Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Greatest Show on Earth

I first encountered Richard Dawkins through The God Delusion, his tedious and ill-informed rant against religion.  Like Christians around the world, I shook my head ruefully and said, "no, I don't believe in that god either".  So I thought I'd try again with his most recent book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.

I have to say it's much more pleasant to encounter Dawkins on his own territory.  While his religious knowledge is patchy at best, he has a deep knowledge of evolutionary biology and a passion for the subject that really shines through.  Unlike Sam Harris, he even holds out an olive branch to moderate religious believers, opening the book with a discussion of his joint lobbying with various Anglican bishops on the subject of the teaching of creationism in school science classes.

The motivation for this book is Dawkins' horror that over 40% of Americans, and over 20% of Britons, believe in young earth creationism.  Dawkins responds by attempting to set out, accessibly and in plain English, the various strands of evidence that point towards the truth of the evolutionary view.  He draws heavily on Darwin's Origin of Species, the closest thing to a sacred text in Dawkins' world, but updates Darwin's perspective with research data accumulated over the intervening 150 years.

The evidence is grouped into nine main strands:
  • evidence from humans' experience with selective breeding and the changes in animals and plants which result from such selection
  • evidence from experiments with bacteria and fish in the laboratory, and in the real world, which show major changes taking place over periods of years or decades
  • the evidence of various radioactive dating methods
  • the evidence of the fossil record, including a lengthy response to the idea of "missing links"
  • evidence from embryology
  • evidence drawn from the similarities and differences of species on different continents and islands
  • evidence of the genetic relationships between various species
  • evidence within species of change and adaptation, including numerous examples of "poor design" which seem to stem from gradual adaptation
  • evidence of the "evolutionary arms race" in which predators and prey mutually improve their ability to catch and escape.
Personally I didn't really need convincing, but I enjoyed the ride anyway.  I'm an occasional reader of popular science books and I already knew a lot of this stuff, but there was still plenty that was new to me.  I found his discussions of comparative anatomy fascinating, as were his accounts of the evolutionary history of various types of animals including ourselves.  A lot of his asides and footnotes are fun, and his conversational tone kept the book light enough to keep me reading.

Not that this is a perfect book, by any means.  It could probably have lost 100 pages without anyone missing them.  If I was the editor I would have taken the red pen to the large number of digressions and multiple illustrations of the same point.  I would also have got rid of some unhelpful analogies, a few discussions of terminology he doesn't use, and most of the bits where he kicks sand in creationists' faces.  It seems cruel to kick someone when they're down, but then I guess that's how natural selection works.

Which brings me to the thing about this book that I found most jarring, coming from the world's best-known militant atheist - Dawkins' persistent, even relentless, use of the language of intent.  Like this, the first one I found flipping through the book, from Page 366.

...when our fish ancestors took to breathing air, they didn't modify their gills to make a lung....Instead, they modified a pouch of the gut.

Clever fish!  Or this one, from page 390.

Natural selection...chooses between rival individuals within a population.  Even if the entire population is diving to extinction, driven down by individual competition, natural selection will still favour the most competitive individuals....

The book is full of this kind of stuff,  Natural selection choosing, favouring, acting, achieving, tinkering.  Individual species making transitions, adapting, modifying. 

Dawkins knows that this is a mere figure of speech.  Only two pages later he says this.

Natural selection is all futile.  It is all about the surival of self-replicating instructions for self-replication.

So why does he use it so constantly?  Why does he speak throughout the book as if nature, evolution and natural selection are acting purposefully?  Why does he so consistently attribute agency to these impersonal, chance-driven, statistical processes?

I think part of it is that Dawkins is just not a particularly skilled writer.  To be sure, he is a great communicator and controversialist, but compared to the likes of Stephen Jay Gould or Stephen Hawking his English is pedestrian and unimaginative.  He is in too much of a hurry to get his point across to spend time teasing out the niceties of language.

However, my guess is that there's more to it than this.  Living under the beneficient influence of Charles Darwin, Dawkins is surprisingly Victorian.  Like Darwin, he is an upstanding gentleman, a person of high ethics and passion for the truth.  He is a natural seeker after meaning and structure.  His choice of language helps to shield him from the implications of the futility of natural selection. 

Even the term "natural selection" itself is a misleading analogy.  No selection is involved.  Some things survive, others do not.  Those that survive continue to reproduce, spawning other things which also survive or don't.  These things change between generations, and the changes which survive subsequently lead to other changes.  That's it.  That's all there is.  Outside of human minds there is no such thing as purpose and meaning.

Dawkins can't face the despair of that view of life.  Nor can I.  He papers it over with the language of intent.  I remain a Christian.


richard said...

Nice post! I can see that you've spent some time teasing out the niceties of language, too.

TetraEtc said...

Late comment is late.

"Even the term "natural selection" itself is a misleading analogy. No selection is involved. Some things survive, others do not. Those that survive continue to reproduce, spawning other things which also survive or don't. These things change between generations, and the changes which survive subsequently lead to other changes. That's it. That's all there is. Outside of human minds there is no such thing as purpose and meaning."

While I tend to agree more with young earth creationism that I know you don't agree with, in this last statement I must disagree with you.

A) While I agree that it was indeed not "natural" selection, I would say how that a selection was definitely made. But not by any "natural" process. If "selection" has anything to do with it, then indeed it would have been a "Supernatural" selection.

Also B) There is a purpose and meaning outside of human minds. As C S Lewis said "the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever"

Jon said...

Thanks Tetra. The quote you respond to is intended to be an expression of the logical consequence of Dawkins view, not my own. I agree with your B).