Saturday, October 24, 2009

Book Review: The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins is the famous biologist’s most recent book since his best selling The God Delusion. This is a well-written book, complete with illustrations and beautiful color sections. In it, Professor Dawkins presents evidence for evolution. The purpose of this review is to survey some of Dawkins’ ideas and weigh up the overall logic of his case for evolution; in particular, does Dawkins present a good case that macroevolution is a fact?
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Dawkins states his purpose for the book clearly from the outset: “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.” (vii) The author’s thesis is to present the evidence for those who doubt evolution, and to equip those who are frustrated with those who doubt evolution. Dawkins is passionately against the ignorance of those who would doubt what he sees as indisputable fact, referring to them as “history-deniers”:
I shall be using the name ‘history-deniers’ for those people who deny evolution: who believe the world’s age is measured in thousands of years rather than thousands of millions of years, and who believe humans walked with dinosaurs. (7)
Dawkins seems to place all doubters into the young-earth category, while the illustrations he employs put them on par with “well-financed and politically muscular groups of Holocaust-deniers.” (4) Yet the author’s goal is partially to reach this very group: “The history-deniers themselves are among those that I am trying to reach in this book.” (8) His thesis:
Evolution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact. The evidence for evolution is at least as strong as the evidence for the Holocaust, even allowing for eyewitnesses to the Holocaust. (8)
We know this because of a rising flood of evidence supports it. Evolution is a fact, and this book will demonstrate it. No reputable scientist disputes it, and no unbiased reader will close the book doubting it. (8-9)
Like any good author, Dawkins first seeks to define some key terms in his thesis before presenting his case. In his preliminary definitions, Dawkins is careful to define the word theory. He is also careful to define the word fact; after all, his key thesis is to demonstrate that evolution is a fact:
Fact: Something that has really occurred or is actually the case; something certainly known to be of this character; hence, a particular truth known by actual observation or authentic testimony, as opposed to what is merely inferred, or to a conjecture or fiction; a datum of experience, as distinguished from the conclusions that may be based upon it. (14)
Dawkins cites this definition from Oxford English Dictionary. An Oxford man himself, Dawkins feels it appropriate to take some liberties of his own with the definition:
The implied pejorative of that ‘merely’ is a bit of a cheek. Careful inference can be more reliable than ‘actual observation’, however strongly our intuition protests at admitting it. (15)
He continues:
This book will take inference seriously – not mere inference but proper scientific inference – and I shall show the irrefragable power of the inference that evolution is a fact. (16)
It is interesting to note that Dawkins finds it necessary to alter the definition of the word fact ever so slightly so that it fits his own usage. The Oxford English Dictionary makes a clear distinction between facts and inference. But while Dawkins frets over the word “merely,” he seems to have missed the latter part of the definition that distinguishes facts from the conclusions that they are based upon.

Having overlooked that part of the definition, the author proceeds to assure the reader:
The aids to inference that lead scientists to the fact of evolution are far more numerous, more convincing, more incontrovertible, than any eye-witness reports that have ever been used, in any court of law, in any century, to establish guilt in any crime. Proof beyond reasonable doubt? Reasonable doubt? That is the understatement of all time. (18)
Although the author did present the reader with definitions of a couple of key terms in his thesis, there seems to be a glaring omission: Dawkins never defines the word evolution. At best, the reader is left with a line fit for Yoda: “Evolution is within us, around us, between us, and its workings are embedded in the rocks of aeons past.” (18)

In fact, throughout the book the word
evolution is used so liberally, and in such a wide variety of ways, it seems to lose all clarity. So for the sake of this review, evolution will be defined very roughly in two common senses: microevolution and macroevolution. Microevolution can be defined as small-scale changes over short generations. Macroevolution can be defined as large-scale changes over a geological time period. As there is little dispute over microevolution, this reviewer is most concerned with the evidence for macroevolution; proof that all living things are descended from a common ancestor.

Dawkins begins his presentation of evidence in chapter two, in which he explains the artificial breeding of “dogs, cows, and cabbages.” His overall goal seems to be to illustrate natural selection, which is a fact. Through selective breeding, humans can artificially “sculpt” the gene pool of various species, to which Dawkins imagines: “If so much evolutionary change can be achieved in just a few centuries or even decades, just think what might be achieved in ten or a hundred million years.” (37)

Dawkins’ reiterates his
a fortiori argument:
If human breeders can transform a wolf into a Pekinese, or a wild cabbage into a cauliflower, in just a few centuries or millennia, why shouldn’t the non-random survival of wild animals and plants do the same thing over millions of years? (42)
This seems to be Dawkins’ first instance of assuming macroevolution to be true based upon evidence for microevolution. Yet Dawkins finds this evidence helpful to his case. Apparently he sees no limit to what could evolve naturally if given enough time.

Chapter three continues Dawkins’ exposition of natural selection. Here he shows how plants and flowers are selected over time by insects:
Insects may ‘breed’ flowers to be more beautiful, but not because they enjoy the beauty. Rather, the flowers benefit from being perceived as attractive by insects. The insects, by choosing the most attractive flowers to visit, inadvertently ‘breed for’ floral beauty. (53)
This chapter shows how selection, which was done in the earlier chapter artificially by man, is now taking place naturally, with plants and insects doing the selecting. Dawkins’ descriptions of the intricate pollination processes are indeed fascinating; the author’s love and admiration of nature truly shines through.

The fact of natural selection is in plain sight, which, of course, no one denies. However, Dawkins has some inferences to make from these facts:

The difference between any two breeds of dog gives us a rough idea of the quantity of evolutionary change that can be achieved in less than a millennium. The next question we should ask is, how many millennia do we have available to us in accounting for the whole history of life? If we imagine the sheer quantity of differences that separate a pye-dog from a peke, which took only a few centuries of evolution, how much longer is the time that separates us from the beginning of evolution or, say, from the beginning of mammals? … Can you imagine two million centuries, laid end to end? (81)
Dawkins sees the need to make extrapolations. Perhaps the reader wonders at this point if the author considers an extrapolation into the past a fact.
Bear in mind this order of evolutionary change, and then extrapolate backwards twenty thousand times as far into the past. It becomes rather easy to accept that evolution could accomplish the amount of change that it took to transform a fish into a human. (82)
Interested in finding out just how much time is available for past extrapolations, the book now turns the reader’s attention to the past:
If the history-deniers who doubt the fact of evolution are ignorant of biology, those who think the world began less than ten thousand years ago are worse than ignorant, they are deluded to the point of perversity. (85)
Here in chapter four Dawkins explains the various “clocks” that are available in nature to determine the time available for evolution to work, and “praise be, nature has provided us with just the wide range of clocks that we need.” (88) Of course, this chapter is also very interesting as it explores the ins and outs of dating, from tree rings to carbon dating.

Chapter five is entitled
Before Our Very Eyes, and deals with examples of (micro) evolution happening right in front of us: “…some examples are so fast that we can see evolution happening with our own eyes during one human lifetime.” (111) Dawkins suggests: “Just think what you might see in three or four decades if you followed the evolution of bacteria, whose generations are measured in hours or even minutes, rather than years!” (116)

Here Dawkins explores the long-term experiments of Michigan State University bacteriologist Richard Lenski, which chart the generational changes of bacteria. Dawkins repeats his “how-much-more” reasoning here as well:
So, whatever evolutionary change Lenski may have clocked up in the equivalent of a million years of bacterial generations, think how much more evolution might happen in, say, 100 million years of mammal evolution. (119)
He seems to suggest that if you multiply the time available by a certain factor you can expect the observed changes to multiply in the same way; all while shifting his conclusions from bacteria to mammals. And here Dawkins produces what seems to be powerful genetic evidence from the Lenski experiments:
Lenski and a different set of colleagues investigated this phenomenon…which seemed, over 20,000 generations, to have followed the same evolutionary trajectory, and looking at their DNA. The astonishing result they found was that 59 genes had changed their levels of expression in both tribes, and all 59 had changed in the same direction. Were it not for natural selection, such independent parallelism, in 59 genes independently, would completely beggar belief. The odds against its happening by chance are stupefyingly large. This is exactly the kind of thing creationists say cannot happen, because they think it is too improbable to have happened by chance. Yet it actually happened. And the explanation, of course, is that it did not happen by chance, but because gradual, step-by-step, cumulative natural selection favoured the same – literally the same – beneficial changes in both lines independently. (124-125)
Michael Behe analyzed this same data in his 2007 book The Edge of Evolution, which explores the limits of evolutionary change. Behe suggested a different possibility of how fifty-nine genes could be affected in such a way:
Another change was in a regulatory gene called spoT which affected en masse how fifty-nine other genes worked, either increasing or decreasing their activity. One likely explanation for the net good effect of this very blunt mutation that it turned off the energetically costly genes that make the bacterial flagellum, saving the cell some energy. (Behe, 142)
Dawkins moves on in chapter six and seven to talk about fossils and missing links. But he doesn’t feel that fossils are necessary to prove evolution: “The evidence for evolution would be entirely secure, even if not a single corpse had ever fossilized.” (145) And again:
We don’t need fossils – the case for evolution is watertight without them; so it is paradoxical to use gaps in the fossil record as though they were evidence against evolution. (146)
Although Charles Darwin seemed to disagree on this point regarding the fossil record, Dawkins does however see them as useful: “In fact, for a large number of fossils, a good case can be made that every one of them is an intermediate between something and something else.” (151) He laments the fact that so many people want to see the “missing links,” and seems to turn much of his attention to attacking the “history-deniers” once again, answering such objections as “I’ll believe in evolution when a monkey gives birth to a human baby!”
Evolution not only is a gradual process as a matter of fact; it has to be gradual if it is to do any explanatory work. Huge leaps in a single generation – which is what a monkey giving birth to a human would be – are almost as unlikely as divine creation, and are ruled out for the same reason: too statistically improbable. It would be so nice if those who oppose evolution would take a tiny bit of trouble to learn the merest rudiments of what it is they are opposing. (155)
The author seems to be either completely unaware of, or unwilling to deal with, the actual scientific arguments of scientists such as Stephen Meyer or Michael Behe. Instead he spends his energies on crock-o-ducks and Noah’s Ark:
“Once again, I am sorry to take a sledgehammer to so small and fragile a nut, but I have to do so because more than 40 per cent of the American people believe literally in the story of Noah’s Ark.” (269)
Chapter eight is entitled You Did It Yourself in Nine Months. Here Dawkins cites an interaction between J.B.S. Haldane, a leading architect of neo-Darwinism, and an evolution skeptic. The skeptic poses a complex question of how, even given billions of years, a single cell could develop into a complicated human body that thinks and feels. Haldane’s one-liner response was, “But madam, you did it yourself. And it only took you nine months.”

What follows in this chapter is an exposition on embryology and how a single cell transforms into a complex living organism, which is of course fascinating. But Dawkins’ aim is to stress the idea that none of this is intentional or purposeful, even given the fact that it
looks that way. Small bits are simply obeying local rules, from which eventually emerge complex bodies with the appearance of design:
They key point is that there is no choreographer and no leader. Order, organization, structure – these all emerge as by-products of rules which are obeyed locally and many times over, not globally. (220)
Dawkins stresses that we should not be deceived by the appearance of design; it is an illusion:
The body of a human, an eagle, a mole, a dolphin, a cheetah, a leopard frog, a swallow: these are so beautifully put together, it seems impossible to believe that the genes that program their development don’t function as a blueprint, a design, a master plan. But no…it is all done by individual cells obeying local rules. (220)
The author admits not only the appearance of design everywhere one looks, but he also uses design language and analogies throughout the entire book: “Notice, by the way, how hard it is to resist the language of intention, purpose and personification.” (351) The reader finds passages worthy of a modern-day Paley:
…the T4 bacteriophage, which parasitizes bacteria. It looks like a lunar lander, and it behaves rather like one, ‘landing’ on the surface of a bacterium (which is very much larger) then lowering itself on its spidery ‘legs,’ then thrusting a probe down the middle, through the bacterium’s cell wall, and injecting its DNA inside. (223)
Yet the reader is assured that Darwinian mechanisms are to be credited with this apparent design. The author asserts that Darwinism is to be credited for pretty much any form of life we could possibly hope to find in the future:
I love speculating on how weirdly different we should expect life to be elsewhere in the universe, but one or two things I suspect are universal, wherever life might be found. All life will turn out to have evolved by a process related to Darwinian natural selection of genes. (235)
In the next chapter, entitled The Ark of the Continents, Dawkins explores the diversity of species as explained by continental drift. Because all things share a common ancestor, there must come various points where they branch off and part ways.
What actually happened at this epic parting of the ways, nobody knows. It happened a very long time ago, and we have no idea where. But modern evolutionary theory would confidently reconstruct something like the following history. (255)
Dawkins admits that many of his details are strictly hypothetical fiction (256); but it doesn’t matter. It had to occur somehow, and he is merely offering options. Interestingly enough, this form of reasoning is the very thing he rails against later in the same chapter when referring to “…creationists’ penchant for ignoring evidence when it doesn’t support the position they know, from Scripture, has got to be true.” (283)

Chapter ten,
The Tree of Cousinship, deals with homology. Bones and other structures are similar across a wide variety of animals. Included in this chapter are many line drawings of animals that look similar and have similar bone configurations. Molecular similarities are also included in Dawkins’ exposition. This, in the author’s opinion is strong evidence not only for microevolution, but macroevolution as well:
Anyway, the ancestors of whales and dolphins were fully paid-up land mammals, who surely galloped across the prairies, deserts or tundras with an up-and-down flexion of the spine. And when they returned to the sea, they retained their ancestral up-and-down spinal motion. (299)

In addition, he counts homology as evidence against any sort of design, asking the question, “Why would the designer not borrow that ingenious invention, the feather, for at least one bat?” (297) He discounts the possibility of common design plans or themes.
When it comes to design, the author has very strong feelings and does not hesitate to vent his frustrations. Throughout the book, and especially in chapter eleven, History Written All Over Us, Dawkins points out some of the examples of poor “design” he sees in nature. He finds the eye particularly appalling. “Once again, send it back, it’s not just bad design, it’s the design of a complete idiot.” (354) It is “obvious stupidity” that the retina is back to front. (356)

Luckily, evolution has fixed the errors and aberrations of the poorly designed eye by compensating: “…the brain does an amazing job of cleaning the images up afterwards, like a sort of ultra-sophisticated, automatic Photoshop.” He continues, “what they eye lacks in optics the brain makes up for with its sophisticated image-simulating software.” (353) Natural selection fixed it:

…the eye would be terrible at seeing, and it is not. It is actually very good. It is good because natural selection, working as a sweeper-up of countless little details, came along after the big original error of installing the retina backwards, and restored it to a high-quality precision instrument. (355)
Yes, Dawkins will admit it looks designed: “When we look at animals from the outside, we are overwhelmingly impressed by the elegant illusion of design.” (370) But all appearance of design must be ejected in light of the fact of evolution: “… the illusion of design makes so much intuitive sense that it becomes a positive effort to put critical thinking into gear and overcome the seductions of naïve intuition.” (371)

As Dawkins explains later in the book, this mere appearance of design fooled even the greatest minds:
…energy from the sun powers life, to coax and stretch the laws of physics and chemistry to evolve prodigious feats of complexity, diversity, beauty, and an uncanny illusion of statistical improbability and deliberate design. So compelling is that illusion that it fooled our greatest minds for centuries, until Charles Darwin burst onto the scene. (416)
Dawkins has an answer to this apparent design. Simply look on the inside of the animal to see just how haphazard it really is:
the overwhelming impression you get from surveying any part of the innards of a large animal is that it is a mess! Not only would a designer never have made a mistake like that nervous detour; a decent designer would never have perpetuated anything of the shambles that is the criss-crossing maze of arteries, veins, intestines, wads of fat and muscle, mesenteries and more. (371)
Apparently, real design would look more like a car exhaust, as Dawkins points out:
I think it would be an instructive exercise to ask an engineer to draw an improved version of, say, the arteries leaving the heart. I imagine the result would be something like the exhaust manifold of a car, with a neat line of pipes coming off in orderly array, instead of the haphazard mess that we actually see when we open a real chest. (371)
Dawkins’ “designer” doesn’t live up to his standard of completely optimal design. For evolution, however, Dawkins doesn’t require perfection. This is because he understands that optimal design is a delicate balance of trade-offs; a give and take of one benefit to the loss of another:
It is the lesson of trade-offs, and we have already adverted to it when talking about pollination strategies in plants. Nothing is free, everything comes with a price tag. (69)

The lesson applies to all living creatures. We can expect bodies to be well equipped to survive, but this does not mean they should be perfect with respect to any one dimension. (70)

This is just one hypothetical example of the many hundreds of trade-offs and compromises that all animals and plants juggle. They juggle with risks and they juggle with economic trade-offs. […] As you would expect, the optimum compromise in a trade-off is not fixed. (385-386)

In any flying machine, there is a trade-off between stability and maneuverability. (348)
Dawkins stresses that the poor “designs” we see in living things make perfect sense if we forget design. He explains as much when expounding on the poor design of the laryngeal nerve: “it makes perfect sense the moment you forget design and think history instead. To understand it, we need to go back in time to when our ancestors were fish.” (356)

Looking to history explains many things, including goosebumps:
…you get goosebumps. Why? Because your ancestors were normal mammals with hairs all over, and these were raised or lowered at the behest of sensitive body thermostats. […] In later evolution, the hair-erection system was hijacked for social communication purposes. (339-340)
Chapter twelve is entitled Arms Races and ‘Evolutionary Theodicy.’ Previously, Dawkins’ goal was to show that poor design proved that individual creatures were not designed. Now, his goal is to show that nature as a whole was not well designed, yet it makes perfect sense in light of Darwinism. A central planner would not have allowed inefficiencies, imperfections, or pain. Enter evolution:
Evolutionary biologists see no problem, because evil and suffering don’t count for anything, one way or the other, in the calculus of gene survival. Nevertheless, we do need to consider the problem of pain. Where, on the evolutionary view, does it come from? Pain, like everything else in life, we presume, is a Darwinian device, which functions to improve the sufferer’s survival. (393)
Chapter thirteen, There is Grandeur in this View of Life, is Dawkins’ final chapter. His view of life compels a sort of noble reflection: “Yes, there is grandeur in this view of life, and even a kind of grandeur in nature’s serene indifference to the suffering that inexorably follows in the wake of its guiding principle, survival of the fittest.” (401)

Included in this chapter are Dawkins’ expositions on the role that DNA plays in the evolutionary process. “No matter how elaborate and different the high-level programs that underlie the various life forms, all are, at bottom, written in the same machine language.” (410) Having previously contended that DNA should not be viewed as a blueprint or a plan, he settles on using the word “recipe” instead:

In the case of DNA, we understand pretty well how the information content builds up over geological time. […] Because there are occasional errors in the copying, new variants may survive even better than their predecessors, so the database of information encoding recipes for survival will improve as time goes by. (405)
As these copying errors occur, building a better and better recipe over geological time, they also somehow retain the helpful living habits and instincts of their particular species. As Dawkins explains:
The DNA in predator gene pools will increasingly contain information about prey animals, their evasive tricks and how to outsmart them. The DNA in prey gene pools will come to contain information about predators and how to dodge and outrun them. The DNA in all gene pools contains information about parasites and how to resist their pernicious invasions. (406)
But where does this DNA information originate? Dawkins doesn’t explore that issue; he dismisses it: “We don’t actually need a plausible theory of the origin of life…” (421) But he does offer his own brief accounting of origins:
We know a great deal about how evolution has worked ever since it got started, much more than Darwin knew. But we know little more than Darwin did about how it got started in the first place. This is a book about evidence, and we have no evidence bearing upon the momentous event that was the start of evolution on this planet. (416)
We have no evidence about what the first step in making life was, but we do know the kind of step it must have been. It must have been whatever it took to get natural selection started. […] And that means the key step was the arising, by some process as yet unknown, of a self-replicating entity. Self-replication spawns a population of entities, which compete with each other to be replicated. (419)
Dawkins ends his book on a note of eloquence: “We are surrounded by endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful, and it is no accident, but the direct consequence of evolution by non-random natural selection – the only game in town, the greatest show on earth.” (426) The appendix offers a less eloquent reprise, as he offers his final lament against the “history-deniers.”

The Greatest Show on Earth is a well-written book. It is enjoyable on multiple levels. To be sure, the great majority of the content is completely unobjectionable to those who would doubt Darwinism as a comprehensive history of the development of life. Frankly, Dawkins presents the facts of microevolution very well.

But does Dawkins accomplish his overall thesis to demonstrate
macroevolution as a fact? This reviewer found Dawkins’ thesis to fall short on three points: His case was incomplete, inconsistent, and ultimately insufficient to reach the doubter. Each of these can be unpacked briefly.

The case was incomplete: The doubter will not be persuaded when Dawkins excludes certain conclusions and certain lines of evidence from his investigation before he begins. Throughout, Dawkins has said: “I have used the metaphor of a detective, coming on the scene of a crime after it is all over and reconstructing from the surviving clues what must have happened.” (111) If this is case, then it seems the detective has limited his pool of suspects to natural causes, he has limited his evidence to only those clues that point to his preferred suspect, and he has not interacted with evidence outside of one field. Dawkins spent his energy on creationist parodies and ignored the leading proponents of intelligent design.

The case was inconsistent: The doubter will not be persuaded with the inconsistent treatment of apparent design. When something functioned well, evolution was credited. If something functioned poorly (in his estimation), design was discredited. In addition, Dawkins used the word evolution so loosely and inconsistently that the doubter would be hard-pressed not to find him guilty of equivocation on multiple counts. This did not help his case, as one may fully agree with evolution on a certain scale, but only to an observable point. In the eyes of the doubter, Dawkins makes the word evolution mean anything: it can mean change, it can be a force, it can be clever, etc.

The case was insufficient: Dawkins made grandiose claims in his first chapters. He set the bar very high. This is like introducing a joke by saying, “this is going to be the funniest joke you’ve ever heard…” What follows is sure to disappoint. But the real insufficiency in Dawkins’ case, in this reviewer’s estimation, was Dawkins’ amazing logical jumps and marshalling of ambiguous data. The author’s many unwarranted extrapolations and fallacies of affirming the consequent are simply not excusable for an Oxford professor. This is insufficient to bridge the logical gap between
microevolutionary facts and macroevolutionary extrapolations.

In conclusion,
The Greatest Show on Earth will educate and elucidate the reader who is ignorant of the Dawkins’ views of evolution. The book will give the careful reader plenty of raw data to make his own inferences to the best explanation. Unfortunately, Dawkins’ combative, condescending rhetoric may not impress the “history-deniers” he hopes to persuade. In sum, Richard Dawkins’ has written an enjoyable and informative book that promises much, but does not fully deliver on its promises.

Citations from Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for EvolutionLondon, England: Bantam Press, 2009).

27 comments :

Mark said...

Your review reminded me of the bumper sticker on my car that says, “Evolution is just a theory, kind of like gravity.”

You probably know that I don’t agree with many things in your review, but it seems like we have been down this road before. Below are two links from a blog whose writer is a Christian biologist that has some interesting comments about ID. I’d be curious about what you think about them.

Deep homology and design

Why Notch?

Thomas said...

Brian,
Thanks for this thorough review!

Cowloogi said...

Mark, I can see how even an evolutionist could come to the same conclusions that Brian, being an IDer(I think) did. (Me being a theistic evolutionist myself, and yes, I have Dawkin's book). This was really a good opportunity for Dawkins to elicit the 'overwhelming', as he states, evidence for evolution, but he clearly disappoints. One wonders why he would offer such piercing insults to the very people he is trying to reach.I'm very curious as to why he didn't seem to wish to address any of the 'evidence' that if true, would explicitly point to macroevolution (i.e. a lot of the "29 evidences for evolution" on TalkOrigins). Even the fossil record could've been used if he attempted to make good inferences. In the end, this book seems to leave one pondering whether this was a truly honest attempt to persuade non-evolutionists, it leaves one pondering whether Dawkins, being the great evolutionary biologist he is said to be, has the capacity to lay out the evidence for the very thing he has been studying most of his life (I really hope this book isn't a reflection on that actual capacity) and finally, whether or not this book was just a popular publication level cash in, simultaneously taking a pretentious opportunity to please his adoring legion of atheist fans.

Andrew

Mike Felker said...

Great review, Brian. Though I haven't read the book myself, it seems that this is one of those cases where Dawkins could have done a lot better. The problem is, Dawkins pulls the wool over his eyes and plugs his ears which prevents him in acknowledging that the other side actually puts forth sophisticated arguments. Instead, he pretends that everyone who doubts any aspect of naturalistic materialism is some sort of nut-job.

Again, haven't read the book, but i'm convinced that much better arguments have been made from the evolutionists' perspective. It makes one wonder why Dawkins didn't up his standard?

Vaughn said...

Unfortunately, as is usual with those who fear the inadequacies of their own postulates, Dawkins continues to use the tried and true techniques of ridiculing and demonizing those who would interpret the available data differently from himself. Instead of simply presenting his arguments for his beliefs, he must, first and foremost, paint those with whom he disagrees as 'unqualified' and/or worse - simply because they draw a different conclusion from the same available data. It's truly too bad that he isn't emotionally capable of simply presenting his 'evidence' and letting the readers determine the value of his argument.
I'm sorry for this man who fights so hard against a God whom he fears and wishes was not real. Unfortunately, unless he yields his hatred for God into submission before he dies, he will ultimately become the epitomy of the rich man whom Jesus described as being suddenly so very concerned for the eternal fate of his brothers - after experiencing only a short time in Hell. I pray for this man that he will yield to Jesus before that terrible event occurs in his own eternal existance.

Mark said...

It's too bad Dawkins didn't present evolution well. There are many other good books out there, and unfortunately Dawkins gets more publicity than he probably deserves.

chad said...

Mark,

I would agree with you completely! Well said!

God Bless

Gus Gus the Great said...

Perhaps Dawkins doesn't address the scientific arguments for ID by people like Michael Behe because his book is not intended for the scientific audience. The vast majority of creationists believe in intelligent design not because of some sort of scientific proof, but because of scriptural parable and theological dogma.

Matt said...

I think Dawkins needs to realize that not everyone can be a molecular biologist (if everyone was, society would crumble; no janitors, teachers, physicists) and to fill societal demands are going to have to spend their time researching other things. Because of this there is always going to be a large gap between scientists and everyone else in information. Because of this, science is indistinguishable from a religion to many non-scientists because their belief in it is mostly based on trusting scientists. They are not going to trust scientists when scientists attack their deeply held beliefs as angrily as Dawkins has. I haven't read this book but I was hoping because the focus was on evolution that it was a reflection of his realization of this. Keep the argument about evolution and not God, get as many religious people on board as you can and let them work out whether they believe in God or not through philosophy based on this information.

Anonymous said...

Just a note on macroevolution. First of all one can tell it happens by looking a the fossil record (and the other evidence Dawkins presents). Also the studies of 'microevolution' Dawkins presents document evolution occurring MUCH faster than in the fossil record (as discussed in books such as 'Why Evolution is True' and 'Finding Darwin's God'). Plus new developments in Evo Devo show pretty conclusively that micro and macro evolution are pretty much the same thing (see Sean Carroll's 'Endless Forms Most Beautiful'). The fact that Dawkins didn't discuss this new science annoyed me slightly.

Most of your criticisms of Dawkins' book are do to the fact that it was incomplete. Unfortunately most books on evolution are, but together they make as much of an airtight case as science can make.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, to add to my last comment, it seems as though you think Dawkins is 'admitting' that things appear designed. But it's pretty clear from this and other books by him that he DOES think things appear designed, but natural selection explains this fact better than a designer.

Anonymous said...

Great Review!!

Frankie said...

To those who thought this was a good review: Did you actually read the book yourself? and if you did, didn't you notice how this author forgot to critique the chapter in which Dawkins explains carbon dating? The article is arguing for ‘Micro’ evolution as opposed to ‘Macro’ evolution, and it doesn’t critique the content explaining how we know the age of our fossils.

"Here in chapter four Dawkins explains the various “clocks” that are available in nature to determine the time available for evolution to work, and “praise be, nature has provided us with just the wide range of clocks that we need.” (88) Of course, this chapter is also very interesting as it explores the ins and outs of dating, from tree rings to carbon dating."

Yes, that was the author’s complete criticism of chapter four. That’s all she (or he) wrote! To all who thought this was a 'Great review,' to all who disagree with 'Macro' Evolution, I insist that you check out the book and read it for yourself. But even if you are someone who would rather take this article as your guide than read the whole book, please, just read chapter four, as this author so kindly skipped over it. Doing so will help you see through the biggest flaw of this review.

It’s a shame that this author tried such a deceptive omission, and it’s an even bigger shame that it fooled some people. Just because Dawkins says there is enough proof for ‘Macro’ evolution without the fossils, does not make it logical to pretend the fossils don’t exist.

Brian said...

Thanks for your view, Frankie.

I don't disagree with anything particular in chapter four and found it a good read. My lack of critique is simply because it didn't need any. It talked about dating methods. I urge anyone to go ahead and read chapter four multiple times. It doesn't argue for anything, it just informs, it seemed to me.

Frankie said...

Brian, I appreciate your timely response, but I guess I'm just confused what exactly you believe.

Chapter four gives explanation for the agreed upon date of the earth, approximately 4.6 billion years. As you know, Dawkins wrote the book partly in response to the Gallup pole that suggested that around 40 percent of Americans believed that human life on earth came into existence, mostly in its present form, less than 10,000 years ago. If you don't disagree with the content about clocks, if you accept scientists explanations for carbon-dating, does that not suggest that you agree that the earth is 4.6 billion years old?

Do you believe that 'Micro' evolution took place over 4.6 billion years?

What do you believe?

Brian said...

Frankie,

I don't think the age of the earth is a crucial issue here. The earth being old, in my view, is necessary but not sufficient to show evolution on a macro scale to be a fact.

You mention Dawkins writing partly in response to the young earth view. Unfortunately, he seems to assume (and perhaps you do to, I am not sure) that anyone who doubts macro evolution must do so because they are committed to a young earth view. This is simply not the case.

As for my views, I am agnostic right now on many of these areas, and this book review's focus is on whether or not Dawkins makes a persuasive case for his view. And in that regard, whatever one believes, I think he does so poorly.

pmacgilli said...

Brian

The age of the Earth is not particularly relevant to this discussion but the time frame on which evolution takes place is. To that end, how long do you believe life has existed on this planet? For how much of that time do you believe microevolution has been occurring?

You seem to be holding Dawkins's arguments up to something. I think it's fair to ask to what.

I'm inquiring because, apart from a few minor criticisms, you've not really made any arguments of your own. Let alone confronted the majority of the most convincing evidence in favour of evolution.

For example, simply saying that Behe has offered another perspective on Lenski's work is not in itself an argument. Undoubtedly Lenski's results had and may still have critics in the scientific community. Why is Behe's criticism worthy of note?

Similarily, I would suggest you go back and count how many times your criticisms amounted to pointing out Dawkins' use of a word suggestive of machinery. Might I ask you what it is you are arguing with these observations? You seem to be saying something but I am unable to think of anything a rational person would seriously propose.

Paul MacGillivray

Brian said...

Thanks for your comment, Paul.

how long do you believe life has existed on this planet? For how much of that time do you believe microevolution has been occurring?

I don't know how long life has existed on the planet.

My view would be that "micro" evolution has been occurring probably since life has existed. But the fact that Prof. Dawkins has chosen to prove in his book is not micro, but macro evolution. The time involved hasn't come into the picture here, in my mind. I would only say that Dawkins would be wrong to say that people who doubt evolution is simply because of a age-of-the-earth view.

You seem to be holding Dawkins's arguments up to something. I think it's fair to ask to what.

I am not sure what you mean. Do you mean about the age of the earth? If that is what you mean, then like I said, that doesn't have much to do with the argument in my mind. The key thing I am looking for when assessing Dawkins' arguments is: does this evidence for micro-evolution count as sufficient evidence for macro-evolution?

you've not really made any arguments of your own.

That's good - it was not my intention to argue for my position in this review. I pointed out the purpose of my review at the outset and tried to stick to it: The purpose of this review is to survey some of Dawkins’ ideas and weigh up the overall logic of his case for evolution; in particular, does Dawkins present a good case that macroevolution is a fact?

Why is Behe's criticism worthy of note?

It is notable because the way Dawkins presents the data, one would think that the 59 genes are operating separately, one-by-one, ascending some sort of evolutionary climb. But Behe points out that they are affected en masse, in and turning-off. Dawkins seems to portray it as incontrovertible genetic proof - and doesn't present other possible 'boring' options.

Dawkins' use of a word suggestive of machinery. Might I ask you what it is you are arguing with these observations?

I simply found it fascinating how many times Dawkins described biological functionality that was quite breathtaking, while pausing to assure the reader that although it looks designed, it is not. Yet in so doing, he then goes on to keep using "design language" to describe things. It doesn't prove anything one way or another; but it seemed ironic.

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Paul. I hope my responses clarify my view more.

pmacgilli said...

You wrote:

"...evolution will be defined very roughly in two common senses: microevolution and macroevolution. Microevolution can be defined as small-scale changes over short generations. Macroevolution can be defined as large-scale changes over a geological time period."

By this definition, macroevolution is the sum of changes caused by the process of microevolution. Therefore the question of time is absolutely central to the discussion. In other words, how much time does microevolution require to produce the kinds of changes macroevolution predicts? Would you agree this is a valid and pertinent line of inquiry? Or have I misunderstood you in some way?

On Behe, in order for his hypothesis to be taken seriously, it would have to be supported by some form of experimentation specifically designed to show how it better explains what Lenski observed. In other words, Behe (or someone inspired by his ideas) would have to design an experiment that shows:

A) A given observed phenomena is not explainable by evolution.

B) That same phenomena is better explained by another hypothesis that contradicts evolution.

You'll find this kind of progression throughout science. Relativity, for example, replaced Newtonian physics because relativity was a better explanation for reality as we observe it.

I'm assuming since you've cited Behe that you've read his work. Does he describe anything like what I've just outlined?

"It doesn't prove anything one way or another; but it seemed ironic."

Agreed. Unfortunately it was your only comment on the most convincing evidence presented in several chapters of Dawkins' book. If you didn't have any more serious objections to raise I am left wondering why you did not find Dawkins' case convincing.

I am not exaggerating when I say that, trivial linguistic concerns aside, you really only argued against two, arguably three, of the minor points Dawkins raised.

In other words, whether or not you intended to argue against evolution, you had no choice but to argue for your own argument. It is the latter I find lacking.

Paul MacGillivray

Brian said...

Paul,

As for the question of time: yes, I would agree that macro evolution would need a LOT of time to happen. As already said above, millions of years is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition for evolution. And in my mind, that's about as far as I see the time element being pertinent here. Unless, like Dawkins, you think that a those skeptical of neo Darwinism are necessarily young earthers. But that is not the case.

On Behe, in order for his hypothesis to be taken seriously, it would have to be supported by some form of experimentation specifically designed to show how it better explains what Lenski observed

I don't think it requires an experiment to take seriously. If it is a plausible alternative that is simpler and explains the data just as well, if not better, then the other alternative - then we can at least say it is a live option to consider.

A) A given observed phenomena is not explainable by evolution.

B) That same phenomena is better explained by another hypothesis that contradicts evolution.


I think it is important to note that the option Behe is advocating in this particular instance has nothing to do with ID vs. evolution, or anything like that. He is just saying that there are more than one way to interpret the data of 59 genes changing their function. Dawkins wants us to think there is just one way - the one that he himself admits seems to be highly improbable.

I'm assuming since you've cited Behe that you've read his work. Does he describe anything like what I've just outlined?

I read "The Edge of Evolution" which I thought is a worthy read. In it Behe takes a lot of time talking about Lenski's work with fruit flies and the data gathered there. It is for that reason that Dawkins' assertion that the 59 gene thing could only happen one way stood out so much to me, when Behe had already been down that path years before and shown that there are a few more ways to explain it. Did he make some experiment? I have no idea.

I am left wondering why you did not find Dawkins' case convincing.
Because all the evidence he brought only proves small changes, not macroevolution. If you only find me disagreeing with a few points, I have no problems with that. Most of his data is agreeable to me, because I grant that biological change occurs. But for me, I don't see how that same data justifies the "leap" to Darwinism. Unless you are an atheist - then Darwinism has to be true... and that is where Dawkins is, it seems to me. He is an atheist, so Darwinism is "the only game in town."

pmacgilli said...

Brian

Unless you distinguish micro from macroevolution in a way not indicated by your definition, time is not just pertinent but crucial.

Your argument is as follows:

1) Micro and macroevolution differ only in the time required for each to produce the changes each theory predicts.

2) Dawkins was able to provide convincing evidence for microevolution.

3) Dawkins was unable to provide convincing evidence for macroevolution.

In order for Dawkins to convince you, by your logic, he would need to show that the relatively small changes of microevolution, over a long period of time, produce changes described by what you call macroevolution.

You've asserted that Dawkins failed to do so convincingly. Do you have any arguments to back up this assertion? I'm not being facetious. I simply don't see them in your article.

In fact, Dawkins dedicated a large percentage of his book to just this very question. Can you direct me to where you address his arguments in your article? Or more appropriately, can you direct me to where you explain why his arguments are not convincing?

"If it is a plausible alternative that is simpler and explains the data just as well, if not better, then the other alternative - then we can at least say it is a live option to consider."

If it were a plausible alternative that is simpler and explains the data just as well it would become the subject of research. If the results of that research continued to be favourable it would eventually replace the existing hypothesis and Lenski's work would be forgotten. Whether or not this has happened would be easily verifiable.

Also, what makes you think Dawkins, if not hundreds of other experts, did not fairly consider Behe's hypotheses, only to find it unworthy of further attention?

"I think it is important to note that the option Behe is advocating in this particular instance has nothing to do with ID vs. evolution, or anything like that. He is just saying that there are more than one way to interpret the data of 59 genes changing their function. Dawkins wants us to think there is just one way - the one that he himself admits seems to be highly improbable."

Are you claiming Dawkins deliberately misrepresented the evidence as conclusive while ignoring an important criticism? Two points on that:

1) Your not Dawkins' only critic or competitor. He has many, a great number of them colleagues within the scientific community that would gleefully point out such a glaring error if he made it. In fact, he has friends that would do the same.

2) You haven't shown Behe's criticism to be significant. You've simply mentioned it.

Paul MacGillivray

Brian said...

Unless you distinguish micro from macroevolution in a way not indicated by your definition, time is not just pertinent but crucial.

Well what I am NOT saying is that macro-evolution is only micro-evolution plus lots and lots of time. The difference is not only quantitative, but qualitative - it involves larger scale changes. Molecules to man, if you will, is not just a lot of little changes. At some points there are going to need to be major structural changes.

This is what Dawkins has to prove: that small changes, given enough time, will necessarily produce the sort of large-scale changes of macro-evolution: new body plans, major structural changes, etc.

Ten thousands upon ten thousands of fruit fly generations have not made these sorts of changes, nor does Dawkins provide us with any evidence of macro-evolution. All he gives us is the agreeable evidence of dog breeding type scenarios -- then tells us, "imagine what could happen over millions of years" -- but I don't find that argument convincing.

Your argument is as follows:
1) Micro and macroevolution differ only in the time required for each to produce the changes each theory predicts.

That is not my view. It is NOT ONLY time.

In order for Dawkins to convince you, by your logic, he would need to show that the relatively small changes of microevolution, over a long period of time, produce changes described by what you call macroevolution.

You've asserted that Dawkins failed to do so convincingly. Do you have any arguments to back up this assertion? I'm not being facetious. I simply don't see them in your article.


What I am claiming is that I don't think his reasons support his conclusion. He presents evidence of small-scale changes and then HE asserts that large scale changes will happen over large periods of time. But we don't have evidence for that. He asks us to imagine it. And Dawkins himself admits that it is an inference - but he wants to call it a fact. Sorry, but I feel he set the bar way too high for himself at the beginning and then it came back to bite him.

I am open to be persuaded. But I would need to see a couple different things: 1) examples of mutations that are producing large-scale functional, beneficial structural changes that continue to be viable, reproducible organisms; without a reversion to their old form after successive generations. AND/OR 2) examples of new, functional genetic information being added to DNA that is not simply a beneficial loss of function. To me, these would be more convincing.

But of course, I am biased (as we all are). I think we live in a theistic universe and therefore, I cannot simply limit my options to naturalistic explanations. I prefer naturalistic explanations, generally, but when they don't necessarily flow from the data, I feel I am warranted to be skeptical of the conclusion until more information comes in.

If it were a plausible alternative that is simpler and explains the data just as well it would become the subject of research. If the results of that research continued to be favourable it would eventually replace the existing hypothesis and Lenski's work would be forgotten. Whether or not this has happened would be easily verifiable.

I think this point is getting off track. The main point here is that Dawkins presents one alternative when others are available. It seems self-evident to me that if there are other logically possible and actually plausible alternative hypotheses, then for someone to say that "this is the only way it could have happened" is misleading. Whether or not I can go find an article on it, or if research has taken place has nothing to do with it. And even so, we're not even talking about "Lenski's work" being shot down. We're talking about how to account for Lenski's data - which is open to various interpretations.

pmacgilli said...

"Well what I am NOT saying is that macro-evolution is only micro-evolution plus lots and lots of time."

Yet that is exactly what you said in your article. In fact, your definition of micro vs. macroevolution was your main premise. Nevertheless, I have no problem with revising your definition. How do you qualitatively differentiate the process of microevolution from the that of macroevolution?

"Molecules to man, if you will, is not just a lot of little changes."

The vast majority of experts plainly disagree with you. By disagreeing with them you've put yourself in a very precarious position. It is my hope you have something to stand on.

"What I am claiming is..."

I understand your claim but am still waiting for an argument to support it. Dawkins provided chapters of evidence for just the kinds of changes you mention, including several examples of observed speciation, but your only criticism was that he occasionally used unintentional metaphors for design.

"The main point here is that Dawkins presents one alternative when others are available."

Dawkins could only be accused of misleading his readers if he failed to mention a valid alternative. Is Behe's hypothesis a valid alternative? If you think so you've yet to give a compelling reason why.

In no way would I be "getting off track" by asking you to clarify a vague criticism. On the contrary, asking your readers to accept your word as evidence could easily derail your entire argument.

"Ten thousands upon ten thousands of fruit fly generations have not made these sorts of changes, nor does Dawkins provide us with any evidence of macro-evolution. All he gives us is the agreeable evidence of dog breeding type scenarios -- then tells us, "imagine what could happen over millions of years" -- but I don't find that argument convincing."

This comment does contain interesting points but I cannot respond to them until I establish what it is you believe about evolution.

Paul

Tony and Mae Peters said...

Dawkins's book is a clear, if derisory, response to muddled creationist thinking. Live evolves, and the evidence for evolution is abundant. Aging techniques have established that life has existed on earth for aeons, genetic research has established the relatedness of all living organisms as well as the mechanisms for genetic change (== evolution).

Wikipedia quote for the topic "Macroevolution" : "The term "macroevolution" frequently arises within the context of the evolution/creation debate, usually used by creationists alleging a significant difference between the evolutionary changes observed in field and laboratory studies and the larger scale macroevolutionary changes that scientists believe to have taken thousands or millions of years to occur. They may accept that evolutionary change is possible within species ("microevolution"), but deny that one species can evolve into another ("macroevolution").[1] Contrary to this belief among the anti-evolution movement proponents, evolution of life forms beyond the species level ("macroevolution", i.e. speciation in a specific case) has indeed been observed multiple times under both controlled laboratory conditions and in nature.[10] The claim that macroevolution does not occur, or is impossible, is thus demonstrably false and without support in the scientific community.

Tony and Mae Peters said...

The author of this review should research the facts before posting his opinions.

Macroevolution (speciation) has been observed to occur numerous times - even amongst fruit flies which he alleges "have not made these sorts of changes" :

http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-speciation.html

Anonymous said...

I'd like to see a review of the rebuttal, "The Greatest Hoax on Earth" by Dr. Jonathan Sarfati

Anonymous said...

I'm posting this a bit late, but if anyone is still out there....

I thought this was a perfectly reasonable review. The author stated his aims and then set about achieving them. His goal was not to disprove evolution, but rather to offer a critique of Dawkin's book from the point of view of his target audience.

The question is: did Dawkin's offer compelling evidence in this book to persuade "history-deniers" to accept that macroevolution is a fact. The reviewer believes he did not. As someone curious about Dawkin's book, this helps me tremendously because it tells me what I can and cannot expect to get out of it. Clearly I will need to supplement my reading.

Personally, I am open-minded about evolution. Someone once used this analogy: If you wake up in the morning to find snow covering the ground, you can be pretty certain that it snowed (as opposed to being put there by some other elaborate means).

I think Occam's Razor comes in useful at such times. However, this snowfall analogy only holds because people have previously seen snow falling, with the resulting blanketing of the ground. But what if nobody has ever seen it snow before, and they wake up to find everything knee-deep in white powder? Is it then reasonable to assume that snowfall is the only obvious answer? We may be ninety percent sure, or even ninety-nine percent. But that leaves 1% wriggle room for another (and very possible) explanation. Snowfall may end up being the correct answer, but it may not. It may be something that scientists consider outside the realms of science, but that does not mean it did not happen.

My own questions about evolution have to do with the possibility of DNA information increasing and whether or not this has been observed. I have heard of the "ring species" phenomenon in gulls but, for me, this only points to an aberration. The end populations merely cannot breed, but this does not mean anything more than an incompatibility in their DNA. They may not be able to reproduce, but this does not mean that they have gained anything that suggests they may one day become gibbons.

Also, people mention fruit flies quite a lot. I am not familiar with this work, so perhaps someone more knowledgeable could help me here. Do the results of these experiments suggest an increase or improvement in the genetic information necessary to become something other than a fly? By this I mean, do the flies gain beneficial genetic information, or do they experience a deformity of some sort?

Lastly, I am curious to know if an increase in chromosome count has been observed in a laboratory? I believe it has been explained in theory, but has it actually been observed? Looking through a list of the chromosome counts of various species (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_organisms_by_chromosome_count) I see huge differences. Has a change in chromosome count ever been witnessed?

Paul

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