The Greatest Show on Earth, Chapter 1

Chapter-by-chapter thoughts on Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

by John C. Snider © 2009

I’m sitting down to read Richard Dawkins’ latest book–The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (pub. by Free Press, Sep 2009, 470 pp hdcvr, $30)–and I thought I’d try something a little different.  Instead of writing a lengthy review of the whole book, I’m going to write a (hopefully) brief blog entry summarizing my thoughts on each of the 13 chapters.  If you haven’t yet started this book, here’s a great opportunity to read it at the same time as others and add your comments to each chapter discussion.  Also, let me know if you like or don’t like this approach: if I get a good response, I may blog about other books in a similar fashion.

So here we go…

Preface

Dawkins brings up a couple of things: first, he notes (laments?) that in all the books he’s written, he’s never laid out the explicit evidentiary case for the theory of evolution; second, he explains that the book’s title comes from a t-shirt he was given on which was written “Evolution, The Greatest Show on Earth, the Only Game in Town.”

On the first point, he needn’t beat himself up too much.  Biology, like all sciences, needs to be summarized and brought up-to-date for general audiences from time to time to reflect the latest and most complete understanding–and as Dawkins points out, since 2009 is Darwin’s 200th birthday and The Origin of Species‘ 150th anniversary, this is as good a time as any.

On his second point, herein is one of my minor quibbles with this book.  Although I agree that life is the greatest show on earth (without which our planet would be just another planet, different from any other only in the particulars of weather, chemical make-up and geological activity), this book’s title inevitably makes me think it’s about the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Chapter 1: Only a theory?

Dawkins begins by laying out the challenge facing biology today: that a significant percentage of the population (40% of Americans, give or take, depending on which poll you read) do not believe that human beings evolved from previous forms, or that the earth is any older than 10,000 years.  To highlight how ridiculous and infuriating this can be, Dawkins makes two comparisons, one to a fictitious faction that causes trouble for history teachers by denying that the Roman Empire ever existed, and another, all too real faction that denies the Holocaust ever took place.

I’m not so crazy about the latter comparison: Holocaust deniers are an insipid lot, usually driven by anti-Semitism or some other form of cultural hatred, while evolution deniers generally strike me as simply uneducated, or at worst willfully uninformed.  They don’t seem to be motivated by hatred, so I would hesitate to throw Creationist Christians in the same pot with neo-Nazis.

I do, however, like the former comparison: for one thing, the fact that linguists can find traces of the now-dead Latin in modern-day languages like French, Spanish, Italian and English makes for a nice comparison with the fact that biologists find traces of long-extinct ancestors in the DNA of modern animals and plants–including human beings.  To deny the existence of the Roman Empire is very much like denying evolution.

Dawkins also tries to engage in some semantic gamesmanship, which brings me to another quibble. Dawkins says he’ll be referring to evolution deniers as “history deniers,” which seems odd.  Wouldn’t they be prehistory deniers?  Using such a pejorative term seems odd given that he says “the history-deniers themselves are among those that I am trying to reach in this book.”  He also says he’ll refer to them as “40-percenters,” in reference to the American poll numbers.  This seems odd to me as well, since it implies a static state of affairs.  This book runs the risk of quickly sounding out of date: poll numbers change, and in a few years only 30 percent of the population might be Creationists.

In addressing the oft-used dismissal by Creationists that “Evolution is only a theory–even scientists say so,” Dawkins tries to sidestep the issue by coining a new term: theorum.  If the Creationists insist on conflating theory (as in “a vague explanation”) with scientific theory (as in “a hypothesis that has been accepted as accounting for known facts”), then Dawkins suggests we cease talking about theories and instead talk about theorums.  He borrows from the mathematical “theorem” (which can, in fact, be proven using the rules of math) and creates the term “theorum” to define something in science that has been “supported by massive quantities of evidence [and] accepted by all informed observers.”

Good luck with that one, Richard.  Words are tricky things, and aside from the fact that working scientists aren’t likely to start talking about theorums, as soon as the Creationists get wind of this effort they’ll sing from the rooftops about how scientists are running away from the word “theory” like Democrats run from the word “liberal” and now call themselves “progressive.”  This theorum initiative reminds me of the effort from a few years ago to redefine atheists as “Brights”–an effort that has more or less evaporated and is, ironically, embraced by Dawkins.  Since scientists would presumably get bogged down in explaining what “theorum” means, they’re not saving any breath by not having to explain what a scientific “theory” means.  So let’s just drop this theorum business and move on to Chapter 2.

The Greatest Show on Earth is available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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20 Responses to The Greatest Show on Earth, Chapter 1

  1. Triggertom says:

    I just wanted to let you know that I really like this format for book reviews. It makes me want to get started reading my copy.

  2. JHGRedekop says:

    Dawkins likes to coin new terms — theorum, Bright — with rather poor results. “Concestor”, from “The Ancestor’s Tale”, is a good one, but I’m not sure it’s his term.

    Fortunately, he only mentioned “theorum” once or twice in the rest of the book.

  3. Glen Wagner says:

    Hey John,

    I think this is a great way to review a book and engage blog readers at the same time. We’ll see how it works. I’m just a couple chapters ahead of you so this should work for me.

    Regarding history deniers, I guess I have no problem with his inclusion of the holocaust deniers. Regardless of their motivations, they are not accepting the reality of the historical facts…in this case of the holocaust.
    As for history versus prehistory, history usually means the written record of mankind, but if we look at the record of geology or DNA couldn’t we be speaking of the history of the Earth or the history of life? Aren’t the history deniers refusing to accept the facts or record of geology and microbiology? I think is still works.

    I think Dawkins does like to invent new words, like “meme.” I guess we’ll just have to wait and see whether theorum takes hold. It could be a very long wait. Of course if he’s just using the word for the purpose of the book to differentiate between the two meanings of “theory” that he spoke of, I think it could apply in the short-term.

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  5. Kris says:

    John,

    I don’t think the comparison with holocaust deniers is always as far off as you make it out. I suspect that most creationists are simply misinformed. A rather large lot of them, though, are indeed homophobic, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, anti-Scientific, anti-non-theist (/non-Christian) and otherwise ideological bigots. That especially goes for the most ardent and obstreperous varieties. Think of Ken Ham, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Fred Phelps. These are the kinds of people who use their evolution denialism to fan the flames of their hatred. It’s a fair comparison. It’s also worth noting that a lot of holocaust deniers are also evolution deniers, at least in the middle east.

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  8. G.Shelley says:

    There are dangers in the comparison to Holocaust denial, in that it could be seen to be raising the Hitler Zombie, but on a purely intellectual level, the comparison is fair. Both are ideologically motivated, require the person to ignore the preponderance of evidence that does not agree with them and to a certain extent require the individual to accept the existence of a world wide conspiracy trying to keep the truth from everyone.

  9. I Am says:

    Thank you very much for doing these chapter-by-chapter reviews. I am on the fence about whether to buy the book or not. I’m pretty sure that I will, but I want to have a better idea of what is discussed first.

    I had heard, for example, that Dawkins says he’s not going to bash creationists, but that he then does so anyway. It sounds like from your review that this may be the case, which is disappointing: if Dawkins wants more people to consider evolution, instead of just wanting to rally the troops so to speak, then he should try to reach out more. I agree that “history-deniers” is an odd term for someone who’s allegedly trying to reach out to those who have their doubts about evolution.

    I look forward to reading your other chapter reviews.

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