Richard Dawkins' 'The Greatest Show on Earth: the evidence for evolution' - review part 2
This is the second part of a four-part review of 'The Greatest Show on Earth: the evidence for Evolution,' by Richard Dawkins, Black Swan 2010 (paperback) Bantam Press 2009 (hardback)
Although I believe in God, and Richard Dawkins (very obviously) does not, there is a lot about his writing that appeals to me tremendously:
For a start, he is a critical realist. He believes that, although what we know is always open to being corrected by the evidence, or being revised in the light of future discoveries, we can have real knowledge about a real external world. Not everything is determined by our culture. He has no time for postmodern relativism.
He is also a very gifted communicator. He is hard to beat when describing scientific matters. And in this book, he sets out the evidence for evolution persuasively. He begins by looking at artificial selection (for example dog breeding and plant breeding) then moves on through selection in nature, the age of the Earth, the fossil evidence, continental drift, the tree of life, genetic evidence for common descent, and so on.
Along the way, Dawkins takes swipes at several of the things 'creationists' say. And I'm sorry to say it, but some of his criticisms are justified:
He tells the story of an encounter with a creationist who simply kept repeating that there is no evidence for evolution, dismissing the fossil evidence as if it did not exist. I am afraid Dawkins is right about this: there is fossil evidence that supports evolution. It doesn't do anyone any good to pretend that it doesn't exist: if you want to argue that evolution does not take place, then you need to find an alternative explanation for the evidence, not just ignore it.
Dawkins also comes down hard on the way creationists pick up on the word 'Theory,' and say that evolution is 'only a theory.' (Implication: scientists don't really think it has been proved.) This is a demonstrable piece of nonsense. Scientists use the word 'theory' to apply to all kinds of things that they believe to be facts - the 'Theory of Relativity.' the 'heliocentric theory,' (that the Earth goes round the Sun, rather than vice versa) and so on. There really isn't any capital to be made out of the phrase 'Theory of Evolution,' and the sooner theists like me accept that, the better.
So there are some things about 'The Greatest Show on Earth' that I like, and some others where I think Dawkins is making fair points. However, there are also some problems with his thinking. I'll get on to those in the next part of this review.