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The Greatest Show on Earth

Denis Alexander

Richard Dawkins
Bantam Press, 406pp, ISBN ­­

ReviewsDawkinsIt is good to see Richard Dawkins return to what he's good at: explaining evolutionary theory to a general readership. After The God Delusion we thought that we might have lost Prof. Dawkins forever to theology, but this book restores our faith in Dawkins-the-writer-of-good-popular-science, and long may this restoration continue. Indeed, The Greatest Show On Earth contains only the merest brush with theology, and in that the author must be congratulated for his restraint. On the other hand, there is little restraint towards those why deny evolution, who are here portrayed as history-deniers, similar to those who deny the reality of the holocaust.

Just as insectivorous plants lure their prey into their honey trap, so Dawkins is at his best in drawing the reader into an explanatory web of ideas, illustrated with apt metaphors, that then receive their correct scientific label at a later stage in the argument. In the evolutionary narrative, insects breed flowers for beauty to ensure optimal pollination, but equally the flowers are sculpting the insects for pollination ability.

For the insect, the flower's nectar is the fuel that makes a quick stop-off worth it, for the flower the trick is not to give too much nectar, otherwise the insect will be satiated and so won't bother to go to the next flower, thereby subverting the whole point of the exercise - pollination. But give too little nectar and the insect won't think the trip worthwhile in the first place. So Dawkins introduces the cost-benefit analysis that underlies natural selection, Darwin's 'big idea', as  well as 'co-evolution', involving partnerships in which both sides stand to gain from their mutual interdependence.

In marshalling the powerful evidence for evolution, Dawkins explains how we know the earth is 4.6 billion years old; provides some nice examples of evolution in progress; critiques the mistaken notion of 'missing links' in the evolutionary record - 'Show me your crocoduck!' (and then proceeds to give some very persuasive examples of precisely such 'missing links'); describes the huge amount of fossil data elucidating recent human evolution;  explains how mutational changes in development are critical to understanding the evolutionary process; shows how the distribution of different species on islands can only be coherently understood in the light of evolution; and illustrates with some great examples the way in which living organisms carry within their bodies their own evolutionary history.

Did you know that a horse's hoof is homologous to the fingernail of your middle finger? This also provides a nice example of convergence, the evolution in independent lineages of the same or similar structures. The horses that evolved in North America and their litoptern equivalents in South America (then a separate island) independently evolved exactly the same reduction of all the fingers and toes except the middle ones. For efficient racing on tiptoe, natural selection has come up with the same solution in both cases.

The impact of having an evolutionary history is nowhere more obvious than for the dolphin, one of several mammals that went back to the sea, beating its tail up and down (unlike fish, that swim by beating their tails from side to side), using a placenta, giving birth to live young, suckling them, and having a four-chambered heart, warm blood, and many other mammalian features. As one founder of contemporary evolutionary theory, the Eastern Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky, said in the title of his famous book: Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.

Dawkins is good not merely at describing the evidence for evolution, but also at explaining the molecular mechanisms that underlie the process. We learn that the genome, the sum total of information in an organism's DNA, is like a recipe to build the organism, but not like a blueprint, which could be reconstituted from a detailed knowledge of the final product. We also learn the importance of the 'local rules' that are used to build up complexity in the absence of any 'grand plan' for the organism that eventually emerges: 'Order, organization, structure - these all emerge as by-products of rules which are obeyed locally and many times over, not globally'.

What about theology? Sarcastic swipes at creationism are a consistent feature of the book, with a stringent critique on the notion of God as an intelligent engineering designer. Personally I have never been tempted to worship a heavenly engineer, with no disrespect intended to earthly ones, and Dawkins's very appropriate critique of the notion is aimed particularly at contemporary enthusiasts for Intelligent Design.

The only really close brush with theology comes in a section called 'Evolutionary Theodicy?' where in fact Dawkins is not really concerned with the theological issue of 'theodicy', but in the biological question as to why so much pain should apparently be necessary for higher organisms to take action on intrusions into their well-being. Would a little painless red flag in the brain not do the job just as well? Apparently not, unlike real pain we might just be tempted to ignore it in the context of many conflicting desires. After this reasonable Darwinian explanation, Dawkins cannot resist a side-swipe at a Victorian attempt at real theodicy, ignoring in the process the really important work in this field over the past decade by many philosophers and theologians. When it comes to theology Dawkins cannot bring himself to engage with the ideas of his academic peers.     

It is also a Dawkins trademark that his theological comments - here relegated to footnotes in a tiny font - are often wrong. He takes Leviticus 11:13-19 to task for including a bat in its list of birds, not realising that the Hebrew word translated 'bird' refers to any flying creature. And the Hebrew word translated as 'soul' is not ruah as another foot-note suggests, but nephesh. Curiously his main text is scattered with biblical allusions. It is not quite clear whether this is a deliberate ploy to make the creationist reader feel at home (a vain hope) or, as I rather suspect, that the Bible played such a central role as a literary model in the author's early education that it has continued to inform his style and rich use of metaphors ever since.

But this is not really a book about evolution and theology - for that you will need to look elsewhere. If you want a rather concise compendium of the evidence for evolution organised in a more linear fashion, then you might be better off with Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne. But if you want an entertaining read that covers much of the same ground, but in more expansive style, wandering off into all kinds of fascinating byways along the way, then this book is warmly recommended.

Denis Alexander