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Authors: Richard Dawkins

The Greatest Show on Earth (42 page)

BOOK: The Greatest Show on Earth
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* Darwin told us that he derived his original inspiration for natural selection from Thomas Malthus, and perhaps this particular phrase of Darwin was prompted by the following apocalyptic paragraph, called to my attention by my friend Matt Ridley: ‘Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague, advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and ten-thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow, levels the population with the food of the world.’

* I wish I could believe that.

* Religious traditions have long identified life with breath. ‘Spirit’ comes from the Latin for ‘breath’. Genesis has God first making Adam and then firing him up by breathing into his nostrils. The Hebrew word for ‘soul’ is ruah or ruach (cognate ruh in Arabic), which also means ‘breath’, ‘wind’, ‘inspiration’.
† The term was coined in 1907 by the French philosopher Henri Bergson. I’ve always treasured Julian Huxley’s sarcastic deduction that railway trains must be propelled by élan locomotif.

* It is with horrified fascination that I return, as if scratching an itch or pressing a toothache, to the poll, documented in the Appendix, suggesting that 19% of British people don’t know what a year is, and think the Earth orbits the sun once per month. Even of those who understand what a year is, a larger percentage has no understanding of what causes seasons, presuming, with rampant Northern Hemisphere chauvinism, that we are closest to the sun in June and furthest away in December.

* ‘Every Schoolboy Knows’ (and every schoolgirl can prove it by Euclidean geometry).

* It is no accident that Claude Shannon, when developing his metric of ‘information’, which is itself a measure of statistical improbability, lit upon exactly the same mathematical formula that Ludwig Boltzman had developed for entropy in the previous century.

* Insects, crustaceans, spiders, centipedes, etc.
† For example, a mutation in the leg of a millipede will be mirrored on both sides, and probably repeated the length of the body as well. Although it is a single mutation, embryological processes constrain it to be repeated many times left and right. It may at first seem paradoxical that a constraint should increase the evolutionary versatility of a clade. The reason is spelled out in the same chapter of Climbing Mount Improbable, ‘Kaleidoscopic Embryos’.

BOOK: The Greatest Show on Earth
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