Thursday, August 18, 2011

James Carroll's Review of The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was only so so, and there were two main reasons.

First, his evidence:

It simply wasn't that good. And it's not because there isn't good evidence for evolution. But the whole way through this book I kept thinking things like: "I could produce better evidence than that!" "Why didn't he mention this or that?" and, "Why is he talking about this, it's a huge digression?" etc. The evidence he provided is actually overwhelmingly convincing, the problem is that there is actually even better evidence out there that he didn't talk about (or that he only mentions in passing). I did learn about a few lines of evidence that I didn't know about before, so in that sense it was worth the time I spent. I just wish that he had done a better job, since I completely agree with him that we badly need this sort of a text today.

Second, his atheism:

Dawkins is a staunch atheist. Now, Dawkins claims that his primary purpose is to provide the evidence for evolution in order to save those who have been deluded by those he calls the "history deniers." That is his term for those creationists who deny the fact that evolution happened in order to cling to Biblical inerrancy. But if that was his goal, then he should have left his atheism on its shelf, at least for the duration of this text. In fact, in the introduction, he claims that this is what he is going to do. However, it appears that Dawkins is so enamored of his atheistic position that he is incapable of doing so, and I fear that it chased away the very people he was trying so hard to reach.

I vastly preferred "Why Evolution is True" by Jerry Coyne. That book is what this book should have been. If you are looking for a good book on the evidence for evolution, Coyne's book is the one I would suggest instead.


Ian said...

Actually, he does explicitly leave a bunch of things out, for the stated reason that they've already been covered in other books, such as Why Evolution is True.

I thought his book was pretty decent, myself.


James Carroll said...

That is on my list of things to read next, but I think he does a disservice to his readers who haven't read the other books if he leaves out the best evidence because he figures that it has already been presented elsewhere (in his defense, he does present numerous pointers to "Why Evolution is True" throughout his text).

This wasn't a scholarly publication where the point is to present only new material. It is a secondary "popularization" of the science, where the point is to teach people who presumably DON'T already know, and therefore presumably haven't read the other texts.

I gave the book three stars, so I too "thought his book was pretty descent", I was just disappointed that it wasn't GREAT I guess.

Jen and Rob said...

Dawkins came to my school and he spoke at the basketball arena. I was interested, being as he's kinda a big whig in his area. Two big points came out. He basically read excerpts from his book then did a q&a.

1) His example of man entering a room and is seen on camera, is seen leaving the room and it just happens to be perfect timing for a murder. He likens people denying there wasn't enough connection to the murder as those that say the missing links in the human evolution chain prove that evolution didn't occur. If you've read the book, you know what I'm talking about. I thought it was a good example.

2) Like you mentioned, he uses bad examples. One which any junior high student would be able to recognize was that of marsupials and Noah. He says that if the bible were true, then there should be a trail of marsupials who wondered off and took up residence in parts of the world that are along the path from Mt. Arararat down to Australia. And he said, "but there's not." Afterwards, I checked on wiki to see how opposums ended up in the Americas. Well after reading a few pages, it turns out there actually is a path leading to Australia coming from Eurasia where groups of marsupials live. Come on man, that's just crappy work.

Like you said, I think there are way better examples he could have used. Of course, someone with a nice British accent speaking on interest subject matter is a draw.

James Carroll said...

I think your example with the Marsupials quote may be slightly overly critical. He IS correct that we have an evolutionary trail of different creatures evolving in different locations going back millions of years, each connected to different focused geographic areas and trails, instead of a single universal trail going from Mt. Ararat to the rest of the world a few thousand years ago.

This general idea is very powerful evidence for evolution, and in that sense he is correct. But the problem is that it wasn't obvious to you (and therefore I assume to other readers) exactly how this difference functioned as convincing evidence. And that is too bad.