This is a guest post by Joel Snape.
I got in an argument with some creationists the other day. The usual story: I was on a food run, they were handing out leaflets, I absentmindedly took one, they said “‘Oh, do you think about Jesus much,” and I went “Wait, this is about Jesus? Have your leaflet back.” I would have walked away, but before I had the chance one of them told me he believed that everything in the Bible was literally true, and before I knew it I was late back with the butternut squash. My girlfriend was furious.
Anyway, of the fish-in-a-barrel fun I had over those thirty minutes*, this was my favourite exchange:
Christian: You know, I’ve studied evolution.
Me: Which books have you read?
Christian: Well, I actually did political science at university, but…
Me: So did I, that’s fine, I’m just asking which books on evolution you’ve read. I’ve read loads.
Christian: Well, I went to the same university as Richard Dawkins.
Me: I went to the same university as Victoria Wood, but I couldn’t [thinks desperately]… write a sitcom about dinner ladies to save my life.
Me: [in my head, so as not to ruin the moment] ZING!
You know what? I wasn’t just being a dick: I have read loads of books on evolution. But these creationists were pretty well-informed – in the sense of knowing an awful lot of ‘facts’ that were actually convincing-sounding lies – and somewhere during the conversation, I realised that I’ve never read a book that contains simple, comprehensive proof of why evolution is definitely real, alongside easily-memorable ripostes to the ill-thought out arguments most creationists parrot.
The Greatest Show On Earth is exactly that book.
It’s also a bit of a return to form. The God Delusion is comprehensively structured and intimidatingly well-argued, but – perhaps because he’s used to delivering the same material to denialist buffoons – the tone can get a bit hectoring. By contrast, this is Dawkins at his most avuncular – the twinkle-eyed, tweed-jacketed professor you’d like to give a non-ironic apple. He’s talking about a subject that he genuinely loves, and you’d have to have visited an awful lot of Noah’s Ark-themed petting zoos not to be swept along by his enthusiasm.
Describing bacteriologist Richard Lenski’s experiments in evolution, for instance – a twenty-year exercise in tedium, repetition and very carefully moving things between jars – Dawkins is clearly in awe of what Ben Goldacre would probably call Proper Science, and it’s impossible not to feel the same. In other moments, Dawkins describes the elegance of evolution with a sense of wonder that doesn’t seem to have dimmed through the years, getting excited about obscure plants or interesting fossils in a way that makes you wish he’d taught you biology at school.
Meanwhile, he marshals his arguments like Tony Hart making the New York skyline out of scrap metal – a nudge here, a prod there, and suddenly you have a genuine understanding of radioactive clocks or the reasons for the Cambrian gap, along with easily memorised rejoinders to most of the typical creationist tropes. It’s not going to convince everyone – Dawkins can’t resist including a transcript of his chat with a particularly blinkered Concerned Woman Of America – but if nothing else, it should make sure I never have to bring up the fact that I shared a university with Chris Tarrant. I’m pretty sure I could do whatever his job is.
* Bonus round 1: if you need a couple of single-sentence creationist-upsetters, try “What did the carnivores eat on the ark?” or “If god’s omnipotent, how can you say Jesus was his only son?”
Bonus round 2: here’s something I should have said to the creationists but didn’t, which I’m going to call the Last Biscuit argument:
Imagine I’ve got a packet of biscuits on my desk, but there’s only one left. One of my colleagues is hungry, so I give him the biscuit. That’s a pretty big sacrifice, especially if my colleague decides that instead of taking advantage of the biscuit properly he’s going to just crush it underfoot and then chuck the crumbs in my face. Now imagine that I know in advance what my colleague’s going to do to the biscuit and that I could make a new packet of biscuits appear out of thin air. Surely that’s stretching the meaning of sacrifice a bit?
Text © Joel Snape, 2009