“There is grandeur in this view of life.”
May 25, 2011 Leave a comment
Book #1: The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins
This past spring I attended an event hosted by the rationalists and atheists’ club at my alma mater– a club with which I was not involved, being a longtime Methodist. This event, however, I did not want to pass up– a Q&A with Richard Dawkins, the famed atheist and evolutionary biologist.
The Q&A was indeed fascinating, as Dawkins answered questions that ranged from the funniest piece of hate mail Dawkins had ever received (“I hope you get hit by a church van”) to whether it is actually possible to disprove the existence of God (no, but the rationale in favor of God’s existence is “spectacularly unimpressive”). I walked away from the event with the impression that Dawkins lived up to his reputation: erudite, intelligent, arrogant, a brilliant evolutionary biologist, and not much of a theologian.
When I decided to start this project, it felt only right to being reading with one of Dawkins’s books. I attended an evangelical Christian high school where “intelligent design” was the dominant paradigm in science classes, though we did learn some evolutionary biology, and was well schooled in the literature supporting creationism. It seemed only right that I begin my reading about God and science by engaging with the ideas of a man who is utterly devoted to evolution by natural selection, and who uses those views to criticize religious thought.
I chose to read The Greatest Show on Earth for a few reasons, but primarily because it is more focused on science than on religion. I thought it would be good to get a basic grounding in evolutionary science before moving on to books with a somewhat more theological angle. This proved to be a good choice.
Dawkins the writer is just as erudite as Dawkins the speaker– perhaps even more so. He explains complex biological concepts in a methodical way, taking great length to describe experiments that he deems essential to understanding evolutionary biology. The complexity of his topic is reflected in the fact that the reader (or at least, this reader) may not walk away understanding the intricacies of everything Dawkins says. This is understandable. I may never be able to explain the ins and outs of molecular clocks and the fossil record. But after reading Dawkins’s book I understand why they are important.
All that being said, this is also a book that is intended to combat the 40% of Americans who refuse to believe in evolution by natural selection. That is a big part of the reason for its style and step-by-step explanations. It also explains the constant jibes at people who advocate creationism– though I was impressed by the fact that Dawkins did differentiate up front between religious people and creationists. It is indeed very important to understand that while (presumably) all creationists are religious people, not all religious people are creationists (in the anti-evolution sense of the term). I do not think that a creationist who picked up this book and actually read it would necessarily be convinced by Dawkins’s arguments– in fact there’s a good chance that they would be too offended to make it past the first chapter. So perhaps it would be more accurate to say that The Greatest Show on Earth could serve to provide evidence for someone who was already at least mostly convinced of the legitimacy of evolutionary biology. It is certainly here that he finds his greatest success.
For purposes of this heavily scientific book, Dawkins mostly avoids making arguments about philosophy or theology, leaving that for other books such as The God Delusion and Unweaving the Rainbow (the latter of which I plan to read during this project at some point). This is a good thing, since I was personally dissatisfied with his reasoning whenever Dawkins attempted to tackle theological issues. Most notably, I was dissatisfied with his attempts to explain away the problem of pain and other issues of theodicy toward the end of his book. This is partly due to the fact that he did not allow enough space to analyze these themes, and partly because they are philosophical questions that (in my opinion) don’t necessarily fit in an analysis of evolutionary biology. They are certainly challenging, and the way Dawkins set up his argument he had to address them, but his conclusions were not satisfying.
The Greatest Show on Earth is, without a doubt, Richard Dawkins’ love letter to evolutionary biology. The primary impression that the reader can take away from reading this book is a sense of the pure joy that Dawkins and his fellow scientists have in their subject. It is a beautiful and touching homage to the wonder of science and in the ability to explain the world around us, deserving as an heir to the Darwin quote with which Dawkins began his final chapter: “There is grandeur in this view of life.”