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FROM DARWIN TO DAWKINS: Evolutionary evidence may be falling on undeveloped ears

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The Greatest Show on Earth

The Evidence for Evolution

By Richard Dawkins

The Free Press, 454 pages, $40

Though neither the theologian nor archeologist, British biologist Richard Dawkins appears to have a bone to pick with God.

In his last book, The God Delusion, he offered an at once insightful critique of the excesses perpetrated in the name of religion, and a perhaps short-sighted caricature of a vocal fundamentalist minority.

As The God Delusion was a rejoinder to religious "criticism" of his voluminous work on evolution, The Greatest Show on Earth is in a sense a lament, Dawkins' frustrated response to the fact that "more than 40 per cent of Americans [and roughly similar numbers around the globe, with local, usually religious variation] ... think that we ... were created by God within the last 10,000 years."

"Given that the true age of the earth is 4.6 billion years," he points out in an appendix, "this is equivalent to believing that the width of North America is less than 10 yards."

To a proselytizer like Dawkins, this state of affairs might suggest that he's been speaking too quickly, or perhaps not enunciating.

But he also hopes that the fact that people just aren't "getting it" is at least partially due to errors of omission on his part, derived from his assumption (oops!) that evolution, as first described by Charles Darwin in the 19th century, and magnificently elaborated upon by generations of subsequent thinkers, was so profoundly obvious, such a forehead-slapping "ah hah" moment, that the actual hard scientific evidence that continues to be amassed in its support need not be elaborated upon in the popular media.

Wrong and regretting it, and ever persistent, Dawkins now presents a compilation of the evidence. Writing in a familiar, colloquial first person, he provides his own colour commentary, peppering the book with personal anecdotes.

With his beautiful gift for analogy, simplification and, of course, polemic, he bemoans the current and worsening global plight of teachers of biology and evolution.

He imagines teachers of Roman history and Latin having their attention distracted by "a braying pack of ignoramuses" who argue the Roman Empire never existed.

"The entire world came into existence only just beyond living memory. Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese ... all these languages ... sprang spontaneously and separately into being, and owe nothing to any predecessor such as Latin."

This, of course, sounds ludicrous, but the parallels to biology and the teaching of evolution are real. And as Dawkins is at pains to demonstrate, the evidence in each case is quite comparable.

The book examines a number of misunderstandings that have an all too common currency. Observing that it would be "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," Dawkins addresses, and hopefully puts finally to bed, the lame criticism of evolution as "just a theory."

Regarding doubters' specious demands that they be shown fossilized "missing links," he points out that in the fossil evidence, itself now arguably the weakest type of evidence supporting evolution, intermediates abound.

Discussing so-called Intelligent Design, Dawkins suggests that apparent design weaknesses, evident in a multitude of instances, clearly demonstrate either evolution, or a profoundly un-intelligent designer, hardly omniscient or omnipotent. The circuitous path taken by the mammalian recurrent laryngeal nerve is a case in point.

Although Dawkins devotes little time to it (nor should he), he addresses the often repeated assumption that if evolution is a true description of our planet and our position in it, pandemonium and moral chaos are inevitable.

Even if this were to be the case, it is an error of logic, which ought to be clear to a school boy or girl, to assume therefore that evolution is false. That the truth might be to some ugly, and to some others hurtful, has no bearing whatever on its veracity.

Dawkins' prodigious volume of published work is second only perhaps to his erudition, itself occasionally eclipsed by his apparent awareness of it.

In books like The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable, for years he has been describing, cajoling, and, dare one say it, pontificating.

He has described, with beguiling beauty and simplicity, the awe-inspiring predictive and explanatory powers of evolution through natural selection.

In The Greatest Show on Earth, he now lays out some of the more important evidence that proves, beyond all doubt, what another writer has called the "greatest idea anyone ever had."

Regrettably and ironically, however, one cannot help but worry that Dawkins is preaching to the choir, that those who most need to hear his message are plugging their ears and singing "blah blah blah blah."

Winnipeg doctor Ted St. Godard started out as a single cell.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 27, 2009 B10

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