The Greatest Show on Earth: The evidence for Evolution
by Richard Dawkins (Bantam Books)
Why Evolution is True
by Jerry Coyne (Rowan Hooper)
Reviewed by BILL NORTH
This year included the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and, in November, the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. This introduced what has been called “the greatest idea anyone ever had”: the theory of evolution by natural selection.
A myth of history claims that ‘science’ accepted Darwin’s ideas almost immediately, while ‘religion’ opposed them. In fact by the time of Darwin’s death in 1882 mainstream religion had ‘adapted’, and most clerics accepted that evolution had taken place – though with God guiding the process. Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey.
In the scientific world, the debate between Darwinists and anti-Darwinists continued until at least the 1940s when biologists produced ‘the new synthesis’ uniting Darwinism and Mendel’s genetics.
Darwin knew his ideas would be controversial and delayed publication for years – partly to collect more evidence. The Origin of Species is still worth reading today but 150 years ago, there were many gaps in the evidence. There were no known fossils of early humans, no fossils of ‘missing links’ between major groups of animals, the nature of inheritance was a mystery, DNA and the genetic code were far in the future.
Some gaps were filled during Darwin’s lifetime, but some of the most powerful evidence for evolution emerged only in recent decades. Several authors – including Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne – chose the bicentenary year to publish books that ‘bring Darwin up to date’.
Dawkins is one of the best known popular science writers. Coyne is a University of Chicago professor who has taught evolutionary biology for over 20 years. Coyne clearly admires Dawkins’ work while Dawkins’ review of Coyne’s book described it as ‘marvellous’.
Both books start by referring to the apparently growing attack on evolution by well-funded religious fundamentalists who claim the world was divinely created a few thousand years ago.
Both authors explain the scientific meaning of the term ‘theory’ (as opposed to “just a theory”) and present a whole array of evidence, much of it uncovered in the 21st century. Evidence from the fossil record (much larger than in Darwin’s time); from embryology; from the geographical distribution of plants and animals; from DNA analysis in different species; from bizarre features in human and animal bodies and genes that no “intelligent designer” could possibly have come up with. This is brought together to demonstrate that, beyond reasonable doubt, evolution is a fact.
Of course not all doubt is reasonable. Both authors recognise, in Coyne’s words, that: “For those who oppose Darwin purely as a matter of faith, no amount of evidence will do – theirs is a belief not based on reason.” But Coyne also knows exactly what he wants to achieve:
“[F]or the many who find themselves uncertain, or who accept evolution but are not sure how to argue their case, this volume gives a succinct summary of why modern science recognises evolution as true.” Dawkins sets out to write: “[A] personal summary of the evidence that the ‘theory’ of evolution is actually a fact.”
Coyne’s book is the more successful in achieving its stated aims. Why Evolution is True has a sharper focus and concentrates on setting out the evidence clearly and persuasively. The Greatest Show on Earth is written in a more literary style – which will appeal to some – but lacks the unity of Coyne’s book.
Dawkins devotes many pages, whole chapters sometimes, to informative digressions (such as whether tortoise shells evolved on land or in water) that interrupt the flow of the main argument and lessen the book’s impact.
The Greatest Show on Earth is not a bad book. Anyone interested in current developments in evolutionary theory will find passages containing fascinating facts and speculations.
There are even a few surprises for anyone taking too literal a view of the descriptions that evolutionary scientists throw at one another during disputes. Dawkins has a reputation as the main advocate of ‘gradualism’ in evolution, but here he devotes a whole chapter to evolutionary changes taking place in the space of a human lifetime.
However, the main criticism is that Dawkins tries to pack too much into the format of a connected narrative. The book would have worked far better edited into a collection of essays arranged into several sections – including one dealing with the evidence.
But since that was not to be, Jerry Coyne’s excellent book is the one that truly deserves the subtitle ‘the evidence for evolution’.
The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.
Penguin £7.99 + 10% p&p
The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.
Wordsworth Classics £3.99 + 10% p&p
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