawkins' book suffers is related to his own personal musings. As a tutorial these musings are often but not always instructive. Science is significantly about what to research next given we certainly don't know everything. Dawkins' allows us a peek into where the research is heading. In fact, if you enjoy the chapter about evolutionary development, than I highly recommend adding to your knowledge in this area given it too provides overwhelming evidence for evolution while falsifying creationist/IDC notions, the classic is still biologist Sean B. Carroll's Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo. In addition, scientists as creative thinkers are often thought of as contradictory attributes when in fact it's a necessary element of framing your hypotheses or trying to create reasons to explain surprising data discoveries and then go off and attempt to validate these new notions. Science as a process actually yields more creativity than nearly all other thinking disciplines and Dawkins infers such in many of his musings.
One weakness I found is that Dawkins speculates in areas where the science is already being conducted, e.g., group selection, and the math regarding the number of planets where life could exist. So why waste pages speculating with zero data when he could have instead reported where the efforts were to date and extrapolated from there? In addition Mr. Dawkins can be a somewhat sloppy writer if this were treated like an argument rather than a teacher teaching; opening up opportunities for creationists to dishonestly quote-mine him where he is a preferred target of theirs, e.g., "the fact of our own existence is almost too surprising to bear" on pg. 425 and his other extraordinary reflections not shared by many of his peers.
Such rhetoric is sloppy because creationists often disingenuously attribute something one scientist states as personal opinion as that believed by all scientists. In a perfect world such intellectual dishonesty wouldn't occur and we wouldn't have to worry about how a great teacher's occasionally sloppy rhetoric is twisted to argue the opposite of what both the teacher and his discipline's adherents understand. So if you are a creationist looking to test your faith against what Science understands, the Coyne and Fairbanks' books are far sterner tests and provide less opportunities to avoid confronting the evidence that destroys that faith or at least requires modification if one is honest with oneself. If you want to actually learn and optimize the quality of the teaching where you forgive Dr. Dawkins occasionally lapsing into tangential topics, this book will resonate long after you've finished it and serve as a handy reference guide after your initial read.
I gave the book four rather than five stars primarily because I think he needs to use more research assistants to better footnote his book to more of the evidence he's reporting. While I've encountered nearly all his examples prior to my reading his book and know he's accurate in his reporting (with the exception of his possibly extending the findings in the Lenski experiment), books on controversial subjects should go over-board in citations. He also should have provided more examples from other scientists than his own musings, coupled to his musings not adding much, e.g., I found his zeal for computer programs extraneous to a book serving as a general review of the state of evolution. This adds up to the fact he needs a sterner editor. Given his success in selling prior books, it's not a surprise he was given so much latitude - to a fault I think.
If after the purchase of this book you remain excited about the topic and want to learn more, I recommend at least considering (I haven't read it yet but it's in my queue) getting Carl Zimmer's new book, The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution. Mr. Zimmer is one of our most trusted and respected science writers and is a brilliant communicator of evolution both in his prior books, periodical articles, and his blog. Tangled Bank is a text book focusing strictly on teaching evolution.
184 of 212 found the following review helpful:
Not quite the book I expectedOct 13, 2009
By Dick Marti
As a biologist (and evolutionist), I am one of those who did not need to be convinced by this book. I am already there. So, I was at somewhat of a disadvantage in trying to estimate how this book might affect the average creationist and IDer. One problem is that creationists come in several stripes----and I don't mean the usual division of creationists into young-Earth vs old-Earth etc. I mean the professional creationists such as some clergy (including TV evangelists) and foundation employees etc with a financial or power stake in maintaining creationism vs some people who have an ignorant, but honest, attachment to creationism for what might be called religious reasons (in spite of Dawkins and everything else) vs the hard-core religionists who care not a whit about evidence and who think that "faith" is faith, no matter what the evidence against it. Dawkins probably will not reach the first and third of these groups. Whether he is able to reach the second remains to be seen. Those people with an ignorant but honest attachment to creationism are largely unlikely to read (much less buy) a book such as this. I am at somewhat of a loss to know who this book targets. The Hell-fire and Damnation preachers will just ignore it and go on preaching---they have too much of a good thing in power and money flow to give it up by becoming honest. Dawkins needs to target the mainline Christian clergy. But then, who goes to church to listen to sermons on evolution?
As for the book itself, it took me a while to get used to the chatty style, mostly in first person, that characterizes Dawkin's later books. What Dawkins presents is only PART of "The Evidence for Evolution". He mentions once or twice that he had to jettison discussion on some point or another that would have added to the discussion (and to the length of the book). But if there is a lot of evidence, why not present all of it? He leaves out, for example, the embryologic evidence for skeletal homologies. Basically he only presents pictures of several skeletons and expects hard-core creationists to accept that bone X in a bat is homologous to bone X in a whale, etc. The creationist would say they these bones only appear to be homologous because are used in similar ways. Show the embryologic homologies and even the DNA evidence and the case is unassailable (to an honest mind). But Dawkins does not do this. Also, he does not present a detailed discussion of branchial arch homologies in fish and higher vertebrates. It may be mentioned (I don't recall), but a full discussion would have been unanswerable. Ditto for jaw and earbone homologies. Dawkins did not discuss retroviruses and missed a big opportunity there. Perhaps he thought that at some point he had reached overkill. I think the book is approximately a 90% effort, with too much good stuff left out.
500 of 607 found the following review helpful:
Evolution is a Fact and Dawkins Proves it!Sep 23, 2009
By John W. Loftus
Usually authors will start out their writing careers making a general case on behalf of something, and then later deal with the specific objections as they arise. But not Richard Dawkins. As the leading prolific evolutionary author in our generation he finally got around to writing the book that many authors would've written first, this one. Since up until now he has not set forth the evidence for evolution as a whole, he calls this book "my missing link" in his chain of books, and it's long overdue.
Taking the title from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Dawkins begins by asking us to imagine what it would be like to be a European history teacher who is "continually faced with belligerent demands to give equal time" in his classes to Holocaust deniers. To him that would be what it's like to teach the scientific fact of evolution around the world, especially in America, where 40% of us deny that humans evolved from other animals and who claim instead we were all created as distinct species not more than 10,000 years ago. Just like the Holocaust deniers these people are "history-deniers" too. The antidote to that kind of ignorant thinking is this present work, which presents "the positive evidence that evolution is a fact" (p.6). Many bishops and theologians embrace evolution as a fact, even if some of them accept it begrudgingly.
Who is he trying to reach? The creationist "history-deniers" themselves, but more importantly those who find themselves inadequately prepared to argue the case for evolution (p. 8).
He claims: "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, more distant cousins still of aardvarks and manatees, yet more distant cousins of bananas and turnips...continue the list as long as desired...It didn't have to be true, but it is. 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).
These are very large claims he's making. Are they justified? Yes, I think so. I challenge the creationists to place this comprehensively argued book, which is illustrated by many diagrams and glossy full colored pictures, next to what a few ancient superstitious people wrote in the Bible and see which one makes the most sense. My bet is that if believers are truly interested in the facts they will see evolution is indeed a fact.
Dawkins knows how to communicate, he knows where to begin his case with dog breeding, and he knows science. It's practically all here within the pages of this book. The reason why we don't see evolutionary change is because it takes place slowly over generations, but dog breeders can do it quickly and efficiently. "Every breed of dog," Dawkins writes, "from dachshund to Dalmatian, from boxer to borzoi, from poodle to Pekinese, from Great Dane to Chihuahua, has been caved, chiseled, kneaded, moulded, not literally as flesh and bone but in its gene pool....The relevance to natural evolution is that, although the selecting agent is man and not nature, the process is otherwise the same." (p. 34).
With regard to flowers, birds and insects make these changes rather than humans, naturally, not artificially, just like the wind did before them: "Hummingbird eyes, hawk-moth eyes, butterfly eyes, hoverfly eyes, bee eyes are critically cast over wild flowers, generation after generation, shaping them, colouring them, swelling them, patterning and stippling them, in almost exactly the same way as human eyes later did with our garden varieties; and with dogs, cows, cabbages and corn." (p. 52). And he asks us: "If so much evolutionary change can be achieved in just a few centuries or even decades, just think what might be achieved in ten or a hundred million years?" (p. 37).
To believers who object that the earth isn't old enough Dawkins marshals overwhelming evidence that it is billions of years old, along with evidence piled upon still more evidence to show evolutionary development of life on earth is indeed the greatest show on earth, and he is clearly in awe of it.
There are a few great books on evolution but this is a superior book long overdue by today's leading communicator of science. You should get it and think through it, especially if you're a "history-denier." Face the evidence and then change your beliefs. It's the intellectually honest thing to do. Then you too will thank Dawkins like so many of us have for his writing in these areas.
418 of 507 found the following review helpful:
A good book, but didn't live up to its subtitleSep 29, 2009
By The Agnostic Apatheist
This book is the latest among a long list of evolutionary texts by Dawkins. By his own admission, this book differs from his previous works. While his other books assume the truth of evolution, and thus, sought to answer specific and common criticisms against evolution (often espoused by creationists), this is the first time Dawkins has attempted to lay out the actual evidence for its acceptance by the scientific community.
His book was well written, articulated in a readable style, and quite enjoyable. In fact, I found it difficult to put the book down. Dawkins provides a good general view of why scientists accept evolution and a good case for the plausbility of natural selection as the vehicle for adaptive change. However, I do have some criticisms of his book, which prevented me from giving it 5 stars, especially if I view it from the mindset of a biblical literalist (a view I once shared many decades ago... and these are the people who need the most convincing).
My number one complaint is that he did not provide much in evidence, and where he did provide evidence it was short on detail. For instance, in Chapter 2, Dawkins mentions that all dog breeds are descended from the wolf. Similarly, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and other commonly distinct vegetables today are all descendants of the wild cabbage. While this might seem evident to the scientifically literate, if you don't accept evolution, you might need some convincing to show that this is true. But he doesn't provide evidence or even an explanation of how we know that dogs descended from wolves or broccoli from cabbage. He merely asserts this as evidence and then moves on to chapter 3, which concerns natural selction.
In chapter 3, he discusses flowers and insects (and birds) and presents this as evidence for evolution (specifically by natural selection). But he doesn't provide much explanation of how we know this to be true. For instance, why should we conclude that this arrangement between pollen producing flower and pollinating insect to be the result of co-evolution? How do we know that the pollen producing flower was not always the way it is and that the pollinating insect was not always the way it is and that these two merely "found" or discovered one another, in essence, falling into and exploiting a niche that was always present? [This might seem crazy, but this was actually used in an argument by a creationist]
Another criticism. He was careful to define the distinction between a scientific theory and a mere hypothesis or conjecture. Yet through much of the first few chapters of his book, he is short on evidence and long on speculation. For instance, he mentions the Heika japonica crab, with the resemblance of a samurai warrior on the back of its shell. While Carl Sagan states that this was the result of natural selection, Dawkins states it probably was not; it was likely coincidence. But this very case has often been cited as evidence for evolution (by selection). Is this evidence of evolution or not? And if not, then why is Dawkins' mentioning this in his book. If anything it calls into question how we determine that something is the result of evolution (and therefore qualified as evidence), as opposed to coincidence or something else? From this example, it seems almost arbitrary.
His review of the fossil record is compelling but rehashes the same information presented in other books. And he doesn't explain how we know that the discovered fossils represent a history of the same clad, as opposed to distinct, unrelated organisms. This is particularly important since we are often comparing fossils from different time periods, from different geographical locations, and don't have access to the entire skeletal remains (let alone genetic information) of the organisms that we are claiming are descended from one another. For example, how do we know that we aren't merely pattern seeking when we look at Pakicetus, Ambulocetus, and Basilosaurus? Or Australopithecus and Homo? Moreover, he spends most of the chapter on human evolution explaining why paleontologists feud over the specific genus (or species) of particular fossils and why such arguments would be predicted under evolution precisely because they represent intermediates. But his explanation could've been condensed into 1 paragraph. It would've been far better if he spent the time to present more evidence among the mountains of evidence that are claimed to exist.
His chapter, "You did it yourself in nine months", was spent explaining by analogy that matter is capable of self assembly from the bottom-up, rather than a top-down approach as espoused by creationists. He presents his hypothesis that this is possible via "local rules" and uses the analogies of the starling and origami as examples, but this is not evidence. In fact, while analogy can clarify and improve understanding, it does not constitute evidence. Dawkins forgets that the "local rules" are functioning from a template coded in our genome. Thus, can we truly say that it is the "local rules" that create the appearance of design when a recipe is necessary for determining these "local rules"? He needs to show that the genome is capable of self assembly by local rules and that a complex organism can be created from this base. While he implies that possibility during his discussion of viruses, he does not provide much detail. Thus, the reader is left unconvinced and with more questions. Thus, if you get to this point, you will have read 50% of the book and realize that much of the book has been devoted to explanation, speculation, hypotheses, and very few presentation of actual evidence. He uses computer models to illustrate or make his points. But once again, while these models may help explain concepts, they do not constitute evidence.
The last few chapters of the book are better (beginning around page 285), but by this time he's likely to have lost most of his readers, that is, those who have not already accepted evolution prior to reading this book.
My final criticism is in regard to his reference section. Most good books concerning scientific topics contain plenty of references to primary articles. But there are very few primary articles listed in this book. In fact, you'll find more scientific literature referenced in a pop diet book than here. And I am not joking! Go to a bookstore and look at the "Notes" section of Dawkins' book yourself. He does include a bibliography, but most of the entries represent secondary or tertiary sources. This doesn't mean the information is inaccurate, but it would've been nice to have citations to primary sources for those wanting to do further research.
There are some experiments mentioned in the book (rather clever ones too), but given the fact that evolutionists are always touting the volumes of evidence (and not just from fossils) for the fact of evolution, I was disappointed to find that only a handful are mentioned in the book. As mentioned earlier, most of the book is either providing background information (about rudimentary chemistry or biology), providing explanation, or tearing down common creationist arguments or criticisms against evolution, rather than focusing on positive evidence favoring evolution. Moreover, Dawkins practically ignores the evidence from molecular biology and glosses over genetics.
In short, Dawkins writes his book as if he is talking to a fellow evolutionist (preaching to the choir). But such a person does not need convincing or evidence of evolution. You can merely point or mention the "obvious" and expect the person to understand. You don't need to go into detail or explain much. On the other hand, if you do not accept evolution or require convincing, then you will likely find that Dawkins assumes too much and does not provide sufficient data or detail as to why evolution is the best explanation for the observations under discussion.
Needless to say, I was disappointed with the book since it failed to live up to its subtitle - "The Evidence for Evolution". A more apt title would've been "The Plausbility of Evolution". He makes a good case for the reasonableness of evolution but does not provide much compelling evidence. If you are a creationist contemplating whether there is sufficient evidence for evolution, you will not be convinced by reading this book. Two far superior books (that provide better and more compelling evidence) can be found in "Why Evolution is True" and "Making of the Fittest". It isn't that Dawkins' book is bad; it provides sufficient information (on a high level) to be useful and entertaining, but don't expect it to arm you for a debate with a creationist or use it as a reference. And don't expect your creationist friend to read it and walk away a convert.
44 of 54 found the following review helpful:
I THOUGHT I didn't need another book on evolution, but was WRONG!Nov 30, 2009
By Louie's Mom
About 20 years ago I started reading Stephen Jay Gould's essay collections. Then I discovered the work of Carl Zimmer and Neil Shubin and other evolutionary biologists. When this book came out I didn't intend to buy it as I have so many books on evolution and keep up with biology news. I went ahead and ordered it thinking that if there was nothing new in it I could always give it to a friend.
What a surprise! This book is a great overview of the subject - including very recent fossil discoveries in China as well as the standard subjects - radioactive dating, fossils, DNA evidence, etc. Somewhere along the way I had forgotten how the radioactive dating clock starts and Dawkins gives a very lucid explanation that will stay with me now. He also references other good books such as Shubin's "Your Inner Fish" and Coyne's "Why Evolution is True."
If you aren't teaching biology or natural history, this is a good refresher that will doubtless have some new info that you will find intriguing. If you don't know much about evolution and natural selection this book is the best one out there for an overview.
I'll be keeping this book.
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