Authors: Richard Dawkins
The Greatest Show on Earth
THE evidence for evolution grows by the day, and has never been stronger. At the same time, paradoxically, ill-informed opposition is also stronger than I can remember. This book is my personal summary of the evidence that the ‘theory’ of evolution is actually a fact – as incontrovertible a fact as any in science.
It is not the first book I have written about evolution, and I need to explain what’s different about it. It could be described as my missing link. The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype offered an unfamiliar vision of the familiar theory of natural selection, but they didn’t discuss the evidence for evolution itself. My next three books, in their different ways, sought to identify, and dissolve, the main barriers to understanding. These books, The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden and (my favourite of the three) Climbing Mount Improbable, answered questions like, ‘What is the use of half an eye?’ ‘What is the use of half a wing?’ ‘How can natural selection work, given that most mutations have negative effects?’ Once again, however, these three books, although they cleared away stumbling blocks, did not present the actual evidence that evolution is a fact. My largest book, The Ancestor’s Tale, laid out the full course of the history of life, as a sort of ancestor-seeking Chaucerian pilgrimage going backwards in time, but it again assumed that evolution is true.
Looking back on those books, I realized that the evidence for evolution itself was nowhere explicitly set out, and that this was a serious gap that I needed to close. The year 2009 seemed like a good time, it being the bicentennial year of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species. Not surprisingly, the same thought occurred to others, and the year has seen some excellent volumes, most notably Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True. My highly favourable review of his book in the Times Literary Supplement is reproduced at http://richarddawkins.net/article,3594,Heat-the-Hornet,Richard-Dawkins.
The working title under which my literary agent, the visionary and indefatigable John Brockman, offered my book to publishers was Only a Theory. It later turned out that Kenneth Miller had already pre-empted that title for his book-length response to one of those remarkable courtroom trials by which scientific syllabuses are occasionally decided (a trial in which he played a heroic part). In any case, I had always doubted the title’s suitability for my book, and I was ready to shelve it when I found that the perfect title had been lurking on another shelf all along. Some years ago, an anonymous well-wisher had sent me a T-shirt bearing the Barnumesque slogan: ‘Evolution, the Greatest Show on Earth, the Only Game in Town’. From time to time I have worn it to give a lecture with that title, and I suddenly realized that it was ideal for this book even if, in its entirety, it was too long. I shortened it to The Greatest Show on Earth. ‘Only a Theory’, with a precautionary question mark to guard against creationist quote-mining, would do nicely as the heading to Chapter 1.
I have been helped in various ways by many people, including Michael Yudkin, Richard Lenski, George Oster, Caroline Pond, Henri D. Grissino-Mayer, Jonathan Hodgkin, Matt Ridley, Peter Holland, Walter Joyce, Yan Wong, Will Atkinson, Latha Menon, Christopher Graham, Paula Kirby, Lisa Bauer, Owen Selly, Victor Flynn, Karen Owens, John Endler, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Sheila Lee, Phil Lord, Christine DeBlase and Rand Russell. Sally Gaminara and Hilary Redmon, and their teams in (respectively) Britain and America, have been wonderfully supportive and can-do-ish. On three occasions while the book was going through the final stages of production, exciting new discoveries were reported in the scientific literature. Each time, I diffidently asked if the orderly and complex procedures of publication might be violated to accommodate the new find. On all three occasions, far from grumbling at such disruptive last-minutemanship, as any normal publisher might, Sally and Hilary greeted the suggestion with cheerful enthusiasm and moved mountains to make it happen. Equally eager and helpful was Gillian Somerscales, who copy-edited and collated the book with literate intelligence and sensitivity.
My wife Lalla Ward has once again sustained me with unfailing encouragement, helpful stylistic criticisms and characteristically stylish suggestions. The book was conceived and begun during my last months in the professorship that bears the name of Charles Simonyi, and completed after I retired. In signing off as Simonyi Professor, fourteen years and seven books after our momentous first meeting, I would once again like to express my grateful appreciation to Charles. Lalla joins me in hoping that our friendship will long continue.
This book is dedicated to Josh Timonen, with thanks to him and to the small and dedicated band who originally worked with him to set up RichardDawkins.net. The web knows Josh as an inspired site designer, but that is just the tip of an amazing iceberg. Josh’s creative talent runs deep, but the image of the iceberg captures neither the versatile breadth of his contributions to our joint endeavour, nor the warm good humour with which he makes them.
ONLY A THEORY?
IMAGINE that you are a teacher of Roman history and the Latin language, anxious to impart your enthusiasm for the ancient world – for the elegiacs of Ovid and the odes of Horace, the sinewy economy of Latin grammar as exhibited in the oratory of Cicero, the strategic niceties of the Punic Wars, the generalship of Julius Caesar and the voluptuous excesses of the later emperors. That’s a big undertaking and it takes time, concentration, dedication. Yet you find your precious time continually preyed upon, and your class’s attention distracted, by a baying pack of ignoramuses (as a Latin scholar you would know better than to say ‘ignorami’) who, with strong political and especially financial support, scurry about tirelessly attempting to persuade your unfortunate pupils that the Romans never existed. There never was a Roman Empire. The entire world came into existence only just beyond living memory. Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, Catalan, Occitan, Romansh: all these languages and their constituent dialects sprang spontaneously and separately into being, and owe nothing to any predecessor such as Latin. Instead of devoting your full attention to the noble vocation of classical scholar and teacher, you are forced to divert your time and energy to a rearguard defence of the proposition that the Romans existed at all: a defence against an exhibition of ignorant prejudice that would make you weep if you weren’t too busy fighting it.
If my fantasy of the Latin teacher seems too wayward, here’s a more realistic example. Imagine you are a teacher of more recent history, and your lessons on twentieth-century Europe are boycotted, heckled or otherwise disrupted by well-organized, well-financed and politically muscular groups of Holocaust-deniers. Unlike my hypothetical Rome-deniers, Holocaust-deniers really exist. They are vocal, superficially plausible, and adept at seeming learned. They are supported by the president of at least one currently powerful state, and they include at least one bishop of the Roman Catholic Church. Imagine that, as a teacher of European history, you are continually faced with belligerent demands to ‘teach the controversy’, and to give ‘equal time’ to the ‘alternative theory’ that the Holocaust never happened but was invented by a bunch of Zionist fabricators. Fashionably relativist intellectuals chime in to insist that there is no absolute truth: whether the Holocaust happened is a matter of personal belief; all points of view are equally valid and should be equally ‘respected’.
The plight of many science teachers today is not less dire. When they attempt to expound the central and guiding principle of biology; when they honestly place the living world in its historical context – which means evolution; when they explore and explain the very nature of life itself, they are harried and stymied, hassled and bullied, even threatened with loss of their jobs. At the very least their time is wasted at every turn. They are likely to receive menacing letters from parents, and have to endure the sarcastic smirks and close-folded arms of brainwashed children. They are supplied with state-approved textbooks that have had the word ‘evolution’ systematically expunged, or bowdlerized into ‘change over time’. Once, we were tempted to laugh this kind of thing off as a peculiarly American phenomenon. Teachers in Britain and Europe now face the same problems, partly because of American influence, but more significantly because of the growing Islamic presence in the classroom – abetted by the official commitment to ‘multiculturalism’ and the terror of being thought racist.
It is frequently, and rightly, said that senior clergy and theologians have no problem with evolution and, in many cases, actively support scientists in this respect. This is often true, as I know from the agreeable experience of collaborating with the then Bishop of Oxford, now Lord Harries, on two separate occasions. In 2004 we wrote a joint article in the Sunday Times whose concluding words were: ‘Nowadays there is nothing to debate. Evolution is a fact and, from a Christian perspective, one of the greatest of God’s works.’ The last sentence was written by Richard Harries, but we agreed about all the rest of our article. Two years previously, Bishop Harries and I had organized a joint letter to the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, which read as follows:Dear Prime Minister,
We write as a group of scientists and Bishops to express our concern about the teaching of science in the Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead.
Evolution is a scientific theory of great explanatory power, able to account for a wide range of phenomena in a number of disciplines. It can be refined, confirmed and even radically altered by attention to evidence. It is not, as spokesmen for the college maintain, a ‘faith position’ in the same category as the biblical account of creation which has a different function and purpose.
The issue goes wider than what is currently being taught in one college. There is a growing anxiety about what will be taught and how it will be taught in the new generation of proposed faith schools. We believe that the curricula in such schools, as well as that of Emmanuel City Technology College, need to be strictly monitored in order that the respective disciplines of science and religious studies are properly respected.
The Rt Revd Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford; Sir David Attenborough FRS; The Rt Revd Christopher Herbert, Bishop of St Albans; Lord May of Oxford, President of the Royal Society;
Professor John Enderby FRS, Physical Secretary, Royal Society; The Rt Revd John Oliver, Bishop of Hereford; The Rt Revd Mark Santer, Bishop of Birmingham; Sir Neil Chalmers, Director, Natural History Museum; The Rt Revd Thomas Butler, Bishop of Southwark; Sir Martin Rees FRS, Astronomer Royal; The Rt Revd Kenneth Stevenson, Bishop of Portsmouth; Professor Patrick Bateson FRS, Biological Secretary, Royal Society; The Rt Revd Crispian Hollis, Roman Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth; Sir Richard Southwood FRS; Sir Francis Graham-Smith FRS, Past Physical Secretary, Royal Society; Professor Richard Dawkins FRS
Bishop Harries and I organized this letter in a hurry. As far as I remember, the signatories to the letter constituted 100 per cent of those we approached. There was no disagreement either from scientists or from bishops.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has no problem with evolution, nor does the Pope (give or take the odd wobble over the precise palaeontological juncture when the human soul was injected), nor do educated priests and professors of theology. This is a book about the positive evidence that evolution is a fact. It is not intended as an anti-religious book. I’ve done that, it’s another T-shirt, this is not the place to wear it again. Bishops and theologians who have attended to the evidence for evolution have given up the struggle against it. Some may do so reluctantly, some, like Richard Harries, enthusiastically, but all except the woefully uninformed are forced to accept the fact of evolution. They may think God had a hand in starting the process off, and perhaps didn’t stay his hand in guiding its future progress. They probably think God cranked the universe up in the first place, and solemnized its birth with a harmonious set of laws and physical constants calculated to fulfil some inscrutable purpose in which we were eventually to play a role. But, grudgingly in some cases, happily in others, thoughtful and rational churchmen and women accept the evidence for evolution.
What we must not do is complacently assume that, because bishops and educated clergy accept evolution, so do their congregations. Alas, as I have documented in the Appendix, there is ample evidence to the contrary from opinion polls. More than 40 per cent of Americans deny that humans evolved from other animals, and think that we – and by implication all of life – were created by God within the last 10,000 years. The figure is not quite so high in Britain, but it is still worryingly large. And it should be as worrying to the churches as it is to scientists. This book is necessary. I shall be using the name ‘history-deniers’ for those people who deny evolution: who believe the world’s age is measured in thousands of years rather than thousands of millions of years, and who believe humans walked with dinosaurs. To repeat, they constitute more than 40 per cent of the American population. The equivalent figure is higher in some countries, lower in others, but 40 per cent is a good average and I shall from time to time refer to the history-deniers as the ‘40-percenters’.
To return to the enlightened bishops and theologians, it would be nice if they’d put a bit more effort into combating the anti-scientific nonsense that they deplore. All too many preachers, while agreeing that evolution is true and Adam and Eve never existed, will then blithely go into the pulpit and make some moral or theological point about Adam and Eve in their sermons without once mentioning that, of course, Adam and Eve never actually existed! If challenged, they will protest that they intended a purely ‘symbolic’ meaning, perhaps something to do with ‘original sin’, or the virtues of innocence. They may add witheringly that, obviously, nobody would be so foolish as to take their words literally. But do their congregations know that? How is the person in the pew, or on the prayer-mat, supposed to know which bits of scripture to take literally, which symbolically? Is it really so easy for an uneducated churchgoer to guess? In all too many cases the answer is clearly no, and anybody could be forgiven for feeling confused. If you don’t believe me, look at the Appendix.