three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
44-Jan-Feb-2010
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The Evidence for Evolution

A-The Greatest Show on EarthRetired Oxford biology professor Richard Dawkins presents the complete Darwinian case in his 10th book--his "missing link," as he calls it--instead of exploring one specific aspect of evolution, as he did in his previous works. Recently reviewed: The Ancestor's Tale ( 4 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2005) and The God Delusion ( 3 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2007)

The Topic: Condemning the rejection of evolution by an estimated 40 percent of Americans and growing numbers of Europeans, Dawkins summarizes the substantial evidence in support of Darwin's theory. He counters creationists' arguments with copious scientific data culled from many different fields--including paleontology, genetics, anatomy, embryology, and geography. For example, those allegedly cavernous gaps in the fossil record--a staple of creationist opposition--have been satisfactorily filled since Darwin's day with Homo erectus, Homo habilis, and Australopithecus. Dawkins also revisits remarkable cases of "unintelligent design"--strikingly inefficient, ill-conceived structures, and even obsolete organs and reactions within our own bodies. The evidence for evolution, Dawkins contends, isn't hidden away in laboratories and museum cabinets; it's all around us.
Free Press. 470 pages. $30. ISBN: 9781416594789

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Most recently he vented his anger with a splenetic defense of atheism in The God Delusion, but now he has largely avoided rancor and has laid out the most striking evidence with such fascinating detail that the book is both scientifically exciting and completely convincing. ... The Greatest Show is brilliant, detailed, anecdotal and immensely readable." David Perlman

Telegraph (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"It is largely free of the atheistical cage-rattling that marked The God Delusion (although the notes do include George W Bush's death penalty record and a complete Monty Python song that starts ‘All things dull and ugly/ All creatures short and squat/ All things rude and nasty/ The Lord God made the lot'). Even so, the book stands, as did The Origin of Species, on its facts." Steve Jones

Guardian (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The topics are all laid out with that combination of clarity and verve that is Dawkins's hallmark, and pursued to his customary conclusion: ‘There is no architect's plan, no architect.' ... Perhaps it is this very determination to give no ground that occasionally introduces irritating holes into his science." Richard Fortey

Independent (UK) 3 of 5 Stars
"Dawkins has generally worked with material that is well known at least to his peers, but his genius in the past has been to arrange it so that his readers' understanding of the world is transformed. That doesn't happen here. ... Nevertheless, there are classic qualities in these pages; those of the old-fashioned science teacher rattling with well-polished quirks, his legend trailing in his wake, still fired with the passion to explain and inspire." Marek Kohn

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"This brings me to the intellectual flaw, or maybe it's a fault just of tone, in Dawkins's otherwise eloquent paean to evolution: he has let himself slip into being as dogmatic as his opponents. He has become the Savonarola of science, condemning the doubters of evolution as ‘history-deniers' who are ‘worse than ignorant' and ‘deluded to the point of perversity.' This is not the language of science, or civility." Nicholas Wade

St. Louis Post-Dispatch 3 of 5 Stars
"Dawkins' new book is at its best when it introduces new research and findings. ... The Greatest Show on Earth is not going to win any converts, and Dawkins does himself a disservice with his explosions of rhetoric and his lengthy dissertations on such peripheral matters as nuclear physics and plate tectonics, both of which could be dealt with in a few paragraphs." Harper Barnes

Critical Summary

"Like a detective reconstructing a crime" (San Francisco Chronicle), Dawkins amasses a mountain of evidence in this richly illustrated, enormously readable explanation of the theory of evolution. Though Dawkins may have softened his attitude toward those who can reconcile their religious beliefs with evolution, he still harbors great hostility toward its detractors, equating them to Holocaust deniers--a label that riled the New York Times Book Review. Objecting to Dawkins's abrasive dogmatism, many critics felt that the biologist is at his best when he forgets his opponents and focuses on the science. He is indeed a master of explaining complex scientific ideas to nonscientific readers, and though The Greatest Show on Earth may not be his best book, it is a well-written, captivating review of the science behind the theory.