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The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (original 2009; edition 2009)

by Richard Dawkins

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3,107641,820 (4.21)79
Member:FionaCat
Title:The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
Authors:Richard Dawkins
Info:Free Press (2009), Hardcover, 480 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:*****
Tags:nonfiction, science, evolution, Darwinism, natural selection

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The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins (2009)

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Richard Dawkins is obviously a rational, concerned, and passionate man. He sees the great diversity of life as The Greatest Show on Earth, and he is upset that so many people (about 40% in the U.S. and 20% in Britain) are willfully blind to the process that brought it about. I can understand his dismay. It's a bit like bringing some friends to the most wonderful movie you ever saw, and they close their eyes so they can't see it and plug their ears so they won't hear the score. You implore them to look, plead for them to listen, but they simply refuse. How frustrating that would be. Now imagine it's not a movie you want them to see, but something far more important, something real—a fact of life—THE fact of life.

This book is Dawkins' attempt to explain the process of evolution by natural selection to those who apparently do not understand it, especially to those who willfully refuse to understand it. He provides examples, analogies, and summarizes the overwhelming amount of supporting evidence. There are even color pictures. He undoubtedly thinks this will help. He is a rational person, after all.

The Greatest Show on Earth is an excellent summation of what we know about the evolution of life. If the book has a shortcoming, it's that it can't do what he wants it to do. I doubt logic and evidence are capable of swaying the opinions of young Earth creationists. They hold their views based on faith, not on reason, and evidence is entirely beside the point. Creationism isn't amenable to scientific evaluation since it is not a scientific theory, and I found his occasional digressions into refutations of it little more than a distraction from the science he was otherwise explaining so well. Still, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the subject of evolution. I can't see it as being much help to those who aren't interested in it, though.

Dawkins is clearly dismayed that so many people are either ignorant of evolution or refuse to acknowledge that it occurs because of theological presumptions. In fact, he seems almost obsessed with it, but he may be upsetting himself unduly. Yes, opinion polls conducted over the last twenty years or so suggest that about 40% of Americans might be under the impression that life on Earth appeared suddenly in all its current and varied forms less than 10,000 years ago, but so what? Even if everyone believed the whole world popped into existence last Thursday (complete with a full set of false memories and a bunch of annoyingly deceptive fossils) it wouldn't affect reality. Life has evolved and will continue to evolve much as it has done for the last several billion years, whether anyone wants to believe it or not.

We could hope it was otherwise, but cultures change slowly. I'm sure that if a similar poll were conducted a hundred years ago the results would have been far worse. Progress has been made. It just seems stalled among some populations. How long did it take until most people accepted that the Earth orbited the Sun or that continents rode on tectonic plates and shifted position over time? I'm sure there are still people (even a few from industrialized nations) who believe the world is flat. Scientific understanding has never been universal and, for the most part, this hasn't mattered. People can live productive and happy lives without knowing why things are the way they are. A farmer doesn't need to know that axial tilt causes seasons in order for him to grow vegetables. An understanding of how gravity creates tides is not necessary for a fisherman to bring his boat back to the dock. If you think Poseidon causes tides and that seasons shift from spring through winter by divine decree, it doesn't stop them from happening. What does matter is that those who work in scientific fields understand what is actually happening, and this is almost universally the case.

I'm sure Dawkins would agree with this, but I'm also sure he would point out that, in a democracy, scientifically ignorant people can and sometimes do elect scientifically ignorant representatives. Laws and regulations these politicians enact can have negative consequences if they base them on poor or erroneous understandings of the issues at hand. I confess that this also concerns me.

From a political standpoint, Dawkins' concern about people who refuse to accept the simple fact that life evolves has merit, but it points to a more general failure of our culture and of our politicians to adapt to our rapidly expanding knowledge of the universe. A general understanding of science and scientific principles is far more important now than it was a mere century ago because of how much we depend on science and technology in our daily lives. Unfortunately, basic scientific literacy lags far behind what it should be. Without it, we only have unquestioned assumptions, uninformed opinions, and gut feelings to help us make decisions, and these seldom provide a good basis for wise choices.

I'm American, so I would like America to continue to be a leading force in science and technology. A scientifically literate population seems to me to be a necessary precursor of that. But America isn't the world. There are other nations, and some of them seemingly do a far better job of providing a basic scientific understanding to their general populations. This is likely to yield more scientists and engineers, better political decisions, and a greater likelihood of continued technological advancement and economic prosperity. I don't want to sound like a cultural Darwinist, but nations that can adapt their cultures to our growing understanding of the world will prosper. Those that do not won't. If American doesn't lead, some other nation undoubtedly will.

So, whereas opinion polls may be a cause for concern, they don't imply an end to human advancement, and they certainly don't affect how nature actually works. The only real question is how well people and the societies they live in will deal with scientific discoveries that challenge previously held beliefs. Those better able to adapt their worldviews to accommodate new knowledge will have an advantage over those that do not. It's not exactly the same, but this is something like how evolution works.
( )
  DLMorrese | Oct 14, 2016 |
I know you're not supposed to say this about books, generally speaking, but I enjoyed the photographs. They helped to illustrate his points about evolution in a way that helps one better appreciate nature. ( )
  Michael_Rose | Jan 10, 2016 |
I enjoyed this book a great deal but if you are looking for arguments for evolution this isn't the right book , It just guesses that you already know its true without stating any arguments . But its STILL an excellent book to read lots of info on how evolution happens and how long it takes to happen , I would still recommend this book to all of my friends. ( )
  LizzyRachel | Sep 16, 2015 |
Well written book...I enjoyed this book as it walks you through the concepts that most creationists fail to acknowledge or if they do, completely dismiss. Dawkins makes the argument simple by using common facts to get his point across but then takes the time to walk through much of the detail to back the points up. ( )
1 vote gopfolk | Feb 3, 2015 |
This should be used in all high school science classes. ( )
1 vote michael.d.dillon | Dec 22, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 60 (next | show all)
This brings me to the intellectual flaw, or maybe it’s a fault just of tone, in Dawkins’s otherwise eloquent paean to evolution: he has let himself slip into being as dogmatic as his opponents. He has become the Savonarola of science, condemning the doubters of evolution as “history-­deniers” who are “worse than ignorant” and “deluded to the point of perversity.” This is not the language of science, or civility. Creationists insist evolution is only a theory, Dawkins that it’s only a fact. Neither claim is correct.
 
The Greatest Show on Earth is Dawkins on top form: unambiguous, beautifully argued, with prose flowing like quicksilver.
added by jlelliott | editNature, Lawrence D. Hurst (pay site) (Oct 1, 2009)
 
Though he looses a shock-and-awe flurry of evidentiary darts (natural selection, fossil records, molecular biology, and much more), he also mutes some of the shriller tendencies that have unhinged—or at least made hectoring and unlovely—his previous works. The result is a sweeping, wryly joyous case for rationality, empiricism, and no God on this green Earth.
added by Shortride | editThe Atlantic (Oct 1, 2009)
 
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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.
Imagine that you are a teacher of Roman history and the Latin language, anxious to impart your enthusiasm for the ancient world—for the elegiacs of Ovid and the odes of Horace, the sinewy economy of Latin grammar as exhibited in the oratory of Cicero, the strategic niceties of the Punic Wars, the generalship of Julius Caesar and the voluptuous excesses of the later emperors.
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Sifting through rich layers of scientific evidence, Dawkins' "The Greatest Show on Earth" is a stunning counterattack on advocates of "Intelligent Design," explaining the evidence for evolution while exposing the absurdities of the creationist "argument."… (more)

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