Wednesday, February 12, 2014

#16: The Greatest Show on Earth

I'm still working through last year's reads. I missed my deadline of the end of January. Maybe the end of February?

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for EvolutionThe Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

By the time I was in middle school I had realized that human evolution was an inescapable conclusion. There was just too much evidence to deny it. Nevertheless, because of my faith I fought this conclusion to some degree for much of my life. For the most part I've always been willing to concede that the human body had evolved. But thinking about the evolution of aspects of humanity that I attributed to the soul (such as consciousness and intellect) was uneasy for me. You can see this unease in my review of Keith Devlin's The Math Gene which I wrote in 2008 (Math Gene review) and Douglas Hofstadter's I am a Strange Loop which I wrote in 2009 (Strange Loop review). I was uncomfortable enough that I didn't even finish either of those books. Then I was worried that I was running from something that frightened me. But why? What was I scared of?

The Greatest Show on Earth is a much needed book. We need great scientists (like Dawkins) and great writers (again, like Dawkins) to layout in an easily understood way some of the major evidences for evolution. But (and here's the point!) the crux of the whole evolution versus creationism debate has nothing to do with a lack of evidence for evolution. It has everything to do with people being unwilling to even look at the evidence because they don't want to lose a fundamental piece of themselves. This is something I can sympathize with (remember my unwillingness to finish Devlin's and Hofstadter's books).

What those not accepting evolution need is a friend--someone they trust--to take them by the hand and say "I've been down this road. I know it's difficult. But it doesn't mean giving up who you are. It doesn't (necessarily) mean losing your faith--I gotta be honest, that's always a possibility in this world. We can't escape that. But I was able to navigate this, and what it meant for me was seeing a bigger Universe and having an expanded faith."

Some will take that outstretched hand, and some won't. Dawkins (bless his heart) is more apt to push people into a corner. We all know how people respond when they're forced into a corner.

What I'm saying is: if you buy into evolution already, then Dawkins' book is a great one. You'll have a lot of fun reading it. If you don't believe in evolution because of your religion, well, we need some better resources for you. If you're Mormon Evolution and Mormonism A Quest for Understanding (which I've not yet read) may be a good place to start. For other faiths I don't know if there are good resources like this. That's the sort of thing that needs to be developed. For some, evolution is directly and explicitly contrary to their faith's basic tenets. How do we help those people? I don't know. I'm not big on tearing down people's faith. But we have to help people understand that even if evolution is incompatible with their faith, it is good science and therefore should be taught in schools. (they're still free to reject it on a personal level.) How best to get that message across I don't know.

That does bring me to another point: intelligent design. Intelligent design needs to be attacked as the bad science that it is. Dawkins does a good job of carrying out that attack. On the other hand, intelligent design is bad theology. That's an attack vector that I haven't seen used against it, but I think really should be. Think about what the premise of intelligent design is saying: if science is done "right" then it proves to us the existence of God. Wha? So now we don't need faith? Now we can just turn to the intelligent design "scientists" to tell us about God? Yikes! That's not the kind of faith I'm interested in.

For what it is, the book is great. In my opinion Dawkins flubs a couple of things--his arms race examples could have been better chosen, and he ends with a somewhat bizarre exegesis of Darwin's ending to The Origin of Species--but those are minor points. Recommended for anyone that it won't push into a corner.

View all my reviews

1 comment:

Genevieve said...

Yes! I can totally relate to this. "It has everything to do with people being unwilling to even look at the evidence because they don't want to lose a fundamental piece of themselves."

And I agree that religious people need some sort of mentor/friend if they're going to grapple with these issues. I wish that the church structure could foster that somehow, but it sort of feels like we're on our own on Sundays for that kind of thing. I guess there are good reasons why people don't want, say, a Sunday School class that delves into looking at evolution. But I think that even in an informal setting, people are not usually very open -- at least not in person -- about fears and struggles with evolution, or other faith-challenging topics. And I hope that that changes.

I'm interested in finding out what the Evolution and Mormonism book has to say.


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