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The Greatest Show on Earth
October 13, 2009
It has been a couple of years since Richard Dawkins’ last major work, The God Delusion (my review). That book was a long-time fixture on the bestseller lists and served to establish Dawkins as the foremost spokesman for the New Atheists. Dawkins has long had two related emphases in his writing and speaking: the non-existence of God and the evidence in nature that evolution is responsible for all that exists. Where The God Delusion emphasized the former, his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, emphasizes the latter. It is primarily a counter-attack to advocates of Intelligent Design, and represents Dawkins’ attempt to provide natural evidence for evolution. He says simply, “Evolution is a fact, and this book will demonstrate it.”
It will not surprise you to hear that I was not convinced by Dawkins’ evidences for evolution. I will not provide a rebuttal of those evidences here since I know that others who are more qualified than I am will do just that. Instead, in just a few paragraphs, let me share a few of my thoughts on this book and what I consider its more prominent flaws.
Overall, there is a thread of arrogance in many of Dawkins’ arguments. On the one hand Dawkins wants to show how science continues to make vast and important discoveries; he wants to show that science is living and always advancing, disproving old theses in favor of new ones. On the other hand he wants to act as if all we know about evolution we know for certain. So when we see that the retina in the human eye has the appearance of being installed backwards, we can therefore state with certainty that this is the case and that it is the result of a mutation that was overcome by fortuitous adaptations in the human brain. In other words, the human eye is a mistake. But how are we to know that an advance in science, two years from now, will not show that this is no accident but is just that way it has to be—or, to borrow from the world of software, that it is a feature instead of a bug. He relies on science to prove what is absolutely true or false, never pointing out how often science has been wrong in the past and how often a new advance overshadows or disproves an old one. The history of science gives me little confidence that, in the end, he will be proven correct even with an issue as simple as the human eye.
Dawkins holds up the invariability of DNA code across all living creatures as evidence of shared ancestry (since the genetic code is shared across all living things—it is what is written in the code, not the code itself, that distinguishes one creature from another). But when I look at the same thing, I see that it points in the opposite direction. I see it, quite obviously, as evidence of a common artist. If I look at two paintings and see that they bear a great degree of similarity to one another, that they feature similar scenes and a similar brand of realism or abstraction, I do not assume that one painting evolved from the other or that together they evolved from a common ancestor; instead, I assume that they have come from the hand, the brush, of the same artist. I can grant that there is a sense in which man is related to ape and aardvark—we share a common designer. The fact that my DNA resembles that of any other living creature simply reinforces this fact. Believing in Creation does not demand that we suppose God did not reuse any parts or that every creature has to be entirely different from every other creature. One who believes in God as Creator can affirm that he is the designer and that he based all living things on common elements.
One thing I noted often in the pages of The Greatest Show on Earth is that it is often difficult to know where fact ends and speculation begins. When Dawkins says that a kind of beetle has, over evolutionary time, evolved to resemble the ant it preys upon, do we know this is the case, or is Dawkins simply filling in what he considers a logical hole? Can he prove that this beetle began looking like something other than it is now using the same scientific rigor he demands of Creationists? Or is this just speculation? In this book he rarely distinguishes between the two. Needless to say, this leads to a fair bit of potential confusion.
There is a deep and obvious irony in Dawkins’ constant use of words of agency. In his worldview there is, at least in nature and in the universe, no planning, no design, no invention, no creation, no purpose. Everything has come to be through a long process of chance. Yet throughout the book he constantly softens this harsh reality by borrowing the words of agency and purpose. Why? Could it be that the world just too hard to contemplate without injecting some kind of higher purpose into it? But there is more. Very often he turns to examples or metaphors to explain what he is trying to communicate and, again, almost invariably these examples depend on some kind of agency. So, for example, he will discuss how there came to be so many varied breeds of dog, each descended from the wolf. This may be an evidence of evolution, but if so, it evidences a designer who made the decisions about which breed would have long legs and which would have short ones, which would have big ears and which would have small ones. It was human agency that shaped each of these breeds of dog! How can this then stand as an example of the agent-less, impersonal forces of nature? Again and again he falls into this trap.
All this caused me to reflect on how cold, how stark the world would be without some kind of agency. A scientist can conjure up in his mind ways of describing the world without God, but he has a lot more trouble explaining it. Design seems to scream for a designer, elegance for agency. Even Dawkins cannot deny that the world gives the appearance of design; so his task is to prove that the most obvious explanation is not the correct one. I would challenge Dawkins in his future books not to use this cop out, not to say photosynthesis was “invented” by bacteria more than a million years ago. This is an unfair condescension that perhaps just proves that he cannot maintain his line of reasoning with any kind of consistency. Always he denies a designer, yet so often he perhaps-inadvertently invokes one.
In this book I see the importance of what we can call worldview—the way each of us understands the world, the way each of us interprets all of life. Dawkins’ worldview demands that there is no God and that everything came to be without the assistance or oversight of a designer. Not surprisingly, then, everywhere he looks he sees evidence to support his presuppositions, just as a Creationist looks to Creation and sees evidence of God. If I go out hunting for bigfoot, convinced of his existence, I will inevitably find evidence to support my theory. I will find vague footprints and half-eaten meals, each of which will prove to me that I am hot on bigfoot’s trail. My presuppositions shape my conclusions. So this book shows me again that it is impossible, or near-impossible, to overcome our worldviews.
This book shows that Dawkins is still angry, still shocked that anyone could be so hopelessly confused as to believe in God and to doubt naturalistic evolution. In fact, he refers to such people as “history-deniers,” people who see the evidence, spit on it, and turn instead to their comfortable old deities. “No reputable scientist disputes it,” he says, but of course he would use circular logic to define a reputable scientist. He would never admit that a scientist could be reputable and deny evolution. Here we have the same old Dawkins. Sure he tries a new approach, but ultimately it is more of the same.
Is there value in reading The Greatest Show on Earth?. I am inclined to think that there is, at least for some people. I find it useful to read books written from an opposing viewpoint since they provide a very natural “check” for me. They help me wrestle with not only what I believe but how I express what I believe. This book gave me a lot to think about in that regard. And, though Dawkins insisted that the unbiased reader will close the book convinced of the validity of evolution, this was not the case for me. Then again, does the unbiased reader even exist? We’ve already shown that Dawkins is far from unbiased himself.
The Greatest Show on Earth