Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth
*** (79+ / 122 - )
I am a critic of Dawkins. I wrote a response to The God Delusion ("The Truth Behind the New Atheism"), the essence of which could be summarized by paraphrasing a comment Dawkins makes in this book:
It would be nice if those who oppose evolution (Christianity) would take a tiny bit of trouble to learn the merest rudiments of what it is that they are opposing.
Nevertheless, when I saw this book on the "best-seller" rack in the same store in Dawkins' home town where I bought GD, I thought I'd give him a second chance.
I'm glad I did; this is a much better book. It's well-written, as always. It has awesome photos and lots of humor. Clearly Dawkins is much more in his element talking about life forms than theology, the history of religion, or American culture. Sometimes Dawkins gets carried away with whimsy, sarcasm, or on tangents -- but those are often entertaining, too.
More importantly, Dawkins makes a case for evolution, in a limitted sense, that I think is fairly persuasive. What he establishes is evolution in the sense of, "common descent, over billions of years, from relatively simple life to the myriad creatures." On that, I think his argument should be persuasive to anyone open to being persuaded.
But why does an Oxford zoologist insist on "debating" only the most ignorant opponents? Why does he give us a more than four page transcript of his conversation with a representative from Concerned Women for America, whom he tears to pieces to his evident satisfaction, and never mention any proponent of Intelligent Design?
I was hoping he would. I wanted to read Dawkins' best argument against the most convincing arguments the other side could put up, for the curious reason that I really would like to know if there's anything to ID.
Instead, I found a strange but yawning "gap" in Dawkins' argument.
Dawkins knows who Michael Behe is. He wrote a review of his last book, The Edge of Evolution, for the New York Times. He never mentions him overtly in this book, but he does refer to him, at least twice. On page 128, Dawkins refers to "the 'irreducible complexity' of creationist propaganda." Then again on 132, he writes how "creationists" revile a certain set of experiments, because they show the power of natural selection "undermines their central dogma of irreducible complexity." As Dawkins well knows, "Irreducible complexity" (IC) is the signal idea in Behe's popular Darwin's Black Box, probably the most widely-cited book in the ID arsenal.
These references occur in an interesting context here. You find them in a chapter called "Before Our Own Eyes," about the fact that on occasion, evolution occurs so rapidly that it can be witnessed. More specifically, Dawkins offers these jibes towards the beginning of a seventeen-page long discussion of the biologist Richard Lenski's famous experiments with e-coli.
Dawkins discussion of these experiments is more than a little flabbergasting, giving his implicit claim to have read Edge of Evolution. Behe discussed those experiments in that book, in quite a bit of detail as I recall. Behe also discussed the mutations Dawkins refers to here, in a blog about a year prior to the publication of this book. Dawkins mentions none of that. He says nothing about the probability of particular mutations compared to population size. He doesn't even deal with the physiological detail Behe gave. Reading this, it is hard to believe that he even read chapter 7 of Behe's book, still less his blog on how one "tribe" of e-coli found a way to metabolize citrate. He imagines that these experimental results are a great blow to Behe's concept of IC, completely overlooking the fact that these results are just what Behe predicted! A single instance of a probably double mutation in e coli after trillions of cell divisions, is closely in line with Behe's predictions. Surely someone as literate as Dawkins ought to be able to see this. Behe wrote in his blog a year ago:
In The Edge of Evolution I had argued that the extreme rarity of the development of chloroquine resistance in malaria was likely the result of the need for several mutations to occur before the trait appeared. Even though the evolutionary literature contains discussions of multiple mutations, Darwinian reviewers drew back in horror, acted as if I had blasphemed, and argued desperately that a series of single beneficial mutations certainly could do the trick. Now here we have Richard Lenski affirming that the evolution of some pretty simple cellular features likely requires multiple mutations.
So Behe knows very well that duel mutations can aid in evolution on occasion. How bizarre for Dawkins to treat the same thing here as the death knell of IC!
Dawkins also claims that in Lenski's experiment:
It all happened in a tiny faction of the time evolution normally takes.
Nonsense. 20,000 generations is the equivalent of 400,000 years for human beings. A trillion individuals would be equal to perhaps 20 million years of early human evolution.
Dawkins then talks about how bacteria develop resistance to drugs -- the main subject of Behe's book, but he takes no notice whatsoever of any of the tough details Behe discusses. All we get are glib words of comfort for anyone who might doubt the power of evolution, and an attack on "goons and fools" at some conservative web site led by a lawyer. Dawkins seems to refuse to engage in any but the most childish contrary arguments -- a remarkable act of self-discipline for a scholar.
I'm finding it hard to "place" this guy. There's no doubt he knows a lot about the natural world, and is in love with its wonders. No one can deny that he is a brilliant and evocative writer, that his similes are often moving and suggestive, and that many eminent scientists swear by him. Nor would I deny this book is worth reading.
But Richard Dawkins seems to me less a scholar, and even rhetorical pugalist, than that sort of mythologist, like Freud, Nietzche, or Marx, who cloaks his beliefs in the language but not always the rigor of scientific argument. To the extent he argues, he only seems inclined to take on the easiest possible targets; indeed one gets the feeling both here and in GD that he is talking down to his readers.
Nonetheless, it's not a bad book. Read it for the beautiful descriptions of the natural world, and for its fairly convincing argument for common descent. If you want an argument against ID, the best I have found so far is Michael Shermer's Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design.