Book Review: The Greatest Show on Earth (by Richard Dawkins)

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By Ryan Sutter

Cover of the Greatest Show on Earth, featuring blue butterflies.

I was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and therefore a creationist. I qualified as one of the “history-deniers” that Professor Dawkins describes in his latest book The Greatest Show on Earth.  I believed that human beings were created 6,000 years ago and that evolution was a lie. I had never looked deeply into the matter. I trusted my parents and my religion. The creationist literature they indoctrinated me with was very convincing to me when I was twelve.

When I was thirty, however, I had some doubts and I revisited the subject, I re-read the literature, and I was no longer convinced. In fact, I became convinced that creationism was nothing more than propaganda. This did not cause me to believe evolution was true, but it was enough to get me to read a book on evolution for the first time in my life. I chose Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker. I expected creationist-style propaganda but instead, thanks to Professor Dawkins’ excellent and clear explanations of the fundamental concepts underlying evolutionary theory, I learned the truth. Evolution is a fact, a beautiful, powerful, incredible fact, described by an elegant, lovely theory.  

I left creationism behind, left my religion behind, left my belief in God behind, and became an ardent fan of both biological science and Richard Dawkins. Dawkins wasn’t entirely responsible for my deconversion, but he certainly played a pivotal role. Considering the fact that his new book seemed to be targeted at people like I used to be, I held out high hopes that this would be the sort of book that might make a difference, that could maybe convince some creationists to accept evolution. After reading it over, unfortunately, I don’t feel this will be the case.  This seems to be a book that predominately preaches to the choir.  

It’s not that it isn’t a good book. It is. It’s interesting, erudite, chock full of fascinating information, basically everything one would expect from a book written by Dawkins. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, but I think it failed in its stated goal: spelling out the evidence for evolution as a response to the history-deniers.  

The book’s shortcomings are tactical more than anything. For example, the first two chapters are devoted to stating very vehemently that evolution is a fact and the 40% of Americans who believe otherwise are deeply misinformed. It showcases the differences between facts and theories and the differences between the scientific and colloquial meanings of the word theory, but it is hard for me to imagine a less inviting introduction to such a book for somebody who is one of those history-denying 40-percenters. Before ever producing the evidence, before demonstrating the facts, the book confronts the reader with the statement that evolution is absolutely a fact. To somebody who is skeptical about evolution, them’s fightin’ words. To come out with your conclusion before you’ve made your argument in the way that Dawkins does here almost seems to presuppose that the reader already agrees with the author. In a book purportedly calculated to convince an evolution-doubter or two this seems like a tactical misstep. The first few chapters seem likely to dissuade, rather than seduce, a creationist who may be open-minded enough to see the error of their beliefs and change. Telling somebody they are wrong is never as powerful as demonstrating it to them.  

For a reader who is already convinced of evolution or who is disillusioned with creationism, the beginning of the book likely presents very little problem, but I had hoped for something a little more approachable. The same holds true for much of the rest of the book, but for a different reason. While the good Professor does indeed cover a massive amount of ground, discussing molecular clocks, artificial and natural selection, genetic clocks, fossil evidence, DNA, and the like, he doesn’t cleanly connect the dots and he writes at a level that many readers among the 40% would find daunting rather than illuminating. The fundamental problem is that he was never a creationist himself so he doesn’t know how to think like one (some might say that is an oxymoron) and therefore constructs his argument in a way that is likely to be dismissed by them as confusing. 

Many times during the book I found myself thinking, “wow, that’s really interesting, and I’m glad you shared that, but I can’t imagine that my dad or brother would understand the implications of it and why it provides strong evidence for evolution; they would just miss the point”. Dawkins does an excellent job of covering the ground, but a less excellent job of making it clear why this particular evidence strongly supports the conclusion of evolution rather than creation. It’s as if he is so well aware of the subject, that he doesn’t even realize how many things he is taking for granted on the part of the reader. Unfortunately, creationism is all about muddled thinking and half-baked “reasoning”. To liberate people from its grip, they need to be confronted with clear, simple, inescapable conclusions they can’t avoid. I don’t trust many of them to be presented with a bunch of evidence and then see the bigger picture themselves.  

I’m really not trying to write a bad review here. 

I think the book is an informative read from a great mind, but I am just not sure who the audience for the book truly is. It seems best suited to shoring up the stores of knowledge in people who have already broken free from creationism and need to fill in the gaps in their understanding of evolution. In that sense, it is a fine companion to his previous books, such as the phenomenal The Ancestor’s Tale and the classic The Blind Watchmaker. However, if you’re looking for a book to give your wacky creationist brother or neighbor to get them to see the light, this is not the book. It’s not clear enough about the implications of the evidence it presents and it is likely to turn off more tentative readers in the first chapter or two. More’s the pity. I hear his next book is a children’s book. Maybe that will be the one for the creationists.  

Summary:  A good read, interesting material, probably not likely to make many creationist converts but definitely likely to be of interest to people who already accept evolution and want to learn more.  

Three out of five stars.

Categories: Reviews

Minnesota Atheists

Positive Atheism in Action Since 1991