8 February 2010

Richard Dawkins "Greatest Show on Earth"

If I wasn't an indoctrinated corporate drone I would be a scientist, and indeed, back when I was a wee boy I dreamed of becoming a geologist. Boy, did I know my gray rocks from the slightly lighter gray rocks and so on. I took great delight in walks in nature finding moraines and tills and other long-gone remnants of geological implication (glaciers, mostly), and I could tell rombeporfyr from feltspat and point out the probable processes involved in creating the shapes and colors. It was a glorious time, and I've still got it I think (and I've passed it on to my kids who always make me carry tons of rocks back home ... there's poetic justice if I ever heard it), but nowadays mostly through the local geography (which is interesting in its own mind as the Kiama area are remnants of several epochs of volcanic activity on top of sandstone, with a strong iron presence. I'll probable make a post about all this in the future sometime).

Knowing something about geology makes you somewhat aware of what's known as geological time, a time frame that spans billions of years. And, as some might suspect, trying to get a grip on what 'billions of years' for a mere human is is a daunting and often failed task. But a rudimentary understanding of geological time and processes also rendered me immune to a lot of otherwise human misunderstanding and nonsense that our cultures have built up over time to explain all that which we didn't understand. So if you understand unstable (ie. radioactive) isotopes in rocks and their half-life, how they break down (as a figure of speech) from an unstable to a stable form, you have no problem understanding other processes that also runs across billions of years, and indeed, runs parallel to geological time and processes. And to someone who not only knows a few things about rocks but also those things which you find inside rocks, evolution is not hard to grasp, at least not the tenant that it is right there, in front of you, staring back at you after you chipped that piece of rock off from the rock wall. For me, it was the most natural thing, and indeed sparked my deep interest in all things biological as well.

So for me to read Dawkins book "Greatest show on earth" was more like a dumbed-down defense of something that I thought no one was stupid enough to refute. But, there it was, in the first chapter, a fleshing out that there were indeed idiots out there who just could grasp the most basic notions and evidence, people who actually thought everything we see now has been unchanging for all the time the earth and the universe have existed; about 10.000 years. Huh? *blink* Maybe the sub-title should have tipped me off; "The evidence for evolution", as if we needed more evidence than what was taught in school.

Then I realized that not all the kids I went to school with paid too much attention when such big issues came up. They probably passed the tests and all, but I did not see them engage with (or annoy with too many questions) the teacher the way I think I did, they didn't go out into the woods to climb rocks and find fossils themselves, they didn't deduce the layers of a side of a deep canyon with a river at the bottom who was responsible for the canyon, who dug it, how the shape came to be. I guess they ended up not knowing as much, at least not on these subjects.

And that was the greatest surprise for me; the world really needs to be convinced that evolution is real?

It was like someone pinched me; here I was thinking our human species were going places, and then I found out that the truth somehow is in question, that people were actively disagreeing with the fact that the earth was flat, young and static (and yes, that was satire). Looking at their argument against is nothing short of a laughing matter, all attributed to the fact that their faith is in disagreement with the science. Ouch. So who do we think is right? The people of faith and no facts, or thousands of scientists working together for hundreds of years on the greatest Utopian adventure humankind has ever ventured on? Oh, the irony.

A few observations I need to point out, though, is that when you read the book, try to read it in the voice of Richard Dawkins himself; it will make the book so much better, the arguments come alive and the longer hard words stand out with better diction. When I read some of the things it wasn't until I heard him read it himself that the words obtained a greater sense of beauty, and I'm pressed to say that I prefer him talking.

Another nitpick is how Dawkins repeatedly say that "he won't deal with that anymore" or at all, because he or someone else have written about it elsewhere. That is fine if the reader is an avid fanatic, frantically buying and reading everything the man or those others have ever written, but for the rest of us that stands out as a balloon of evidence just being deflated, making that horrible noise in the process. Don't do that; mention at least the main interesting tidbits that fit in your context, and then provide further references.

But still, for me, in short, is that the book is great; it's well-written, perhaps two notches too intelligent in places (c'mon, references to poetry? Who reads poetry anymore? And it uses a lot of big words, excluding huge parts of the intended audience), but a tad bit too apologetic as there is nothing excusable about being ignorant by choice (although I understand that this angle is mostly for the US market) and, I feel, just way too soft on the "opposition." These people are clearly not just history deniers, they are outright dishonest about their thirst for truth and knowledge, probably wouldn't know epistemology if it hit them over the head, cannot fathom that human traits and physiology only makes sense in evolutionary terms (have you checked your vestigial parts lately?), and since the discovery of genetics the huge amount of science that only works if evolution is true over geological time. I agree that thinking evolution is not true is crazy on a scale of, err, biblical proportions, and as much as I this book wasn't for me, I guess there is a strong need for it if there truly are this many nut cases out there who will deny anything if it doesn't sync with their faith or holy book. Weird and sad, but then that's what happens when you deny truth and, you know, that which sits right in front of you just waiting to be seen.


  1. I thought the book was a just what was needed. The accessibility of the book is Dawkins greatest achievement here. It is tough to refute his simple yet comprehensive descriptions of things but I'm sure some people will try.

  2. I personally find it great when people do not believe in evolution, or mistrust science alltogether.

    It allows me (a) to have a competetive edge over them in terms of predictive power. Think bayesian, think inference. And (b) it gives me something I can make fun of.

    Difficult to say which counts more for me...