The Greatest Show on Earth

By Richard Dawkins

First, let me say that I am neither a Creationist, nor an ID'er.

Why do I have to say this?

Because as soon as you say, "But I have a question about evolution," you are told you are a Creationist or an IDer, or a "history denier." (This last is particularly artful, as it lumps you in with "holocaust deniers" and other evil-crazies in one short phrase.)

This tendency toward dismissive pejorative certainly is the case with biologist and writer, Richard Dawkins, and certainly is the case in this book in defense of the theory of evolution.

And this is just one of three major problems with this audio-book version of this work - his insistence that if you don't accept "Darwinism" lock, stock and smoking gun, you are most certainly a religious robo-person who doesn't understand science. There's a nice place to start an intelligent discussion, huh?

Second, Dawkins does himself no favors by reading is own work. He has a breathy, prissy, condescending delivery that does nothing to advance his ideas with a questioning reader (listener), and the woman with whom he shares the reading of the book has likewise been encouraged to be snide and condescending about any objections to the "fact" of "ee-vo-lew-shun."

Finally, while the book is remarkably detailed, the details don't add up to a sound refutation of serious questions and objections, and often amount to nothing more than repeating the same snarky comment over and over and over. For example, a fair-enough question about macro-evolution is: where are the intermediaries? He dismisses this question as stupid. (Ok, call me stupid...) He makes fun of people whom he insists don't understand that we are not descended from monkies. (Seriously, this misunderstanding of the theory of evolution among thoughtful and educated people only existed in Darwin's own day. Today, most people understand that notion of divergence, and a common ancestor for all animal species.) But he is at pains to go on, and on, and believe me, ON about "elecies," and monkphers" and whatever other silly name combinations he thinks are amusing, to drive home the point that you have to be really ignorant to think you're going to find an "intermediary" between any two existing animals.

The truth is, except for a seriously fringe element who believes that the earth is only 6000 years old, most educated people today accept the notion of micro-evolution (changes in a species over time), adaption (adjustments to a species based on environmental pressure and fortunate mutation) and natural selection (the "survival of the fittest" notion that those animals best suited to survive under a given set of circumstances will most likely reproduce and pass on those traits to offspring).

Where natural selection is concerned, it's of course the case that what constitutes "fittest" will vary greatly depending on when and where the specific individuals live: for example, over time, humans have evidently been selected for the ability to retain fat. Most of human history has been that of starvation, so human beings who could survive deprivation were more likely to live and thrive and reproduce (in fact, women don't even ovulate successfully without a certain percent of body fat!). Now, however, this trait causes morbidity - but unfortunately, not until after the individuals have already successfully reproduced - passing along the so-called "fat sparing" gene.

But all of that doesn't answer the most profound question that remains for what Dawkins calls "history deniers," but whom I would prefer to call questioners. And that is: where are active examples of macro-evolution today?

Dawkins devotes quite a bit of ink to the idea that we have bred dogs over literally milennia, and have succeeded in "designing" all manner of breeds of dogs: long snouts, short snouts, big tails, sweet temperaments, water loving, etc., in just a very short (relative to the age of the earth) time.  And he says, "and they all sprang from the wolf." What doesn't seem to matter to him is that with all this selective - and amped up - natural selection, two facts remain: none of the results are not-dogs, and all of the results can still interbreed with wolves. So, while he sees the many and varied breeds of dogs as demonstration of "ee-vo-lew-shun" right before our very eyes," I see anything but. I still want to see something on its way from being a dog to being a different species.

Another example he digs into in a lot of detail is some bacteria that were purposefully allowed to reproduce over 45,000 generations in an environment of controlled food source (sugar). Over time, the bacteria that could use sugar most efficiently reproduced more than those who could not. (We presume that were there unlimited food resources, this gene wouldn't have been favored as all bacteria would be reproducing equally successfully.) He again concludes, "ee-vo-lew-shun right before our very eyes," and again I'm left scratching my head and saying, "But they're still bacteria; they have not changed into something non-bacteria; they have done nothing they could not do before, nor stopped doing something they did before. They haven't developed eyes or even begun to process other substances as food. They are just doing what they always could more efficiently."

He does, however - and after listening to him for a while, it's difficult to grant him points because he is so prissy and snarky - make a few very excellent points:  one is that as we compare the fossils in geologically equal strata of rock, we find that these fossils are similar - that is, they exist in time according to a now-predictable pattern, and we do not (ever) find human fossils or bones in the Pre-Cambrian era, for example. Thus one thing we do know is that before a certain point in time, we find no remains from certain species. This certainly tells us that all life did not spring into being (however that may have happened) at once: humans and dinosaurs and eophippus were not all walking around at the same time.

What it does not  tell us is why certain fossils do suddenly start appearing, with no apparent predecessor. If evolution is to be believed, we must also believe that it is a relatively gradual process, during which mutations and external pressures cause life forms to alter, ultimately drastically, moving toward a variety of species with features and functions so totally different that they cannot even interbreed. Shouldn't there be some indication of this happening?

He also approaches the so-called Cambrian explosion with the same dismissive snideness.

This is another troubling event in the fossil record. Suddenly - and Richard points out that "suddenly" means about 20 million years - there is a flowering of life forms - literally, an "explosion" of diverse life on earth. His explanation for why this does not raise questions for the theory of evolution is that 20,000,000 years is not a short period of time! Wait a second... put into the context of the putative age of the earth (4.5 billion years), 20 million years is only .004 of the entire life of the earth. Yes, indeed, a blip. A "moment." Roughly the equivalent of 4 months of the average 75 year life span.

That is to say, if evolutionary theory explains the questions of complexity by saying, "Do you realize how long this has been going on? Each step is gradual, each adaptation minute, even invisible," then how do they explain this sudden - yes, sudden, in geological terms - flowering of complex life forms on earth, that, at least according to the fossil record, appear to have sprung out of nowhere, completely, complexly, formed? If, even 20 million years ago, Creature A did not exist, and then 20 million years later it does, this means that (to put it in terms we can relate to) a fully formed, complex life form was not here 4  months ago, and now is (in human lifespan terms), and that creature sprang from a single-celled organism. It's a question that serious scientists should deal with seriously.

Then there is the issue of so-called "irreducible complexity." And again, Dawkins' absolute refusal to explain why this is such a stupid idea. He's happy to say it's a stupid idea, just not so happy to say why.

Irreducible complexity is the idea that a life form's system or body part exists only for the purpose it is performing, and can't be explained as having gotten as it is because of a series of logical steps, each of which had a reason for being, and could sensibly have then undergone an adaptation or mutation which resulted in the present function.

Think of the famous giraffe's long neck hypothesis: according to this idea, environmental pressure was put on proto-giraffe's because food sources were more abundant on the higher branches of trees that the animals browsed. So, those animals with greater reach ate more, reproduced more, passed on their longer-necked genes, and over time, giraffes all had very long necks. Ok, that makes sense.

Note, however, that the neck didn't go from being not there at all to there. But that's another story...

Now, take an eye. According to Dawkins, we are to accept as obvious the idea that in the single-cell or perhaps amoeba-like early life form, there was no eye. One day, a random mutation zapped some of the cells and the result was a patch of cells that were chemically light sensitive.

Now, according to the "rules" of evolution, a random mutation that favored that individual's reproductive success would then be passed down to more individuals, and as the trait is passed down, further random mutations would effect this trait, altering it still more, until, over millenia, the body system would go from nothing to a very sophisticated body part that performs a very specific function - and no other. That is to say, eyes are not adapted alimentary canals, or specialized skin.

The problem is, all the examples Dawkins gives of how this works start with a body part that is already functioning as such. He talks about frogs whose skin is "wired" to be belly skin or back skin, and when a patch of this skin is repositioned (belly skin is move to the back, or back skin to the belly), the frogs will still behave as if the repositioned belly skin is on their belly, and vice versa. See, he says, how it works?

Uh, no. In fact, I'm kind of seeing exactly the opposite - the skin almost seems to be determined to stay what it is, rather than adjust based upon new circumstances.

When all else fails, Dawkins uses the argument vis a vis irreducible complexity that only a robo-religious uneducated non-scientist would even ask such a question, so... go ahead, schmuck, ask it.

Another point that is made almost in passing - but which for me was a valuable point is Dawkins' discussion of geographical distribution. He uses this observation - that similar animals can be found worldwide, and yet other animals are found in isolated pockets on this or that continent only. He says there are two explanations for this: evolution and continental drift.

Evolution, of course, accounts for why we would find different, non-interbreeding animals spread out across the planet. But as to why we would find monkeys, for example, at all in South America as well as Africa - well, that can be explained by the fact that again, over a long, long period of time, and imperceptibly slowly, the single continental mass that once existed has broken apart into multiple continents, isolating the animals on that continent from others of its original "kind." Hence, similarities, but differences.

Of course, one could still argue that all of creation (wink, wink) started out on the original, primordial continent, and then as the animals became trapped and isolated on individual, smaller land masses, they eventually adapted in size and specifics to their specific environments - but that monkeys are still monkeys, and worms are still worms. And there are no elephants in South America (though oddly, there is some evidence that somebody chiseling artwork into the ancient buildings of South and Central America once saw an elephant - but that's another story!) not because they evolved but because they only got trapped in Africa and the Asian sub-continent.

It almost seems as though Dawkins would like us to accept that if you don't "believe" in macro-evolution, you aren't allowed to believed in Pangia, either.

In fact, "believe" is an important word. Dawkins, in fact, uses this expression when referring to one's position relative to the theory of evolution. You "believe" it or you don't. I find the word "believe" to be a bit strange in the context of a scientific theory; it seems to me that the word has a great deal more to do with Gods and fairies and the existence of the immortal soul than with hard science. It has to do with concepts which for which we lack - and may always lack - proof. Whereas science is all about evidence, proof, knowledge. Just as with evolution - imagine that!  - in any branch of science,  facts and discoveries are added by accretion to our body of knowledge on any topic until one day, imperceptibly, we reach a more or less inescapable conclusion.

Dawkins is absolutely determined that we are "there" with evolution; I feel that his book has failed to answer legitimate questions. The answers to these questions may very well exist in the body of scientific knowledge, but Dawkins has not provided them.

I am not arguing for "creationism." I am critiquing Dawkins book as not explaining perfectly understandable questions, and instead taking the increasingly popular position of, "I won't deign to even address such a stupid question; if you weren't so ignorant you wouldn't even ask such a stupid question. The only reason you're asking this question is that you are a religious zealot and you are not a scientist. Haha. I dismiss you."


Mahlon Wagner said…
Hello Nancy,
For quite a while I have enjoyed reading your columns. But your most recent column on "evolution" moved me to write to you. It is most unfortunate that you were exposed to the writings of Richard Dawkins. As you so rightly point out, he is arrogant and has no time to rationally discuss a most important topic.

I have followed the discussions on evolution (and creationism/ID) for more than 40 years. Recently I gave an invited lecture on this topic in Germany and I purposely asked how many of the skeptics in attendance "BELIEVED" in evolution. Many raised their hands. Of course, this was a trick question. You correctly noted that Dawkins used "belief" incorrectly. When ever I am asked, I always say I don't "believe" in evolution. I say that I simply follow the evidence.

There are many good, honest, sincere scientists who write about this topic much more clearly and sympathetically than Dawkins. One very good place to begin is The National Center for Science Education. Their director, Eugenie Scott has spoken in Syracuse in recent years, and she has also written many excellent articles and books on the topic. Another excellent author is Kenneth Miller, a professor of biology. And here is a reference to him:

The questions you pose are quite legitimate areas for science and some of them have been answered in detail. Sadly, Dawkins doesn't want to deal with such questions from sincere people.
Again, I always enjoy your columns.
Mahlon Wagner
Professor Emeritus of Psychology (SUNY--Oswego)
Nancy said…
Thanks so much - excellent advice and places to start investigating what I also believe is a very important topic.

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