To begin, I’ll note that my first “reading” of The Greatest Show on Earth was of the audio book version. I highly recommend experiencing the book in this way. The book is read by Dawkins himself, as well as his wife Lalla Ward. Throughout the audio book Dawkins and Ward read the book in a conversational and engaging tone that make the science accessible and the experience enjoyable. The audio book includes an enhanced CD with a PDF containing many of the images from the book. The images are excellent and referenced throughout the reading. When I got the paperback version of the book I noticed that there were a few more images that were not included in the PDF but they came as a nice surprise and didn’t degrade my view of the audio book in the least.
Inside of my first semester as a biology student (these were the early days of my Christian walk as well) I was confronted with the famous assertion from the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky that “Nothing in biology makes sense but in the light of evolution.” While not referencing Dobzhanky directly The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins demonstrates the evidence for the claim in the famous quote. Any budding biology student would be well served by reading The Greatest Show on Earth as a prerequisite to his or her coursework but the book is also instructive to Christians who are interested in exploring the continuity between their faith and the science of Evolution.
Dawkins begins by explaining how this book differs from his previous writings on evolution. Dawkins describes how earlier works explained natural selection and removed stumbling blocks to its acceptance but never explicitly laid out the evidence for evolution as a whole. The intention of this book is to present the positive evidence for evolution.
Dawkins’ described need for this book goes beyond filling a gap in his professional repertoire. Dawkins describes the increasing hostility toward evolution by influential church groups, namely those that hold to a young earth creation (YEC) perspective. In his strongest and potentially most offensive affront to YECs, he likens those who maintain a denial of evolution to holocaust deniers and their determined defiance of history in the face of overwhelming evidence. Dawkins asserts that the evidence for evolution is just as strong if not stronger than that of the holocaust and methodically lays out that evidence through 13 chapters and dozens of illustrations, photographs and figures.
While Dawkins is clearly writing in opposition to the YEC perspective his approach is far more educational than militant. Dawkins begins his crash course of evolution by addressing the term theory and its varied scientific and cultural meanings. Dawkins emphasizes that the term theory is challenging in itself because the word can have two very distinct, and even contradictory, meanings. In one sense (the scientific sense) a theory is a scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation of a group of facts or phenomenon. This explanation is confirmed by a wide range of experimental and observational data and is accepted as accounting for the known facts. In a second sense a theory is a proposed, speculative explanation that is not widely accepted.
Dawkins goes on to articulate why evolution is a theory in the first scientific sense. To do this he draws a comparison to the heliocentric theory that explains the size and position of the sun in the solar system. Dawkins asserts that when Creationists refer to the theory of evolution as “only a theory” they are either being mischievous or completely blind to the weight and significance the term theory carries in scientific terms.
The evidence for evolution begins in earnest in the second chapter and carries on through the 12th. Dawkins adopts a familiar and useful approach for initiating his explanations. Dawkins starts with artificial selection as an explanatory analogue to natural selection, then moves on to the subject of time and the various methods available for dating objects and the earth itself.
By introducing his readers to the successes and strategies used in artificial selection by breeders of dogs, roses and cabbage, Dawkins creates a bridge by which the reader can recognize the logic and efficacy of natural selection as the driving force of evolution. Dawkins describes how breeders mold their subjects (dogs, roses, cabbage) into the shapes, sizes, colors, etc. that they want by selecting for desired traits. This selection process is possible because of the inherent variation in all individuals. In any population of dogs there will be some individuals with big ears and some with small ears. If the breeder wants to make a long eared dog they simply select the long eared dogs for breeding. In this way the long ear trait survives in the next generation. Dawkins compares this process of artificially selecting for desirable traits by a breeder with the natural selection process that drives evolution.
Dawkins asserts that the process of natural selection is identical to artificial selection except that traits are “selected” by their ability to help an individual survive and reproduce offspring. In the case of natural selection, a breeder is not necessary because the advantageous traits are automatically selected when they help an individual survive and therefore pass on those traits to the next generation. Advantageous traits will continue to accumulate in the population over time and result in a gradual change of that population.
With a similar softening approach Dawkins starts with the science of dendrochronology to introduce the concept of time and the vast spans of it necessary for evolution by natural selection to take place. Dendrochronology is basically the science of tree ring counting. If you have ever counted the rings of a tree in order to estimate its age you have been an amateur dendrochronologist. What’s important about the tree ring method is that it has physical markers placed at regular intervals for counting. Dawkins goes on to show that methods such as radiometric dating are reliable because, like tree ring counting, they provide physical markers placed at regular intervals that are available for counting.
It is easy for young children to age a tree by counting the rings but it can be hard for even a well educated lay person to understand the isotopes and decay rates necessary for dating the oldest parts of the Earth. Dawkins allows his readers to understand more challenging scientific ideas that could be barriers to accepting the validity of evolution by first bridging them to more simple science concepts. This is where the brilliance of Dawkins as an educator shines and is a characteristic that is persistent throughout The Greatest Show on Earth.
Dawkins continues to bolster the case for evolution by addressing topics such as observing evolution in the lab, the fossil record and “the missing link”, developmental forces as a means for diversification, plate tectonics, phylogeny, and homologous structures and genetics. Throughout the text the case for evolution is strengthened by the science that is described.
While Dawkins stated in the preface that this book was not intended to draw people away from religion (he’d already written that book many times over) he’s not shy about pointing out the problems with a creationist perspective throughout the book and more specifically in the last two chapters. In the final two chapters Dawkins addresses the appearance of a designer and other issues such as pain, significance, and beginnings. To many Christian readers this could come off as an attack on faith and might even distract them from the science that is articulated throughout the book. I’m tempted to say that I wish the book would have been written just as it is but by a Christian author who could articulate the science while connecting with a Christian audience. (The Language of God by Francis Collins is a great book that is unapologetic about the science of evolution while intercalating a Christian worldview). However on further consideration I think facing Dawkins’ critical perspective of creationist dogma can be an opportunity for a mature Christian reader to understand and review his/her own beliefs.
Ben Sonquist is a teacher at STARBASE Minnesota, an educational non-profit in St. Paul Minnesota. Themmission of STARBASE is to inspire young people to pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). He graduated from Augsburg College in Minneapolis with a BA in both Biology and Education. Ben serves at his church (Faith Baptist Church) as the co-chair of the Christian Education Board and teaches Sunday school classes for adults and youth on a regular basis. For two school years, from 2005-2006, he and his wife Amy led the youth group at Faith Baptist as the interim minister of youth. Ben is currently working with his pastor on a book project. The project is geared toward teens and seeks to communicate the cohesiveness of Biblical and scientific world views. Ben and his wife Amy live in Minneapolis with their three boys. His blog is: http://resolution-kelvin2514.blogspot.com/