[Guest post] Book review: The Greatest Show On Earth

This is a guest post by Joel Snape.

The Greatest Show On EarthI 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.

Christian:

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

The Greatest Show On EarthI 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.

Christian: ….

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: 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: 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. But it’s not
*that* massive, because after all I could just go and buy another
packet of biscuits.

4 thoughts on “[Guest post] Book review: The Greatest Show On Earth

  1. 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.

    What’s wrong with The Blind Watchmaker? That was the last of Dawkins’ books I bothered to buy, and I think the last I read through with any attention; and a fine book it is too, from before discussion of RD got conflated with muscular atheism.

    Mind you, what you describe of the latest one sounds good. I have to confess I dipped into tGD while killing time in a B&B some months ago, and found the style oddly like an inversion of The Argument From Personal Incredulity

  2. Dawkins makes a distinction between Watchmaker and his new book in the intro – I think the gist is that the earlier book’s more of an explanation of the process, while the later one’s a huge collection of the proof. Maybe slightly shamefully, I haven’t read Watchmaker.

    The AFPI’s going ‘Well, *I* can’t think of a way a venus flytrap would evolve,’ right? How do you have an inversion of that?

  3. The God Delusion was the book that convinced me to stop holding a tottering heap of agnosticism. I remember the meat being in the first section, and the rest being godless gravy really – it does present religious explanations as basically incredible, but takes a lot of care to demonstrate *why* the personal deity is such an unlikely option.

  4. Atheists believe the universe created itself. Is that rational? Perhaps they believe in Miracles. Happy Dickmas to all followers of RD.

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