Richard Dawkins' 'The Greatest Show on Earth: the evidence for evolution' - review part 4
This is the last 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)
Richard Dawkins regularly uses rhetorical strategies to manipulate his readers. Once you are aware of these, it is rather easy to spot them in play:
1. The straw man
Dawkins regularly sets up 'straw men' - versions of what his opponents are supposed to believe that are inaccurate, simplistic, or just downright wrong. Then he knocks down the straw man, and this gives the impression that he has demolished the real thing - of course, he has not. I've already alluded to a couple of examples of this in other parts of this review: knocking down the belief that 'God made their tiny wings,' and positioning his argument so that if he can demolish young-Earth creationism, it appears that he has somehow discredited belief in God at a stroke.
2. Things that aren't evidence at all
'The Greatest Show on Earth' is subtitled 'the evidence for evolution,' - and indeed, that is what it is about. Some of it. But it also has its fair share of evolutionary 'just-so stories.' These get their name from the stories in Rudyard Kipling's 'Jungle Book,' such as 'How the elephant got its trunk.' Examples in 'The Greatest Show...' are Dawkins' explanation of the bright coloration of cock pheasants, canary songs, and Julian Huxley's explanation of the pattern on the back of a Heikea Japonica crab (p. 58) (which Dawkins admits that he does not believe).
What's wrong with these is that you can dream up a 'just so story' to account for just about anything after the event. These stories sound plausible. Some of them may even be true. But they aren't evidence of anything at all, and they are out of place in a book that purports to be about evidence. Of course, without them, the book would be... shorter / less interesting / less persuasive / all of the above.
3. Overstating his case
Dawkins frequently overstates his case. For example, he spends quite a lot of words on the 'Tree of Life,' and on the genetic evidence for it (page 315 onwards).
But the January 24th 2009 issue of New Scientist magazine had a cover article headlined 'Darwin was wrong.' The core of the article says that Darwin's 'Tree of Life' is not supported by the genetic evidence - or at least, that the genetic situation is a lot more fluid, and a lot more complicated, than any simple idea of the Tree of Life would lead us to believe.
Please understand what I'm saying here. I doubt whether any serious biologist thinks that the questions and complications raised in the New Scientist article in any way 'disprove' evolution. What I'm saying is that the evidence points to something a lot more complicated, and a lot less clear-cut than Dawkins would have us believe.
4. Name calling
Dawkins takes a hard swipe at people who believe that the world is only ten thousand years old or so. He calls them ‘history-deniers.’ Now, he's within his rights in disagreeing with them, and he's within his rights in presenting counter-evidence. But ‘history-deniers’ sounds to me like a deliberate attempt to mimic the phrase ‘holocaust-deniers.’ There’s a built in (but oh-so-deniable) hint that people who believe in a young-earth are as bad as Nazis.
And finally... Dawkins repeats over and over again 'evolution is a fact.' Well, it may or may not be, but repetition alone is not an argument, and it is not likely to persuade anyone - unless he thinks, improbably, that he can bore people into agreeing with him.