Book review-2: The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

In the previous post about Dawkins’s book, I talked about almost all the kinds of evidence that Dawkins presents for evolution, except for the fossils.

But what about fossils? He talks about that evidence too but repeatedly points out that the case for evolution would be iron-clad even if there were no fossils at all. The fact that fossil evidence exists, and keeps accumulating thick and fast in recent years, is simply a bonus. Remember that when Charles Darwin developed his theory, there was hardly any fossil evidence to speak of, except for those that had been sufficient to persuade the geologist Charles Lyell (1797-1875) to conclude that the Earth was at least hundreds of millions of years old, much older than the 6,000 years or so that was currently believed, even though he himself at that stage believed in special creation and thought that species remained unchanged.

So why do creationists keep focusing on the fossil record and keep saying things like “Where are the transitional fossils?” or more crudely “What about the missing links?” Some of them (yes, I am looking at you, Crocoduck) are either woefully ignorant of what the phrase ‘transitional fossil’ means or are taking advantage of the ignorance of their audience. Others who are a little more sophisticated do this because they know that the conditions for successful fossilization rarely occur, and since we are talking of a fossil record over hundreds of millions of years, there are bound to be periods for which we have no fossils along any branch of the evolutionary tree. But we keep finding new fossils and the intervals over which there are no fossils keep getting smaller.

Some evolution deniers exploit a feature of the Linnaean classification system of biology that divides living things into discrete categories and requires one to place a newly discovered fossil into a specific category. But evolution is a smoothly transitioning system and it is inevitable that some decisions as to where to place an item are going to be arbitrary. As Dawkins says, it is like the definition of an adult. The law might classify you as an adult on your eighteenth birthday but were you significantly different the day before? As one moves from (say) fifteen to twenty one, one makes the transition to adulthood but one cannot pinpoint exactly when it occurs. There are some people younger than eighteen who are very mature and there are people over that age who are quite immature. But the system requires us to fix who is an adult and who is not and put each person into one or other category. So people who really are in a transitional stage will be classified as either adult or non-adult, and the system of classification by itself eliminates any identification of transitional stages.

The classification system of biology similarly eliminates the labeling of transitional forms. One sign that a fossil is an intermediate between two species is when paleontologists strongly argue about the category in which it should be placed. But once that argument ends, and the fossil placed in one or other category, it does not mean it is no longer transitional. It simply means that it has been pigeonholed for convenience.

Dawkins points out that further evidence for evolution comes from the relatedness of the body patterns of living things that indicate that we had common ancestors. The closer the details of the plans, the more recent the common ancestor.

Furthermore, the way that our bodies are presently constructed reveals our evolutionary history. There are so many aspects of our bodies that are inefficient or wasteful and cannot be made sense of in terms of good design. But they can be understood when we look at the body plans of our primitive ancestors and see how the inefficient aspects of current species were the result of slow adaptations to changes in other parts of our bodies.

He provides a good analogy to illustrate the difference between how a god-like designer and natural selection work. An aircraft engineer (representing a god-like designer) can ignore much of what came before and design a jet engine from scratch using the principles of aerodynamics, and optimize its workings using current technology. But what if the designer were constrained (like natural selection is) to start with a propeller engine and had to make changes using only what was readily available at hand and each change had to be tiny and also provide at least a slight improvement in performance? He would still end up with a better aircraft engine but it would a patchwork mess, nowhere close to the sleek modern jet. Our body plans reveal the patchwork model of natural selection and not the planning of a god-like designer.

Will Dawkins persuade more people to realize that evolution by natural selection is the way to go and that the god hypothesis is unnecessary? Yes, but it will not be easy and not many will change their views directly. As Hugh Laurie says in one episode of House: “Rational arguments don’t usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people.” That might be an overly pessimistic view of the power of reason but I think it is largely true. But the secondary effect of the book, enabling many more people to make the arguments that only a few specialists like Dawkins makes, is what is important.

This is why we need to speak out for science and against religion and show that religious beliefs are in opposition to rational thought. We need to allow people’s inner rationality, which we all possess and use in almost all aspects of our lives, to break free of the smothering effects of religion. Once people realize the need to apply rational thought to even their religious beliefs, then there is hope.

POST SCRIPT: Media coverage of atheism

NPR has a report on the new atheists and the accommodationists.


  1. says

    Well said.

    In fact when you think about it EVERY species is a transitional form between its evolutionary distant ancestors and it’s yet to evolve descendants. In that sense paleontologists have done nothing but discover transitional forms! We too are a transitional form between, say Homo erectus and the yet to evolve Homo rationalis.

    Yet from an evolutionary point of view there is nothing transitional about any species. As Dawkins often points out in his writings, evolution does not have foresight or aims, it is not aiming towards a future form and using a transitional form to get there. Every organism is selected for on the basis of it’s fitness (as in hand fits glove and not fitness as in gym fit and healthy) to it’s environment and should be regarded as just as complete from an evolutionary point of view as any other contemporary species.

    Sadly, I believe that we WILL have to evolve into Homo rationalis or go extinct before we see religious people applying rational thought to their religion as to do so they would have had to already debunk their religion as it prevents such a rational analysis in the first place, vis. you have to give up your faith BEFORE you can apply rational thought as the former precludes the latter.

    Perhaps Homo sapiens will be the common ancestor to both Homo rationalis and Homo fathiensis

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