Richard Dawkins' 'The Greatest Show on Earth: the evidence for evolution' - review part 3
This is the third 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)
So what is he up to?
The subtitle says that this is a book about the evidence for evolution. Dawkins says that he is not dealing here with the 'God question.' I think this is a bit less than honest:
- The cover blurb says 'Richard Dawkins takes on creationists, including followers of 'intelligent design' and all those who question the fact of evolution through natural selection. OK, Dawkins probably did not write the cover blurb, but still...
- Apparently one of the main things that motivated Dawkins to write this book was his horror at the number of people who don't believe in evolution, or who believe that the Earth is only about ten thousand years old (- about 40% in both the UK and the USA - a bit more in the USA, a bit less in the UK).
- Dawkins' interests always seem to go beyond the science itself, to using the science as a blunt instrument to attack those who believe in God. There is evidence for this all through the book, in a constant drizzle of sniping comments attacking religious faith. After a while, this sort of sarcasm becomes tedious.
So the 'God question' is in play in this book - perhaps not as much as in 'The God Delusion,' but it's still there. In the rest of this part of the review, I want to pick up two ways in which I think Dawkins does not make the case against God in this book:
Confusing theism and 'creationism'
Dawkins consistently seems to lump together young-Earth creationists (who believe the Earth is about ten thousand years old), old-Earth creationists (who believe the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old, but who do not believe in evolution), supporters of Intelligent Design, and theistic evolutionists. He lumps them all together, and treats them all as young-Earth creationists. I don't believe he is that naive or ill-informed, so I can only believe that he does this deliberately, because young-earth creationists make an easier target than theistic evolutionists. But if he wants to be taken seriously, he has to separate the issues.
Then Dawkins apparently thinks that if he can establish the truth of evolution, he has struck a death-blow against belief in God. But evolution never has been a defeater for faith: right from when 'On the Origin of Species' was first published in 1859, there were serious Christians who accepted evolution, like Asa Grey and B B Warfield (curiously, one of the original 'Fundamentalists'). Today we could point to people like Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project, or Denis Alexander of the Faraday Institute, or John Polkinghorne or David Wilkinson, who both feature in the 'God: new evidence' videos.
The issue isn't whether or not you agree with Theistic Evolution; the issue is that there are intelligent and sophisticated scientists who are both Christian believers and evolutionists, so it must be possible to be both. (If someone tells me there is no such thing as a black swan, I only need one example of a black swan to disprove their case.)
People who want to use evolution as a blunt instrument against theism are mistaken. It would be much better all round if they kept clear water between the two issues.
The central issue in theism is not evolution: it is whether we are here as a result of blind unpurposeful causes, or as a result of the actions of a purposeful and loving God.
In 'The Greatest Show on Earth,' Dawkins does not engage with cosmic fine-tuning. (It gets more of a look-in in 'The God Delusion.') All he says, speaking about Christian theists, is:
'They may think God had a hand in starting the process off, and perhaps didn't stay his hand in guiding its future progress. They probably think God cranked up the universe in the first place, and solemnized its birth with a harmonious set of laws and physical constants calculated to fulfil some inscrutable purpose in which we were eventually to play a role.' (Page 6)
This is a prime example of the kind of sniping I mentioned earlier. But sniping - however entertaining it may be - is not an argument. But set aside the sarcasm, and what do you have? The universe certainly does have 'a harmonious set of laws and physical constants' that makes intelligent life possible. Christians certainly do believe that God started the process off and guided its future progress. The whole purpose of 'God: new evidence' is to argue that such a belief is not unreasonable. There are two more things to be said about what Christians believe:
- Not just that God 'started the whole process,' but that he is actively involved in keeping it going moment by moment. You would not draw your next breath unless God so ordered the universe.
- Not just that God 'guides the progress' of the universe, but that God has spoken and made himself known to us in ways that we can understand, so that it is possible for us to respond to him.
Cosmic fine-tuning points towards the reality of a creator. This undercuts Dawkins' arguments that evolution is a defeater for belief in God. If the whole universe has been purposefully designed, this is evidence for God's reality. Whether or not God used evolution or some other natural process to produce human life does not seem to matter too much.
Dawkins says elsewhere
‘Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose. Physics is the study of simple things that do not tempt us to invoke design.’ Richard Dawkins, ‘The Blind Watchmaker,’ p. 1
But we now know that the supposedly simple things of physics, astronomy, and cosmic fine-tuning do indeed 'tempt us to invoke design.'