Evolution: ‘Theory’ is fact


Book review:

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
By Richard Dawkins
Free Press, N.Y., 2009

In recent years, especially since the publication of his seminal "The God Delusion," Richard Dawkins has become known, somewhat unfairly, as an anti-Christian, hate-mongering atheist. Of course, he is one of the leading polemicists of the so-called "New Atheists" movement, but "polemicist" does not equate necessarily with "hate monger" or "intolerant thug." Anyone who's seen his slate of Channel 4 shows will know that Dawkins, even when confronted with the most outrageous or offensive ideas, will say little more than, "Yes, I must admit that I am a bit frustrated."

The point that all the New Atheists make is this: There is disagreement over religion, and between religions, so there should be discussion, and everyone should respect each other, and themselves, enough to be up for good debate. In doing so, they've given atheism a better name (now it is the fastest growing demographic in the U.S. Census). But they've also helped Christians and other religious groups, who are often insultingly portrayed as closed-minded or ignorant (something none these authors would say). Dawkins and the others have given religious people the opportunity to debate their ideas in public. Even some of the most fundamentalist religious organizations have taken up the chance for a debate, and have shown themselves to be far more thoughtful and intelligent than is the stereotype.

Much hay has been made (including by sales-happy publishers) about Dawkins comparing creationists to Holocaust-deniers. While this sounds inflammatory, anyone who reads the actual passage can see that Dawkins is not making any sort of moral judgment, but a point about the nature of truth and fact. We know that the Holocaust occurred; there is no question about it. It is appallingly stupid, offensive and, more to the point, irrational to deny the fact. In the same fashion, it is just as irrational to deny evolution. Perhaps a bold statement, but not as grave an insult to creationists as one would assume at first glance.

Such is the context for Dawkins's latest work, "The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution."

Extreme right-wing Christians have said this book is simply another example of the author's supposed intolerance. Even the New York Times review accused Dawkins of getting "his knickers in a twist" for insisting that evolution is indeed a fact. When Dawkins argued, in an interview with Bill O'Reilly, that "intelligent design" should not be taught in classrooms, O'Reilly accused an incredulous Dawkins of "fascism."

All of this is exactly the reason that Dawkins felt the need to write this book, a fun and entertaining, not to mention iron-clad, argument that evolution is fact. According to Dawkins, such a fight is necessary because "intelligent design" proponents "control school boards, they home-school their children to deprive them of access to proper science teachers, and they include many members of the United States Congress ..."

Imagine, he suggests, that you are a teacher of Roman and Greek history. But instead of being able to take your time talking about the contributions of those two empires, and their influence on modern states, you have to take up limited classroom time defending the notion that the ancient Romans and Greeks even existed, that Latin wasn't invented at some point during the Victorian period. This, Dawkins says, is the situation in which many biology teachers find themselves today.

Though known now as an outspoken atheist, Dawkins makes clear that, in this book, his argument is not with religion. In fact, he makes the point that the archbishop of Canterbury (the prelate of England's state-sponsored religion), the pope, most mainstream Christian organizations, as well as Jews and Muslims, all accept the fact of evolution. In the book, he calls upon the leaders of all these groups to use their power to help advance real, scientific education. It's part of a basic, democratic education. Perhaps some Catholics may disagree with Dawkins as to why evolution occurred - maybe God directed it, maybe there was no guidance given - but surely there can be unity around the fact that it did occur, and it occurred the way Darwin described more than a century ago. Evolution is a fact. And that scientific fact, the information that we know, is what should be taught in science classrooms. Leave the rest to philosophy and theology classes.

Dawkins spends a good deal of time discussing the meaning of the word "theory," and how preposterous it is to say evolution is "just a theory." If you're prepared to say that evolution is "just a theory," then you'd better be prepared to say the same about gravity. There are two definitions of theory: one is roughly equivalent to "hypothesis;" the other is "a proven hypothesis, a system of ideas ... a statement of what are held to be general laws, principles or causes of something known or observed." Obviously, evolution falls into the latter definition.

Dawkins takes the reader along for a fun ride as he shows the preposterousness of the idea of some "missing link," or why, out of all the fossils that have been found, the discovery of one single fossil in the wrong place-his example is that of a rabbit fossil in Precambrian rock-would completely disprove evolution.

Dawkins' wry, tongue-in-cheek, but also entirely serious, description of certain absurdities in the development of mammals as an argument against "design" leave the reader laughing as well as enlightened.

Anyone with a thirst for good writing would do well to read "Greatest Show." Dawkins himself, in a footnote description of another writer, sums it up the best: "It is the kind of writing that makes me want to rush out into the street to share with somebody-anybody - because it is too good to keep to oneself."

Photo: Richard Dawkins (picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/CaNfTfbvYz3rwnxGM9a-hQ  Creative Commons license)


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  • why is it that the neo-atheists always seem to want to invoke Charles Darwin, and not Albert Einstein. How can there be room for a "creator," if, by definition, "Energy can't be created or destroyed."

    Religions can be redescribed as really cultural artifacts to comprehend and use that nondestroyable yet always changing fact of Energy.

    Also, why the lack of mention of the evolution of the elements. What creationist can deny that the elements, the table of the elements, have an evolution from simpler to more complex elements, over time. Chemical Evolution.

    Posted by Charles Kaltwasser, 04/24/2010 7:44pm (5 years ago)

  • Someone please explain to me what principles or causes have actually been observed to prove without a doubt that the currently manifested human being has evolved from the slime of the ocean. All of these idiots say evolution has been proven, but cannot actually show any real concrete evidence as proof.
    The fact is that someone is wrong. Evolution and Creation are two opposing views that cannot be proven by hard physical evidence, they are both taken on faith.
    I'll hitch myself to an all powerful creator before I'll buy some garbage about my ancient ancestors evolving from pond-scum. As a created being, I am worth something.
    Communists, Marxists, Socialists, and Atheists want you to believe we are "evolved" so as to make us no more important than any other form of life. This enables them to justify their acceptance of abhorant behavior such as genocide, abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, etc...

    Good luck and God bless you poor lost souls

    Posted by Bryan, 03/03/2010 3:46pm (5 years ago)

  • I cannot belive the american government allows this horrid party to exist, all you do as a proclaimed communist in the united states is sound like mr obama which is not a good thing unless your like him and your a communist... wow i only came to this site to see it was even real, i came here because glenn beck downed this partys chairman and i had to see if this site exists ... im mean really wow

    Posted by DALE HUTCHINSON, 03/02/2010 10:45pm (5 years ago)

  • J.C.,

    Are you a shill for the creationists? What is your point? Did you read the above article? I can only assume you didn't read Dawkins's book.

    The point is this: gravity and evolution are real. You mention that the theory of gravity has changed over time. So what? The point is that theories are an accepted set of well-documented concepts that explain some given phenomenon. This set of concepts, or theory, when used in that context, is the only explanation, and a highly accepted one at that. Therefore, it can be considered fact.

    As Dawkins points out, the only place you can actually prove anything definitively is in mathematics, and science isn't math. Consequently, everything is open to being changed or adapted or refined as new facts emerge. The theories of gravity and evolution both have been. Only a fool would say that either of these theories, or anything in science, is "beyond a shadow of a doubt." If you think that is what the author is implying, then you're a fool, as the article makes this very clear. We can say evolution is a fact, not "just a theory."

    The point Dawkins and the author above makes is that evolution is no more "just a theory" than gravity. They are both facts.

    Posted by J.C., 02/17/2010 11:53am (5 years ago)

  • Over and over I am struck by how stupid leftists are in even bringing up the theory of gravity in connection with the theory of evolution.

    First off, the theory of gravity is called a theory in the exact sense that Religious whackos are trying to call evolution a theory. The theory of gravity was first developed by Galileo, then replaced with Newton's theory, which incorrectly saw the gravitational force as traveling faster than light, then Einstein came along and gave us the most recent theory about the gravity being caused by the curvature of space time.

    If you think Einstein's theory of gravity is beyond any shadow of doubt you are an idiot. No that is not my opinion it is fact regardless of how you whine and complain about it.

    The theory of gravity claims to explain the causes and the effects of the observable phenomenon of gravity. We still have a long way to go before we know what gravity really is.

    If you weren't such a fool you would understand that gravity as an observable force is what is beyond doubt, the theory of gravity is not beyond doubt. Why do you think NASA spent billions to send Gravity Probe B up? It was to test aspects of Einstein's theory.

    But next time you want to complain about how unfair the anti-evolutionists are, just take a good look in the mirror first. Your lack of critical thinking skills is what gives the whackos ammunition to keep going.

    The fact is that our schools have become political indoctrination centers, designed to disempower youth. As long as this is the case there will be a current of religious craziness and a rebellion against the psuedo-intellectuals. If you really want to stop it, let's work to make our youth powerful, strong and vibrant, capable building self-sufficient networks and excluding those without critical thinking skills. But you don't have the guts to live in that kind of culture do you? You just want to whine and complain without changing anything. Parasite.

    Posted by Jay, 02/15/2010 10:51pm (5 years ago)

  • mosquitos, rattlesnakes, and communists are the enemies of all humans

    Posted by hitler, 02/12/2010 9:00pm (5 years ago)

  • die you bolshevik pig

    Posted by hitler, 02/12/2010 8:59pm (5 years ago)

  • There's no evidence for Biblical creation anywhere.

    And how could you be offended by this review?! The author makes a point of saying that many Christians have proven their open-mindedness, and discusses Dawkins's call for all people, religious and non-, to join in the fight against anti-scientific nonsense.

    Did you read this article, or just the comments?

    Posted by Dan, 02/09/2010 11:49pm (5 years ago)

  • Have you considered the very STRONG evidence for biblical creationism? This article seems one sided to me. I must say I was a bit offended. I feel like articles like this alienate and injure religious socialists like myself.

    Posted by Cflippo, 02/02/2010 8:36pm (5 years ago)

  • Evolution? What evolution? There is certainly micro-evolution: Taller humans, etc., but there is NO evidence
    of any macro-evolution in the fossil evidence.

    Posted by Jonathan Mayer, 01/31/2010 3:49am (5 years ago)

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