Hey everyone, been a while since I've posted a new review (been busy combined with reading a lot of books which don't really tie in directly with TA). Anyway, I finished up one that many of you are likely wanting to read or already have, so here is my review:
There are few authors alive capable of weaving wonder and authority into popular science writing better than Richard Dawkins, and in his newest book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
, released in September, 2009, he has shown that he is still the master of popular biology. Following a narrative that works much as the one employed by Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species
(and frequently mentioning Darwin), Dawkins presents a comprehensive look at the modern state of evolutionary theory, and more specifically, the evidence which proves it is true beyond any serious doubt.
I had read many Dawkins books prior to Greatest Show
, including his biology and science-oriented books The Selfish Gene
, The Extended Phenotype
, Unweaving the Rainbow
, The Blind Watchmaker
, and River Out of Eden
. I have not yet read The Ancestors Tale
(which I understand is Dawkins most comprehensive biological work, nor have I read Climbing Mount Improbable
(which Dawkins has stated is his own favorite work), both of which I own but have yet to get to. So, my review is in light of these experiences (or lack thereof).
The first couple of chapters are for softening up any hesistant readers and convincing new learners that evolution is not only realistic, it can be observed around us in a myriad of ways, including the comparisons between natural selection and the artificial selection practiced by human animal and plant breeders.
Following this intro, Dawkins lays down the tool kit and shows how Neo-Darwinian theory knows how to trust estimated dates, looking at the various chemical clocks available.
The chapter titled "Before Our Very Eyes" was the most enjoyable and enlightening for me, personally, as the reader has described for him/her several fascinating experiments which have demonstrated the power of natural selection and mutation to drive complex genetic progression. The information on the Richard Lenski-led study of E. coli
is worth the price of the book alone. Tremendously important and strong evidence for Dawkins' central thesis.
Dawkins follows this by moving into fossil records, showing the reader how scientists have studied and come to see the fossil record as important, but not the most important facts available to evolutionary theory. He shows that the 'gaps' in the fossil record are actually useful for taxonomic reasons, and posits that a complete fossil record would lead to immense confusion when trying to determine just where a new species begins from the old. Dawkins also knocks down the argument that talk of 'missing links' is useful, and pleads for the cessation of this term since its usefulness has long-since been destroyed. Like he says often, every fossil we find is a missing link, every one is a transitional fossil of some sort.
The chapter "You did it yourself in nine months" was my least favorite, though it was certainly necessary to present in a comprehensive view of evolution. The following chapter on biogeography returns to a superior narrative and offers strong evidence for geographic proof of evolution, again, just as Darwin did in describing the variety of species found strew across the Galapagos Islands. Following that are chapters on cousinship among life forms and the ability of DNA to provide a historical archive which begin to draw together a personal closeness that derives from the evidence of the preceding chapters.
The final couple of chapters move a bit more toward being meditative, though don't expect Dawkins to get too mushy. What begins as a discussion of arms races ends with a look at 'evolutionary theodicy', where Dawkins argues that we find suffering and pain exactly as we would expect from the emotionless processes of natural selection.
Finally, the book winds down with more reflection as Dawkins expounds upon the last paragraph of Darwin's Origin
and draws together the book's conclusion by reinforcing that the fact of evolution does not depend on any statement about abiogenesis or origin of life concerns. Clearly, what the theory suggest, and has been proven by practically every bit of evidence uncovered, is that, however it started, evolution is the way in which living things grow, compete, reproduce, and change.
I haven't read a more comprehensive book on Evolution to date, and I think Dawkins has abolutely knocked it out of the park here. I admit to a strong Dawkins bias, so I wanted to like this book, but I also had very high hopes for it because it was the first Dawkins biology-centric book to be released since I started reading his work. I expected a ton. I got it and more.
For the beginning reader, I would still recommend the much-more streamlined arguments in Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True
, but for the reader with some science experience, or for the curious reader who wants the full picture, this is as good as it gets. Five stars.
(posted on my blog: davenichols.net