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Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (Bantam Press, 2009)

£20, 470 pages

Buy from: http://www.booksattransworld.co.uk/catalog/book.htm?command=Search&db=twmain.txt&eqisbndata=059306173X

Author details: http://www.richarddawkins.com/

Richard Dawkins’ latest book is a very readable and entertaining summary of the evidence for evolution. Like all his popular science books, it is a fascinating tour through the biological details, interspersed with stories and witty tangents.

It is intended as an argument for evolution and against ‘creationism’. Readers may be rather put off by the rather strong anti-faith passages that are sprinkled throughout the book (often in the footnotes), but it is worth persisting.

The story starts with an examination of the word ‘theory’ and what that means to scientists. The term ‘theorum’ is proposed for a theory that has been established beyond reasonable doubt. The theorum of evolution is then explained over several chapters. The most interesting among these is ‘Before our very eyes’, which outlines examples of measurable evolutionary change occurring within living memory. Dawkins goes on to tackle several arguments that are often used against evolution, including missing links in the fossil record, the effect of genetic mutations on the development of organisms, and the formation of new species. He explains the evidence for evolution from homology and vestigial organs, and the more recent evidence found in DNA. The examples of ‘unintelligent design’ and the chapter on ‘evolutionary theodicy’ are presented as a serious challenge to proponents of Intelligent Design or Young Earth Creationism. The concluding chapter is an exegesis of Darwin’s famous ‘grandeur in this view of life’ passage.

The basics of current evolutionary biology and the more common misunderstandings of it are very well explained. Dawkins has obviously spent a lot of time in discussion with Young Earth Creationists, and knows what the key scientific arguments are. But (and this is a big but) the book is an argument against the existence of a creator and, like Dawkins’ other books, strongly promotes the idea that science and faith are completely incompatible. The author’s frustration gets the better of him much of the time, so the rhetoric is very strong, and often unfair to both faith and science.

Dawkins’ commitment to natural selection as the chief driving force of evolution is clear throughout the book, but he is ready to admit that not all biologists will agree with him. He occasionally reads evidence more strongly than might be justified, for example the inclusion of data on elephant tusk sizes that doesn’t seem to take the lifespan of elephants into account. It is frustrating that Dawkins did not elaborate on the way in which he believes that we as human beings have risen above our animal origins - but perhaps this will the subject of another book.

This is a good book to read if you are interested in evolutionary biology, and in considering the arguments against evolution and possible responses to them. For a treatment of science and religion, other books will give a better overview of the various viewpoints that are held by different people.

Difficulty: Intermediate