The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
by Richard Dawkins
Free Press, 480 pages, $30
The first lesson to be learned from Richard Dawkins’ new book is a purely practical maxim: One should always do what one does best, while scrupulously avoiding those tasks for which neither nature nor tuition has equipped one. This is not, obviously, what one could call a moral counsel; it is merely a counsel of prudence. Another way of saying it would be, try not to make a fool of yourself. Of course, folly is something of a relative judgment. It is often the case, especially in the world of publishing, that the most lucrative course is to do things very, very badly. The richest novelists tend to be those who cannot write; and the more poorly they write, the richer they are likely to become. The most successful purveyors of popular history, popular political polemic, popular religion, popular philosophy, popular atheism—and so on—are those who know only as much about their subjects as is necessary to make a stir and absolutely nothing more. And one has to concede that no other book by Richard Dawkins has sold nearly as well as The God Delusion, his majestically maladroit adventure in the realm of abstract ideas. So, weighing things solely in the balances of financial gain, one should perhaps not be too captious regarding his recent publications on the God question.
Still, there was a time when Dawkins enjoyed a deserved reputation for his contributions to the popular exposition of evolutionary science and theory without yet having acquired his entirely undeserved reputation as a powerful advocate for atheism.
The Selfish Gene, despite occasional propositions of an almost metaphysical variety, is, for the most part, an excellent introduction to one of the more fascinating areas of modern biological science and speculation. And, generally, whenever Dawkins has confined himself to topics within his field of expertise, he has produced well-organized, lucidly written guidebooks to the current scene in the life sciences.
With The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkins has returned to what he does best. He makes occasional mention of subjects he ought not to touch on—Plato, for instance, or the “great chain of being,” or God—with predictable imprecision; but these are only momentary deviations. The purpose of the book is simply to lay out, as clearly as possible, the evidence for the truth of special evolution. It recently occurred to him, he says, that over the years he has written about evolutionary theory but never taken the time to provide his reasons for believing in it for those who have not had the benefit of his training. And this is what he does here, very well, proceeding by discrete steps: the observable plasticity of plant and animal species, the verifiability of macro-evolution, the geological record of the earth’s age, the fossil evidence (including the wealth of fossil remains of intermediate special forms), observable and experimental mutation, morphology, genetics, and so forth. In short, The Greatest Show on Earth is an ideal précis of the evolutionary sciences and the current state of evolutionary theory that can be recommended for the convinced and the unconvinced alike.
Dawkins’ special reason for having written this book, as perhaps need not be said, is his own frustration over the sheer number of persons in the world today who continue to refuse to believe either in special evolution or in its entirely immanent causal mechanisms. Although the book is, for the most part, wholly “positive” in its argument, it is nonetheless explicitly directed toward two targets: young-earth creationists and the intelligent design movement. In regard to the former, of course, he does not really need to expend much energy. After all, ranged against their beliefs is nothing less than the entire universe and every physical datum it comprises. In regard to the latter, however, he does feel the need to exert himself; and, while some of his arguments are solvent enough, others are no more sophisticated than the positions they are meant to refute.
The best argument against ID theory, when all is said and done, is that it rests on a premise—“irreducible complexity”—that may seem compelling at the purely intuitive level but that can never logically be demonstrated. At the end of the day, it is—as Francis Collins rightly remarks—an argument from personal incredulity. While it is true that very suggestive metaphysical arguments can be drawn from the reality of form, the intelligibility of the universe, consciousness, the laws of physics, or (most importantly) ontological contingency, the mere biological complexity of this or that organism can never amount to an irrefutable proof of anything other than the incalculable complexity of that organism’s phylogenic antecedents.
Dawkins does not really make the logical argument, though. Instead, he makes something much more like a deistic argument, although in reverse. He merely inverts the ID equation and confesses his own personal incredulity at the idea that nature—containing so much that is inefficient, ungainly, brutal, wasteful, abortive, and ill-formed—could be the product of a designing intelligence. But this is silly. He starts from an entirely anthropomorphic concept of a designer, presumes the set of values pertinent to such a concept, and then fails to find those values reflected in nature as he perceives it. But that, of course, is not the issue. In any event, I suppose, this is a small complaint.
I should confess, although quite gratuitously, that I derive a certain malicious delight from Dawkins’ consternation at the persistence of young-earth fundamentalism in even the most educated of societies. At one point in The Greatest Show on Earth, he records—at somewhat tedious length—the transcript of an interview he gave to a not very well-informed antievolutionist by the name of Wendy Wright.
Again and again, Wright asserts that there is no fossil evidence of intermediate forms between earlier primates and human beings; and, again and again, Dawkins attempts to disabuse her of this vacuous “mantra” (as he calls it) by pointing out that there certainly is such evidence and by directing her to it, but all to no avail. His answers fly past her without any discernible effect, and she simply repeats her question, over and over. The reason this amuses me, to be honest, is that, whenever he himself turns to philosophical issues, Richard Dawkins is Wendy Wright—or, at least, her temperamental twin.
After all, what makes The God Delusion so frustrating to any reader who has a shred of decent philosophical training and who knows the history of ideas is its special combination of encyclopedic ignorance and thuggish bluster. Repeatedly, Dawkins discusses such issues as Thomas’ “five ways” (which he, as many do, mistakes for Thomas’ chief “proofs” for the “existence” of God); but he never bothers to consult anyone who could explain these issues to him. And he is desperately in need of such explanations, given how utterly bewildered he is on every significant point. He cannot distinguish questions regarding the existence of the universe from questions regarding its physical origin; he does not grasp how assertions regarding the absolute must logically differ from assertions regarding contingent beings; he does not know the differences between truths of reason and empirical facts; he has no concept of ontology, in contradistinction to, say, physics or evolutionary biology; he does not understand how assertions regarding transcendental perfections differ from assertions regarding maximum magnitude; he clumsily imagines that the idea of God is susceptible to the same argument from infinite regress traditionally advanced against materialism; he does not understand what the metaphysical concept of simplicity entails; and on and on. His own pet proof of “why there almost certainly is no God” (a proof in which he takes much evident pride) is one that a usually mild-spoken friend of mine (a friend who has devoted too much of his life to teaching undergraduates the basic rules of logic and the elementary language of philosophy) has described as “possibly the single most incompetent logical argument ever made for or against anything in the whole history of the human race.”
That may be an exaggeration. My friend has spent little time among theologians. But that is neither here nor there. All of these failings would be pardonable if Dawkins were capable of correction. But his habitual response to any concept whose meaning he has not taken the time to learn is to dismiss it as meaningless, with the sort of truculent affectation of contempt that suggests he really knows, at some level, that he is out of his depth.
Anecdotally, I know for a fact that numerous attempts have been made, not to convince him that there is a God, but merely to apprise him of the elementary errors that throng his arguments. Like poor Wendy, he simply does not grasp what he is being told, so engaged is he in repeating over and over the little “mantras” he has devised for himself.
Which only brings me back to where I began. For the most part, The Greatest Show on Earth is an admirable piece of work, one that provides a necessary service as well as—and perhaps better than—any rival text. It is precisely the sort of thing Dawkins does best, and so the sort of thing that is—when he does it—a pleasure to read.
David B. Hart’s most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.