Thursday, September 10, 2009

The greatest show on Earth

I have finished reading Richard Dawkins' new book, The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. It is classic Dawkins -- informed, clever, witty. However, it is perhaps my least favorite of his books for the simple reason that there is virtually nothing in it that I did not already know, as would be the case, I suspect, for anyone who is reasonably well-informed about contemporary science. Of course, the book is not addressed to the well-informed.

And, as I said before, there is not much point in addressing hardcore creationists, who have proven themselves to be impervious to evidence. After all, if you believe the Creator of the Universe has told you the truth, you are not likely to be dissuaded by Richard Dawkins, the self-proclaimed "devil's chaplain."

To whom, then, is it addressed? Presumably to the fair minded but not so well informed person who has heard a lot about the evolution wars and wants to know just why scientists are so confident that they are right. If this is the case, I would have thought it best if Dawkins had left out the snarky and condescending comments about creationists. Admittedly, they are easy targets, and perhaps Dawkins by temperament cannot resist taking pot shots (I do it myself), but the book would work best, I believe, as a persuader of the unpersuaded if he had let the evidence stand on its own, untainted by polemic.

Even a big book like this one (nearly 500 pages) can touch on only a tiny fraction of the tightly woven tapestry of discovery that embraces not only biology, molecular genetics, and paleontology, but also physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, information theory, and who knows what else. The real strength of evolution is not any one piece of evidence, or any courtroom presentation of evidence, but the way the entire fabric of science hangs elegantly together -- a taut and vibrant woof and warp of observation and theory.