By Caroline Huang ’13, thurj Staff
“Do you believe in evolution?”
People either accept evolution as a fact or they don’t believe in it—rarely do you meet a person without an opinion. When I posed this question to my roommate I was attempting to be diplomatic, but I regretted it almost immediately afterwards. Was the question too prying? Should I have attempted to segue smoothly into the subject, with some backup topic ready to return to, instead of opening our conversation with that particular inquiry? It was odd to talk and think about a scientific theory as if it was a taboo subject; normally only social issues merit this aura of untouchability. The theory of evolution may be unique in its capacity to stir up conflict and discomfort. I would not feel at all uneasy posing a similar question to my roommate about quantum theory (which is generally much less well-known and understood), and likely she would not have paused for one telling second before replying with an air of certainty: “no.”
November 24, 2009—just shy of three months after Richard Dawkins published his book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution—marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s seminal work of evolutionary biology, On the Origin of Species. Charles Darwin’s own 200th birthday was in February of the same year. The flap of Dawkins’ newest book informs us that a 2008 Gallup poll found that over 40 percent of Americans deny evolution. Ostensibly they are his audience for this book, for he spends most of the first chapter discussing the viewpoints of his “40-percenters” and stating that the message of the book is to convince the reader that “Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact.” In his preface, Dawkins notes that in his previous books he has assumed the theory of evolution without providing the facts that confirm it, but catalyzed by the glaring reality of these 40 percent of Americans the “history-deniers,” he sets out to prove the theory of evolution in The Greatest Show on Earth.
As Dawkins explains in his second chapter, evolution is often misunderstood in popular culture as the idea that humans evolved from other apes. Instead of claiming that we evolved from modern chimpanzees or orangutans, the theory of evolution holds that we shared a common ancestor with them that was neither ape nor human, but would eventually, over millions of years and a staggering number of generations, evolve into the different primates that we see today. He also disperses another common misconception by explaining that evolution itself involves an entire species—not just one organism. The mechanisms of evolution only work because of the variation in each species that allows nature to select for certain traits in a population.
After explaining the basics of evolution, Dawkins meticulously discusses the different agents of evolution and the evidence left behind by those paths that we can examine. He even goes as far as to explain the methods that we can use to date the fossils and other remains and how they can be cross-checked with each other. He doesn’t state facts; he explains how the processes involved in evolution and studying evolution work.
It is evident from his writing that Dawkins is an expert on the subject of evolution and is well-practiced against battling the non-believers. To counter the Creationist idea that the world is less than 10,000 years old, he draws upon evidence from radioactive dating. In the face of the argument that animals are too perfectly evolved to have been the product of an unconscious design-by-nature, he shows the ridiculously long detour of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in a giraffe’s neck—some extra 15 feet—that serves as a reminder of its gilled ancestors. Gaps in the fossil record? We are lucky to have a fossil record at all, and given the miniscule chances of fossilization our collection is actually quite large and compelling. To refute the idea that evolution from a simple, singled-celled organism, even if it were possible, would have taken longer than the approximately four billion years since life first appeared on earth, Dawkins quotes J.B.S. Haldane, one of the most important figures in neo-Darwinism: “You did it yourself in nine months.”
The book is accessible to anyone with an open mind and an interest in the subject. Dawkins knows exactly how long to linger on a particular subject and how far in depth his audience will care to go into a certain experiment. Plus, the accompanying pictures and supplementary color pages make for an even more enlightening and enjoyable reading experience.
Now the question remains: if you are a Creationist why would you read this book?
I am reminded of a time when my other roommate, a vegan, attended a debate on vegetarianism. Before the conversation began, the representative from PETA asked those who were present, “How many of you are vegan or vegetarian?” More than 90 percent of the audience raised their hands. Is Dawkins merely preaching to the choir?
Despite professing to address his 40-percenters, I cannot say that his book is written for a Creationist audience. His tone often borders on belligerent and his comparison of the evolution-denier to the Holocaust-denier could only serve to alienate the very people he seems to want to convince. However, he writes as if trying to engage in the discussion with the opponent, stating and then refuting each of the standard arguments against evolution brought up by Creationists.
The evidence that Dawkins manages to fit into a book of easily readable length is vast—from fossil records to scientific experiments, from selective breeding by humans to sexual reproduction in fish—but evolution-deniers may be most convinced by the arguments he presents near the end of his book in his chapter concerning theodicy.
Theodicy is the attempt to reconcile the goodness of God with the presence of evil in the world. In evolutionary terms, one might expect a beneficent creator to reduce the amount of suffering in the world, but that is not the case. The natural state of the world is one of famine, of pain and suffering, and of distress—all this clearly demonstrated in most predator-prey relationships. The specific example that Dawkins chooses to highlight was one that disturbed Darwin as well—the behavior of ichneumon wasps. The females meticulously paralyze and lay eggs in live caterpillars. Their eggs hatch into larvae that proceed to consume the caterpillar inside out in a manner which maximizes suffering by starting with the least important innards before consuming the essential ones—such as the heart—to keep the caterpillars alive as long as they can. This insures that the meat is fresh for the offspring. Do caterpillars feel pain? Dawkins hopes not.
Even theodicy, however, is not a compelling argument for some. The existence of evil in the world is justified easily enough as a result of Adam and Eve’s abuse of free will that led to their expulsion from Eden. Perhaps, more than anything else, this book is a manifestation of the idea that science and religion simply don’t mix. By this, I don’t mean to say that one can’t be both a scientist and religious, but that faith-based evidence should not be used to support or denounce scientific theory, just as scientific evidence is not used to sustain faith. The existence of a place like Eden and the motivations and actions of a divine Creator are all part of the supernatural, and science does not deal with the supernatural.
After reading The Greatest Show on Earth, there is no doubt that the overwhelming evidence for evolution can be found in sources as varied as every organism on the planet. Yet in the face of religion does any of this matter? It is clearly not lack of evidence that has left so many people unconvinced; maybe what Dawkins has shown is that it is impossible to write a book about evolution for Creationists. But this is no fault of the author whose argument is seamless; rather it is a testament to the irreconcilability of science and religion in this debate.