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The Greatest Show on Earth (Richard Dawkins) A Book Review

The Greatest Show on Earth (Richard Dawkins)


A Book Review


 


Sean McDowell


 


I love a good challenge. I would much rather read a difficult book that makes me think deeply about my convictions than one that provokes little thought. This is why I eagerly anticipated the release of The Greatest Show on Earth, by Richard Dawkins.


 


With The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable, River Out of Eden, and many more, Dawkins has established himself as one of the foremost contemporary defenders of Darwinian evolution. As soon as a copy of his book arrived at my doorstep, I enthusiastically opened the Amazon.com box and jumped right into the book, hoping to be challenged to take another hard look at the evidence for evolution.


 


With this background information in mind, it's difficult to express how disappointed I was at the demeaning rhetoric and lack of substance that characterizes The Greatest Show on Earth.


 


First off, Dawkins utterly refuses to engage with any serious evolution skeptics. He ignores the work of Jonathan Wells (Ph.D. from UC Berkeley), Stephen Meyer (Ph.D. from Cambridge), and William Dembski (double Ph.D. in math and philosophy). They have raised substantive questions for the mechanism of Darwinian evolution. Rather than responding to their critiques, Dawkins sets up countless straw man arguments and focuses solely on young-earth creationists (and not even the leaders among them!).


 


Now, either Dawkins is unaware of their work, or he chooses to ignore it. The charitable response would be to assume he's simply unaware of the revolution in Christian philosophy, and the intelligent design movement. But this is hard to believe. Dawkins has refused to debate William Lane Craig, Stephen Meyer and many other leading Protestant thinkers. Dawkins is content to pick on arguments from decades ago rather than dealing with the current state of the debate. He is banking that most of his readers will not catch on. Sadly, he's probably right.


 


This is especially ironic since he castigates evolution skeptics for not fully understanding evolutionary theory: "It would be so nice if those who oppose evolution would take a tiny bit of trouble to learn the merest rudiments of what it is that they are opposing" (155). It's a shame Dawkins ignores his own advice.


 


Dawkins claims the evidence is so strong for evolution that doubters are "ignoramuses" that can be compared to Holocaust-deniers. On page 9, Dawkins says, "No reputable scientist disputes it." How can he say this? Since 2001, over 800 Ph.D. scientists have signed the "Dissent from Darwin" list, agreeing with the following statement: "We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged." Why don't these scientists count? After all, some are from institutions such as MIT, Cambridge, Princeton, UCLA and many more. This example is indicative of what seems to be Dawkins approach in the book: state your views as strongly as you can and completely ignore substantive challenges.


 


My second criticism of Dawkins book is that he fails to advance any new evidence for evolution. He points to poor design (dysteleology), biogeography, vestigial structures, the fossil record, homology, and more of the same old arguments evolutionists have been proclaiming for years (William Dembski and I respond to most of these in our book Understanding Intelligent Design). I realize this may not be his point, since he is aiming for a lay audience, but it needs to be pointed out, especially in light of how strong he says the evidence for evolution really is. Consider one example of how his case is remarkably one-sided.


 


Dawkins approvingly cites Jerry Coyne (author of Why Evolution is True), who says that the evidence for biogeography so strongly favors evolution that he has never even seen a creationist attempt to answer it (p. 283). He obviously hasn't actually read many creationist books. As always, there is another side to the story. The biogeographical evidence does seem to indicate that organisms (finches, mockingbirds, etc.) have adapted to their unique environments. But this provides little substantive proof for Darwin's grand claim that ALL organisms trace back to a common ancestor through a process of natural selection acting on random mutation. Most evolution skeptics accept the biogeographical evidence; they just question its significance.


 


The biogeographical evidence indicates that organisms experience a loss of genetic mutation from populations that were isolated through migration or some other natural circumstance. Thus, the biogeographical distribution of species is not the result of new biological information appearing in a particular species (which is what macroevolution requires), but the shuffling or elimination of pre-existing genetic information. While Darwin's theory can explain minor biological adaptations within existing organisms, it cannot explain how mockingbirds-or any other organism-first appeared.


 


Much more could be said about The Greatest Show on Earth. Overall, it felt like Dawkins could have cut the book (437 pages) down by about two-thirds without losing any key material. He goes on multiple tangents that, at times, made it hard to follow his reasoning. Overall, I can't really recommend his book to anyone. Skeptics are better off looking elsewhere for quality material (Why Evolution is True, by Jerry Coyne is a good place to start). Seekers should look elsewhere, so at least they know they are reading someone who is engaging with all the evidence. And evolution-skeptics can find much better challenges to their views.


 


After reading The God Delusion, I should have known better than to eagerly anticipate the release of Dawkins' next book. But my enthusiasm got the best of me. That definitely won't happen again.