[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.

Past Papers: A frothy-lipped Cerberus of godlessness

For some reason, I didn’t bring this with me when I moved from Blogger to WordPress. But after reading Richard Seymour‘s dismantling of the Hitchens position in The Liberal Defense Murder, I’ve decided it deserves another run out.

The problem with atheists, according to one line, is that they’re just so pleased with themselves. John Gray, in an essay for the Guardian review, lumped Dawkins, Hitchens, Pullman and Amis together as “atheist fundamentalists” and accused them of “never [doubting] that human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things,” and being “certain that one way of living – their own, suitably embellished – is right for everybody.”

To me, anyway, Pullman and Dawkins are in awkward company with Hitchens and Amis. The former are pugnacious but gracious, and conduct intelligent dialogues with critical theologians: Dawkins converses with the Bishop of Oxford in a spirit of friendly intellectual competition, Pullman disputes atheism on stage with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and these exchanges model good relations between the theist and atheist worlds.

Dawkins and Pullman evangelise their atheism with sound arguments and vigorous example, and they are persuasive: the case they both make is that beliefs do not earn respect on account of being religious, and the fact that a stricture is supposed to derive from some specious deity does not exempt it from analysis. Decision-making is always done best on a rational assessment of the evidence, and teaching children to espouse irrationality as part of their education is a very bad thing.

This is pretty moderate stuff, but Dawkin’s commitment to it is enough to get him labelled Darwin’s pitbull; in that case, Hitchens’ approach makes him a frothy-lipped Cerberus of godlessness. He is not exactly out to make converts. Compare his cover with Dawkins’: yes, they both go with declamatory capitals, but Dawkins’ cover has an elegant font in thoughtful white space, whereas Hitchens’ chooses something with all the aesthetic sensitivity of a John Grisham cover.

The embossed lettering in the style of cast-bronze on bloody-red marble is a study in aggressive ugliness; so is the “case against religion” made within. (Although, just in case the hideous front had somehow tricked you into thinking Hitchens was some sort of lowbrow pamphleteer, the front matter of the book is a barrage of high culture: a Goya engraving! some underlining in the style of a nineteenth-century title page! a dedication to Ian McEwan! three, yes three, epigraphs from Oxford World’s Classics!)

So now we know that Hitchens is an educated man, we can all get on with agreeing with him or despising him. That’s how the opening sentences of the book envisages the reader-response, anyway:

If the intended reader of this book wants to go beyond disagreement with the author and try to identify the sins and deformities that animated him to write it (and I have certainly noticed that those who publicly affirm charity and compassion and forgiveness are often inclined to take this course) then he or she will not just be quarrelling with the unknowable and ineffable creator who – presumably – opted to make me this way. They will be defiling the memory of a good, sincere, simple woman, of stable and decent faith, named Miss Jean Watts.

Already, Hitchens has riled himself up into an orgy of self-importance and pretentious diction. Deformities! Animated! Affirm! Ineffable! Defiling! (If anybody on Vanity Fair is looking for a synonym, I suggest that they check Hitchens’ belly, because he has apparently swallowed the thesaurus.) If you believe in God, knocking Hitchens would be like knocking God – a rhetorical flourish which I’m sure Hitchens thought would be cutely contentious, but comes off as supremely cocky. (What if the affronted believer holds with some form of deity who operates obscurely rather than creating directly? Hitchens didn’t think of that. Oh well.)

And then he wraps it all up with a tender pat on the head for his first RE teacher, which I think is meant to tell us that Hitchens is in fact a decent person beneath the bluster, but actually comes off more as the big man being patronising to one of the many, many people-less-brilliant-and-rich than himself.
The digression into the world of Little Christopher is for a bigger purpose than a cheap smirk at his “pious old trout” of a teacher, however. It is actually another opportunity to show everyone how terribly clever the author is:

At the age of nine I had not even a conception of the argument from design, or of Darwinian evolution as its rival, or of the relationship between photosynthesis and chlorophyll. The secrets of the genome were as hidden from me as they were, at that time, to everyone else. I had not then visited scenes of nature where almost everything was hideously indifferent or hostile to human life, if not life itself. I simply knew, almost as if I had privileged access to a higher authority, that my teacher had managed to get everything wrong in just two sentences. The eyes were adjusted to nature, and not the other way around.

Oh young Hitchens, how wise you were to simply know – and while there is an almost-witty parody here at the moment of divine inspiration from which spiritual biographies tend to embark, I suspect that the lack of humility is absolutely genuine. Here are some other things a nine-year-old child might “simply know”: bogies are good to eat and a joy to flick, Ben 10 is brilliant, and nobody else in the world is as important as you are. Perhaps the intellectual health of the nation could be ensured by encouraging small children to horde up their first intuitions, and then at a later date, splurge out whole reams of experience which has confirmed them. Even if Hitchens is correct (and given that adaptation has been resoundingly proven, he is), this is a pretty tawdry way of making his point.

So Hitchens has already shown the force of his intelligence: there’s an ad-hom attack on potential disagree-ers in the first paragraph, and a vigorous assertion his authority as an Extremely Clever Man. It is from these two fine forms of reasoning that Hitchens will argue the rest of his case…

Edited to change title (see comments for explanation).

Good news, Africa!

popeinafrica-copy1

The Pope is coming to see you! And he’s very, very concerned that so many Africans are dying from a preventable, treatable disease, so he’s taking extra powerful steps to help. Will it be money? Will it be pragmatic sexual education?

HIV/Aids was, he [the Pope] argued, “a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which can even increase the problem”

So no money, then, and no pragmatic sexual education. What is the Pope’s godly plan?

Pope Benedict said on the eve of his trip that he wanted to wrap his arms around the entire continent, with “its painful wounds, its enormous potential and hopes”.

Oh. Turns out Africa is getting a big, Papal hug. Any other vague and empty gestures in your bag of tricks, Pope Benedict?

The solution lay, he said, in a “spiritual and human awakening” and “friendship for those who suffer”.

But try not to feel too short-changed by this, people of Africa. Because a metaphorical hug is all the physical affection the Pope plans on you having:

While in Africa, the pontiff is expected to talk to young people about the Aids epidemic and explain to them why the Catholic Church recommends sexual abstinence as the best way to prevent the spread of the disease.

So that’s ok, then. Just as long as everyone can avoid having sex indefinitely, the Aids crisis can be eliminated! This is exactly the kind of radical thinking we need God’s representative on Earth to come out with! I would have just gone for the rusty old ‘save lives, ameliorate suffering’ angle, but Benedict’s got bigger things in mind: he’s looking out for your immortal, implausible soul. Wait, why can I hear singing?

Extraordinary Claims

Honestly.

I thought the thing about religion was believing in really, really improbable things. I thought it was the whole laws-of-nature-defying that made deities so special, and the ability of believers to believe in the vastly unlikely that was going to earn them all the spiffy afterlife rewards. If Christians are going to start arguing that God’s probable, then what’s supposed to be so amazing about God?

PS There probably isn’t now stop worrying etc etc.