The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

There are no more excuses. None.

The defining characteristic of all arguments with creationists is how damned ignorant they are. I’m sure many scientists have been stupefied into stunned silence when they first encounter these people; these advocated of creationism are typically loud and certain and have invested much time and effort into apologetics, but when you sit down and try to have a serious discussion with them, you quickly discover that their knowledge of basic biology is nonexistent. It’s worse than that. We’re used to freshmen entering our classes who don’t know much about the basics, and we can deal with that; these, though, are people with negative knowledge, whose brains are so packed with raging falsehoods that we have to struggle to overcome an unfamiliar hurdle.

For example, last year I got into a radio debate with a Discovery Institute creationist, Geoffrey Simmons. He had written a whole book for creationists arguing that there are no transitional fossils…yet he had never heard of any of the major fossil discoveries in the whale series, and seemed to have gleaned all of his understanding from a garbled misreading of a short Scientific American article.

It’s infuriating. You want to argue against evolution? Then you’d better have some elementary understanding of what evolution actually says. We’ve got the same phenomenon going on right now in one of the comment threads, where a particularly obtuse creationist, Sean Pitman, is raving about the inadequacy of natural selection. I wouldn’t mind, except that he’s a freaking idiot. This goes on day after day — creationists are mired in a pit of ignorance so deep and so black that it takes incredible patience to lead people out of it (and also, some rhetorical boot-stomping against the fools who are trying to drag others even deeper into the darkness).

I have no illusions that we’ll suddenly see a blossoming of enlightenment, but we now have tools to help us, a whole series of recent books that cover the basics. Everyone should read at least one of these, especially if you’re one of those clowns who wants to argue that there is no evidence for evolution. Read and understand, please; we’ve already got enough idiots who claim to have read them and didn’t grasp anything in them.

Read Donald Prothero’s Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Or Sean Carrol’s The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Or Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Or Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). These are all eminently readable, and are aimed at an audience that knows next to nothing about biology — they will quickly pull you up to a level at which you can at least ask intelligent questions. We even use Carroll’s book here at UMM in our freshman biology course, with the idea that it will introduce them to the concepts they should have gotten in high school, but most didn’t.

Now we have another entry in this collection: Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll).


Maybe you already know everything Dawkins writes about in this book, if you’ve got a degree in biology and have done a fair amount of reading in the field; there really aren’t any radical surprises here, just a lovely review of familiar facts. You should read it anyway. Realize that this is the level that you have to operate on if you want to discuss the science of evolution with the public. What this (and the other books I mentioned above) is is a primer on how to communicate the ideas of science to a wider audience. It’s an overview and a synthesis, and it takes each piece of evidence and makes them part of a narrative. This is science plus storytelling — it’s what you have to do.

Or maybe you’re a high school student who is interested in science, but all you’re aware of is that the dumbed-down curriculum in your school has stripped out all of the important content from your courses. Or maybe you’ve got a teacher who is promoting creationism in subtle or not-so-subtle ways in the classroom. Get this book: it will give you the preparation for college that the conservatives on your local school board want to deny you. It’ll also make you ten times smarter than your creationist science teacher, which always feels good.

Hey, and when you graduate, give that science teacher a copy as a parting gift. Or perhaps as a gift to the next class.

Or maybe you’re just a sensible layman who’d like to know more about this subject, but really don’t want to have to get a Master’s degree to understand what the author is talking about. You want something you can read on a quiet Sunday morning, before the football game starts. You want to learn, but you’re not about to invest a lot of sweat in the effort. This is your book. It touches lightly on a lot of lines of evidence, and explains them clearly. You too can become informed painlessly, and for a low, low price!

Like I said, there are no more excuses. If you want to argue for or against evolution, cretins like Ken Ham or Ray Comfort or Carl Baugh or Eric Hovind or any of the thousands of other wandering ranters against the Enlightenment are about to face a big problem: more and more of the people in their audiences are going to have read these books, and are going to be prepared to call them on their bullshit. The enemy of ignorance is education, and the creationists know that; it’s why there is so much effort by the religious conservatives to destroy public education. These are books that provide an end-run around the current deficiencies in science education in this one area, and what they ought to do is help people question the wanna-be theocrats. If they lie about evolution, if they are so transparently wrong about this one subject, maybe more people will wake up to the anti-science agenda so many are peddling in this country.

Dawkins’ new book is very much a grenade thrown right at the heart of the creationists. The God Delusion was a kind of wake-up slap to shake people into attention, and now The Greatest Show on Earth follows on to pound them into the ground with a fusillade of evidence backed up by sound theoretical explanations. It’s all beautifully explained, too, a kind of elegant overview of the various lines of evidence supporting evolutionary theory, with much of the discussion informed by an awareness of the kinds of denial creationists typically make.

Read it, please, please, please.

We need a vocal and informed group of activists in this country who understand the science, but we can’t demand that they all go to grad school. This book and others like it will help us build the intellectual foundation and the network of well-versed literate elites who can can address the rot at the root.