The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
Release date: 09/01/2009
Reviewed by Jonah Lehrer
Richard Dawkins begins The Greatest Show on Earth with a short history of his writing career. He explains that all of his previous books have naïvely assumed “the fact of evolution,” which meant that he never got around to laying “out the evidence that it [evolution] is true.” This shouldn't be too surprising: science is an edifice of tested assumptions, and just as physicists must assume the truth of gravity before moving on to quantum mechanics, so do biologists depend on the reality of evolution. It's the theory that makes every other theory possible.
Yet Dawkins also came to realize that a disturbingly large percentage of the American and British public didn't share his enthusiasm for evolution. In fact, they actively abhorred the idea, since it seemed to contradict the Bible and diminish the role of God. So Dawkins decided to write a book for these “history-deniers,” in which he would dispassionately demonstrate the truth of evolution “beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt.”
After only a few pages of The Greatest Show on Earth , however, it becomes clear that Dawkins doesn't do dispassionate, and that he's not particularly interested in convincing believers to believe in evolution. He repeatedly compares creationists and Holocaust deniers, which is a peculiar way of reaching out to the other side. Elsewhere, Dawkins calls those who don't subscribe to evolution “ignorant,” “fatuously ignorant” and “ridiculous.”
All of which raises the point: who, exactly, is supposed to read this book? Is Dawkins preaching to the choir or trying to convert the uninformed? While The Greatest Show on Earth might fail as a work of persuasive rhetoric—Dawkins is too angry and acerbic to convince his opponents—it succeeds as an encyclopedic summary of evolutionary biology. If Charles Darwin walked into a 21st-century bookstore and wanted to know how his theory had fared, this is the book he should pick up.
Dawkins remains a superb translator of complex scientific concepts. It doesn't matter if he's spinning metaphors for the fossil record (“like a spy camera” in a murder trial) or deftly explaining the method by which scientists measure the genetic difference between distinct species: he has a way of making the drollest details feel like a revelation. Even if one already believes in the survival of the fittest, there is something thrilling about learning that the hoof of a horse is homologous to the fingernail of the human middle finger, or that some dinosaurs had a “second brain” of ganglion cells in their pelvis, which helped compensate for the tiny brain in their head. As Darwin famously noted, “There is grandeur in this view of life.” What Dawkins demonstrates is that this view of life isn't just grand: it's also undeniably true. Color illus. (Sept. 29)
Jonah Lehrer is the author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist.