Thursday, January 28, 2010

_The Greatest Show on Earth_ by Richard Dawkins

Image from Amazon and used to link there.

This week I'm enjoying this book, subtitled The Evidence for Evolution, by prominent evolution proponent Dawkins. I've read several Dawkins books before, though it has been a while. I didn't think I'd enjoy this one as much as I am. This book's approach is to be an enthusiastic depiction of the evidence in favor of evolution. It's hard to say how this is different from Dawkins' other books, although my main memory is of detailed explorations of how evolution works.

What is feeding most of my enjoyment of this book is its collection of fun animal facts. For example, he mentions a fish that has an extra, downward-facing eye growing out of each eye.

I like the way Dawkins leads you through certain important ramifications of evolution. He talks about turtles evolving as reptiles that went back to the water, then back to the land, and possibly repeated the trip. This points out how evolution is a journey without a destination, and that the direction of it can change at any time, a fact that argues against any design in nature.

A discussion of the artificiality of names for species was interesting too. He talks about how many controversies arise from taxonomic arguments over how to name creatures, and says that if species could be evaluated against the continuum of all of their dead relatives, it would be hard to put any creature in any one category...because you'd then be conscious of the unbroken connections between all species.

For example, to paraphrase his discussion: suppose you were presented with one thousand birds, all of them related parent to child. Suppose that at the older and younger ends of the spectrum, they were clearly different species, one therefore a descendant of the other. You are asked to divide the animals by species. Wherever you draw the line, you are splitting a parent and child into two different absurdity.

This isn't obvious with living animals simpy because the intervening animals are dead and gone.

I might post other tidbits; I'm about halfway through. I'm enjoying it a lot.


  1. The point that evolution is adaptive rather than aimed at some sort of perfected goal seems to escape almost every layperson who approaches the subject, so it probably can never be stressed enough.

    Comic book and cheap sci fi film evolution, I'm looking at you as I write this.

  2. Reading farther, I see that Dawkins provides good reasons why people make the mistake of seeing design in nature. He does a pretty good job of being evenhanded in this book, but at the same time most chapters are infused with a strong sense of frustration and OMG why can't people get this...really, I'm surprised he has any patience left at all.

    Anyway, I just finished a passage where he talks about arms races in nature, and says that if you look only at a cheetah, you'll be amazed by its design-for-speed appearance, and if you look at a gazelle, you'll feel the same. I think I'm butchering the argument here, but basically neither needs to be at the extreme end of the speed continuum without the other...and what kind of sadistic creator would create such creatures, to hunt one another? A designer would know he's also making the cheetah faster, when he increases the speed on the gazelle. That moves you towards thoughts of pawns.