THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH by Richard Dawkins

A summary of the non-fiction reading group discussion held on 28 June 2012

This book was first published in 2009 by British biologist Richard Dawkins.  It sets out the evidence for biological evolution, and is Dawkins’s 10th book, following his bestselling critique of religion The God Delusion (2006) and The Ancestor’s Tale (2004), which traced human ancestry back to the dawn of life.

“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.”
—Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth, p. vii

The non-fiction reading group met on Thursday 28 June and these are the notes of our discussion.

It was proposed that besides the repetitiveness of Dawkins’ narrative style the book was problematic in so far as one is either a creationist or an evolutionist and most probably no argument will convince the former.

This was supported by the observation that perhaps it was unfortunate the group did not contain any creationists, especially as over sixty percent of people in Turkey and nearly as many in the West are creationists.  However, it was pointed out that belief in God and in evolution is not mutually exclusive – as Dawkins also points out in his book.

Furthermore, although it came up later in the discussion,The Greatest Show on Earth was compared favourably to an earlier work by Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, which did not have the same chatty style and therefore was quite off putting as a whole. The point being that given the level of ignorance it is not surprising how driven Dawkins is to take on the creationists at every possible opportunity.

It was agreed that despite his fierce demeanour he was justified.  This raised the question of how the universe had originated – whether or not there was intelligence behind it. Given that at present we know little more than that there was a Big Bang and the universe we’re in is still expanding, it was suggested that the point is moot and really should be discussed separately as there are arguments that suggest it is not a universe we inhabit but one of many in a polyverse, whether parallel, hierarchical or otherwise related.

This brought the discussion back to the book, which was on the whole thought to be interesting and easy to read. It was pointed out that although to scientists and engineers the whole discussion concerning theories, hypothesis and proof outside the realms of mathematics may be redundant, it was not so for others. Furthermore, although it targeted non-believers, Dawkins’ stated attempt to set out the evidence for evolution was worthy. One member pointed out that he’d forgotten life could be traced back to one living cell – something he’d been taught as far back as primary school.

It was proposed that the e-coli experiment was the killer argument in Dawkins’ book because even if there was intelligence behind creation it showed God did not care, that all things could not be equal when one strain, one community or even a person could mutate and outstrip its own kind. Personal experience regarding a commercial tree plantation was brought up in this context to point out that after eight to ten years’ growth there actually is a ‘leader rush’ when trees seem to become aware that they’re not alone and try to outreach others towards the light.

Another member thought Dawkins’ point with regard to ‘unintelligent design’ (as opposed to ‘intelligent design’) was the killer argument because it showed nature could get it awfully wrong – hence where is the intelligence in that? This raised the question of whether or not human beings were ‘intelligent designers’ in that at the very least save animals from death where nature would not be so forgiving and have been breeding selectively for over ten thousand years. The point was refuted with examples from personal experience where selective breeding had gone wrong sufficiently to suggest human beings were as unintelligent as nature when it came to designing life.

Desmond Morris’ books published some decades ago were brought into the discussion at this point with regard to members of the same species becoming isolated and thus growing apart enough not to be able to intermarry, which the group thought unlikely given the proximity in which people of all races now live.

Other examples from Dawkins’ book were brought up, such as the fruit fly and more particularly the human embryo wherein all the processes are local. And that the female had so much power in deciding how the male looked, not to mention the trade-offs that males in particular faced as whether to have sex or die. In this context the experiments Dawkins relates with regard to guppies were thought highly interesting by all. With respect to the experiments relating to wolves and foxes the question was brought up as to what dietary changes regressing to a dog brings with it as wolves and foxes do not share the same diet with dogs.

The question was brought up again at this point as to the validity of Dawkins’ purpose: what difference would it make if everyone was a creationist or an evolutionist, to which one answer proposed was that if you followed Plato you would tend to look for one cause to any effect whereas as an evolutionist you would tend to see many more and therefore look for an equation with related variables. This was supported by the argument that creationists would always fall back on ‘only God knows’. The counter argument put up was related to Einstein who said God does not play with dice. The discussion returned to the role of religion in society with respect to morality rather than power, which led one member to remark that it was surprising how much time the group was spending discussing creationism rather than evolution.

Another member found the adaptability of species the most remarkable aspect of Dawkins’ book, giving hope that humans would adapt to global warming, while bringing the group discussion back the question of how the first cell came about or rather how the universe began – in turn this brought up the possible importance of the Higgs Boson particle, the so-called God particle. The answer suggested to this was that physics is now so advanced that without mathematics the universe or polyverse has become incomprehensible – so how would we understand the answer?

The discussion then progressed along lines that explored how human beings are changing due to the feedback they are getting from the things they are designing, particularly information technology.

Aziz Başan

June 2012

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