The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution is Richard Dawkins’s latest book, a readable review of the scientific evidence for Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection. Apparently, Dawkins realized that his last several books about biology and religion assumed that the reader understood and accepted the evidence for evolution, so he decided that he needed a book to lay out the evidence. Dawkins covers a lot of ground in his discussion, weaving discoveries in paleontology, embryology, anatomy, genetics, artificial breeding and geography together to demonstrate the depth and breadth of the evidence that leads to a nearly inescapable conclusion: natural selection acting on isolated populations inevitably leads to biological diversity.
After explaining how frustrating it is to defend Evolution from those who deny it (a frustration he says is akin to a historian dealing without someone who who denies the existence of the Roman Empire), he starts by showing how powerfully artificial selection modifies pets, plants, and livestock for our human purposes. From there, he shows that the same techniques that turned ancient cabbage into both cauliflower and kohlrabi are used in nature for species to adapt to the world around them. When given enough time (he explains radiometric and other dating techniques), genetic isolation (whether geographic or by humans keeping dog breeds pure), and an environment that prefers some traits over others, speciation is inevitable.
Other chapters cover hominid evolution, the fallacy of looking for a specific “missing link”, embryological development, vestigial traits that show our history as descending from fish, and molecular genetic proof of the shape of the tree of life, amongst other relevant topics.
Unlike Dawkins’s previous book, this book is focused on science, not religion. However, Dawkins seemingly can’t help himself from taking a few shots at religious ideas like creationism and Intelligent Design that some promote in lieu of scientifically-backed evidence. I think these asides are unfortunate, not because they are condescending (as some find them) or unamusing (they can be hilarious, as in his encounter with someone who refuses to go to a museum to see the evidence), but because it’s sad that a conversation about scientific inquiry has been tainted by religious interference. If this were a book on plate tectonics, defense against religious recalcitrance would be unnecessary. I hope someday biology can get to that level of discussion.
Overall, this is an entertaining and educational book. Dawkins covers a lot of ground and gives a lot of good background for how the evidence for Darwinian evolution is broad and deep. While he covers a lot of information, he stays at a very readable level, leaving the scientific rigor available in the end notes and bibliography. He saves the footnotes for amusing anecdotes and tales of animal and human behavior that demonstrate his points.
Note: I will be presenting a review of the The Greatest Show on Earth during the St. Louis Ethical Society‘s Forum tomorrow morning at 9:45 (March 14, 2010). Please come see it if you’re interested, and here’s the presentation I’ll give in case you can’t make it: