A Chapter-by-Chapter Response to Richard Dawkins' Book The Greatest Show on Earth
Sometimes the creation/evolution debate resembles a three-ring circus with many different perspectives and personalities vying for the center ring. The latest act features Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and his new book, The Greatest Show on Earth.
A well-known and outspoken atheist, Dawkins has produced a number of works that address different aspects of evolutionary biology. But, as he says, "the evidence for evolution itself was nowhere explicitly set out" in any of his earlier books. The Greatest Show on Earth is his attempt to remedy this outage.
It is astounding to think that natural selection operating iteratively on random genetic variation could generate the diversity of life that has existed throughout Earth's history. But according to Dawkins and other evolutionary biologists, this mechanism has indeed accomplished such an incredible feat. And that is why Dawkins thinks biological evolution is "the greatest show on Earth."
Dawkins feels an urgency to communicate what he sees as the overwhelming evidence for biological evolution in light of recent surveys that indicate that over 40 percent of the general American public maintains that: (1) life on Earth today is the same as it was in the beginning; and (2) humans were created by God only 10,000 years ago. While I disagree with both statements, I am also skeptical of Dawkins' claim that evolutionary mechanisms can adequately account for life's origin and history.
Because of Dawkins' prominence and influence as the foremost spokesperson for the evolutionary paradigm, I decided it would be worth taking the time to offer a chapter-by-chapter response to the case he presents for biological evolution in his latest work. For skeptics of the evolutionary paradigm, Dawkins' new book presents an interesting challenge. Are there reasons to be skeptical of the evolutionary paradigm? Or is Richard Dawkins right? Is there an abundance of evidence for biological evolution?
Will the questions and concerns I have about the validity of biological evolution remain intact after interacting with what Dawkins claims is the best evidence for evolution? My intent isn't necessarily to offer a point-by-point rebuttal to his case, but rather critically discuss his primary assertions.
In the opening chapter Dawkins responds to the claim that evolution is only a theory. Many creationists point this out in hopes of discrediting biological evolution by making it appear tentative at best. Dawkins doesn't think much of this line of argumentation. And neither do I. It's based on a shell game, played with different definitions of "theory."
When creationists attempt to disparage evolution by calling it a theory, they are defining the term as a speculative idea, as a conjecture, equivalent to a hypothesis. Dawkins presents an excellent discussion on what scientists mean when they use the term "theory." Sometimes scientists do use "theory" to mean a speculative idea. But when they refer to evolution as a theory, they mean that it is a system of ideas that explains a group of facts or a scheme supported by experiments and observations.
Dawkins also defends the practice of referring to evolution as a fact. A "fact" is defined as something that actually happened or is the way that things really are. Most people maintain that to establish something as a fact, it must be directly observed as opposed to being inferred. If this is the case, then evolution can never be considered a fact because it would have happened over time scales that are too vast for human observation. Again, Dawkins presents an excellent discussion about how facts are established scientifically speaking. He argues that inference is a legitimate way to verify ideas as scientific facts and may actually be a better way than direct observation to demonstrate the factual basis of an idea. As part of his argument, he cites several psychology studies that prove the unreliability of eye witnesses.
In many ways, I have no real disagreement with anything Dawkins says in chapter one of The Greatest Show on Earth. His discussion of how scientists use the term "theory" and what constitutes a scientific fact are spot on. I think it is legitimate to think of the theory of evolution as a system of idea that explains a group of facts or a scheme supported by experiments and observations. It is true evidence exists that can be cited in support of evolution. But there are also observations of the fossil record and patterns in the biological realm that are contrary to predictions that logically flow from the evolutionary framework. In my opinion, discrepancies like these are serious enough to warrant skepticism about biological evolution. (Go here and for an example here.)
And in the face of such problems is it really appropriate to declare evolution a fact? For me the issue is not whether a fact can be established by inference or not. It has to do with observations that appear to be incompatible with the evolutionary paradigm. Some time ago, I wrote a piece that addresses this very point. I close out my response to the first chapter of The Greatest Show on Earth by referring the reader to that article.