Review: The Greatest Show on Earth

[cross-​​posted from my blog Moth Eyes]

In previous books, Richard Dawkins has looked to promote new perspectives on natural selection, and at barriers to the understanding of evolution. In The Greatest Show on Earth, however, he looks at the evidence for evolution. You can read extracts from chapter one and chapter two online.

One of the book’s major strengths is the level of detail that Dawkins goes to in explaining difficult concepts and interesting experiments. For example, in the chapter on embryonic development, we learn how (well, one of the ways) in which mutations in the genome actually affect what a cell can do. This level of detail is a recurring feature. For example, we are treated 14 pages of glorious detail on Richard Lenski’s E. coli experiments, much of which I personally hadn’t picked up on when the story broke.

Dawkins considers molecular evidence to be the strongest line of evidence for evolution, and so the fossil record is just a bonus. He clearly outlines the problems with claiming that “gaps” in the fossil record make an argument against evolution. As far as fossils are concerned, the focus is on some of the more recent finds — and what a selection he has to choose from! He discusses tetrapods, whales, manatees, pinipeds (seals, sea lions & walruses) and turtles. It’s certainly a daunting prospect, to be claiming gaps in the fossil record, in the face of just these recent fossils. The discussion of homology was strong, not least for explicitly reverting to a pre-​​evolution definition of homology.

I particularly enjoyed the sections on development and molecular evidence — not least because of my unfamiliarity with these areas, and thus there was plenty for me to learn. I’m somewhat hopeful I’ll manage to work some self-​​organising systems into my doctorate somewhere.

Maybe I’m just a fan of cladograms, but I feel a couple of high-​​level cladograms — one of vertebrates (with a particular focus on the varieties of fish) and another of sauropsids — would have been worth a thousand words or so each. Another sour note was the mention of Andrew Schlafly in the discussion of the Lenski experiments, which mostly reeked of schadenfreude. I would have also avoided including any Haeckel drawings to illustrate any points — you just know that Haeckel’s crustaceans are going to give the history-​​deniers an irrelevant point to scream about whilst avoiding substantive discussion.

The depth of description — of the experiments, the discussion of human ancestry, and of the details of molecular & developmental biology is magnificent. As we’ve come to expect from Dawkins’ books, the writing is flowing and understandable, even on technical topics. And, as someone who had constantly had to maintain both my place in the main text and in the footnotes whilst reading The Selfish Gene, I was glad to see that the footnotes are at the bottom of each page, as opposed to at the back of the book.

Of course, Jerry Coyne published Why Evolution is True earlier this year. Is it worth reading both? The answer: yes, emphatically yes! Both books have very different lines of evidence on which they focus — Dawkins, for example, is highly focused on experiments, whereas Coyne focused more on observation in nature and the fossil record. Many lines of evidence, or topics for discussion, are only in one or other, or emphasised differently. There’s also a distinct difference in how they discuss creationism — Dawkins only mentions it occasionally and tends to give the evidence for evolution on its own merit (except in the chapter on biogeography, really).

So, yes, go and buy it. More importantly, go and read it!