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)