11 October, 2009

Sunday Sensational Science

The Greatest Show On Earth

Come one, come all!  Roll right up to see the great Richard Dawkins!  He'll awe you with his intellect!  He'll astound you with his humor!  He'll make a case for evolution only the DIscoers can deny!  He'll call Kirk Cameron the other half of a Monty Python sketch!

Indeed, he did.  It's always nice to start a book reading with a gentle yet devastating British dig at former child actor and current nitwit creationist Kirk Cameron for being a no-show to the great Dawkins-Cameron debate on the O'Reilly Factor.  And that's just how Dawkins started his talk at the HEC Pavillion in Seattle.  Glorious.  The huge audience of skeptics, science buffs, atheists, humanists, and assorted critics of DIsco laughed mightily.  We were off to a good start.

Americans love a British accent.  We secular folk love a good science conversation.  Having Richard Dawkins read to us from his book, The Greatest Show on Earth, qualified as something of a paradise-on-Earth, despite the hard plastic stadium benches.

I can't re-create that experience in its entirety for you, but I can at least share enough of the essence so you can follow along at home.  Put in your favorite Dawkins podcast, imagine that deceptively-mellow British accent rolling over you, and dive into the bits of the book Dawkins read from.

You do own a copy of The Greatest Show on Earth, don't you?  If not, go out and purchase one forthwith, because you'll need it to get the full passages, which I shall not copy here.

Got the book?  Right, then.  Crack it open.  Turn to page 6 of Chapter One, Only a Theory?

The Archbishop of Canterbury has no problem with evolution, nor does the Pope (give or take the odd wobble over the precise palaeontological juncture when the human soul was injected), nor do educated priests and professors of theology.  This is a book about the positive evidence that evolution is a fact.  It is not intended as an anti-religious book.  I've done that, it's another T-shirt, this is not the place to wear it again....

Evolution is a fact.  Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact... No reputable scientist disputes it, and no unbiased reader will close the book doubting it.

Dawkins placed subtle but strong emphasis on "unbiased," there.  Perhaps the fact DIsco was whining that he wouldn't debate (i.e., be babbled incoherently at by) them had something to do with it.  There are people who would deny the fact of evolution if God hisownself showed up to stump for it, and Dawkins knows that.

This is a book for the fence-sitters, and for the champions of evolution, not the poor lost minds at DIsco.

So let's get to the evidence.  Turn to page 145, Chapter 6, Missing Link?  What Do You Mean, 'Missing'?

Creationists are deeply enamoured of the fossil record, because they have been taught (by each other) to repeat, over and over, the mantra that it is full of 'gaps': 'Show me your "intermediates"!'  They fondly (very fondly) imagine that these 'gaps' are an embarrassment to evolutionists.  Actually, we are lucky to have any fossils at all, let alone the massive numbers that we now do have to document evolutionary history - large numbers of which, by any standards, constitute beautiful 'intermediates'.... The fossil evidence for evolution in many major animal groups is wonderfully strong.  Nevertheless there are, of course, gaps, and creationists love them obsessively.

[I'm snipping out one of the funniest analogies in the book.  You will either have to buy it, or wonder why every time someone says "butler," those who have read the book or were present at the reading break into delighted laughter and scream, "There's a gap in the video record! - Now there's two gaps!"]
Evolution could so easily be disproved if just a single fossil turned up in the wrong date order.  Evolution has passed this test with flying colors.  Sceptics of evolution who wish to prove their case should be diligently scrabbling around in the rocks, desperately trying to find anachronistic fossils.  Maybe they'll find one.  Want a bet?

Dawkins has a wonderfully wicked sparkle in his eyes, an undeniably impish half-grin, when he says things like that.  Needless to say, no one present took that bet.

And, really, you haven't lived until you've heard Dawkins quote J.B.S. Haldane, lowering his voice to grump old curmudgeonly tones as he repeats the famous phrase, "Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian!"

We haven't found anything like fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.  What we have found is a rich abundance of fossils that show us the course of evolution from single-celled bacterium to the vast diversity of life today.  And we have Lucy and her kin, whose bones tell sometimes sad stories.  Turn now to page 188, Chapter 7, Missing Persons?  Missing No Longer.

The conclusion from studies of Lucy and her kind is that they had brains about the same size as chimpanzees' but, unlike chimpanzees, they walked upright on their hind legs, as we do....  Their bipedality is dramatically confirmed by the poignantly evocative set of footprints discovered by Mary Leakey in fossilized volcanic ash....

The first Australopithecine to be discovered, and the type specimen of the genus, was the so-called Tuang Child.  At the age of three and a half the Taung Child was eaten by an eagle.  The evidence is that damage marks to the eye sockets of the fossil are identical to marks made by modern eagles on modern monkeys as they rip out their eyes.  Poor little Taung Child, shrieking on the wind as you were borne aloft by the aquiline fury, you would have found no comfort in your destined fame, two and a half million years on, as the type specimen of Australopithecus africanus.  Poor Taung mother, weeping in the Pliocene.
Dry eyes in the house?  Not so much.  And this is one of those moments that I will wield against anyone who accuses science of lacking emotional power, drama, and meaning.

We need a bit of comic relief now.  Turn to page 211, Chapter 8, You Did It Yourself In Nine Months, and you shall have it.

That irascible genius J.B.S. Haldane, who did much else besides being one of the three leading architects of neo-Darwinism, was once challenged by a lady after a public lecture.  It's a word-of-mouth anecdote, and John Maynard Smith is sadly not available to confirm the exact words, but this is approximately how the exchange went:
Evolution sceptic: Professor Haldane, even given the billions of years that you say were available for evolution, I simply cannot believe it is possible to go from a single cell to a complicated human body, with its trillions of cells organized into bones and muscles and nerves, a heart that pumps without ceasing for decades, miles and miles of blood vessels and kidney tubules, and a brain capable of thinking and talking and feeling.

JBS: But madam, you did it yourself.  And it only took you nine months.
Dry eye in the house?  I shouldn't think so, although mirth was responsible for the tears this time.

Dawkins has a talent for juxtaposing the funny, outrageous and astonishing all in one brilliant package, and he does it again on page 268, Chapter 9, The Ark of the Continents.

It is almost too ridiculous to mention it, but I'm afraid I have to because of the more than 40 per cent of the American population who, as I lamented in Chapter 1, accept the Bible literally: think what the geographical distribution of animals should look like if they'd all dispersed from Noah's Ark.  Shouldn't there be some sort of law of decreasing species diversity as we move away from an epicentre - perhaps Mount Ararat?...

Why would all those marsupials - ranging from tiny pouched mice through koalas and bilbys to giant kangaroos and Diprotodonts - why would all those marsupials, but no placentals at all, have migrated en masse to Australia?  Which route did they take?....

Did all thirty-seven and more species of lemur troop in a body down Noah's gangplank and hightail it (literally in the case of the ringtail) for Madagascar, leaving not a single straggler by the wayside, anywhere throughout the length and breadth of Africa?

Once again, I am sorry to take a sledgehammer to so small and fragile a nut, but I have to do so because more than 40 per cent of the American people believe literally in the story of Noah's Ark.... And, as recent polls have shown, Britain is not far behind (or should that read 'ahead'?), along with parts of Europe and most of the Islamic world.
Sad, sad sad.  And he added an additional dig from a poll recently released that showed that 28% of people believe that humans actually walked with dinosaurs.  This number didn't surprise me.  Something on the order of 28% of Americans also frequently believe another falsehood, which is that Republicans are better at governing than Democrats, Independents, Greens, or the Association of Village Idiots.  Not surprising, then, that they believe the Flintstones is a documentary.

Dawkins went on to describe why so many people, both the 28-percenters and others more intelligent, have been deceived by the appearance of design in living things.  It's all down to the evolutionary arms race.  "In an arms race," he said, "the environment that counts may be the predators."  The evolutionary tango between predator and prey is the "reason why animals are infused so compellingly with the illusion of design."  But an illusion is all it is.

Turn to page 384, Chapter 12, Arms Races and 'Evolutionary Theodicy'.

One thing about arms races that might worry enthusiasts for intelligent design is the heavy dose of futility that loads them down.  If we are going to postulate a designer of the cheetah, he has evidently put every ounce of his designing expertise into the task of perfecting a superlative killer.... But the very same designer has equally evidently strained every nerve to design a gazelle that is superbly equipped to escape from those very same cheetahs.  For heaven's sake, whose side is the designer on?... Does the designer's left hand not know what his right hand is doing?  Is he a sadist, who enjoys the spectator sport and is forever upping the ante on both sides to increase the thrill of the chase?

....Needless to say, no such problems arise on the evolutionary interpretation of what is going on.  Each side is struggling to outwit the other because, on both sides, those individuals who succeed will automatically pass on the genes that contributed to their success.  Ideas of 'futility' and 'waste' spring to our minds because we are human, and capable of looking at the welfare of the whole ecosystem.  Natural selection cares only for the survival and reproduction of individual genes.
A fact IDiots often forget.  Or actively, willfully deny.

We come now to the end, page 425, Chapter 13, There is Grandeur in This View of Life.

The fact of our own existence is almost too surprising to bear.  So is the fact that we are surrounded by a rich ecosystem of animals that more or less closely resemble us, by plants that resemble us a little less and on which we ultimately depend for our nourishment, and by bacteria that resemble our remoter ancestors and to which we shall all return in decay when our time is past...

It is no accident that we see green almost wherever we look.  It is no accident that we find ourselves perched on one tiny twig in the midst of a blossoming and flourishing tree of life; no accident that we are surrounded by millions of other species, eating, growing, rotting, swimming, walking, flying, burrowing, stalking, chasing, fleeing, outpacing, outwitting.  Without green plants to outnumber us at least ten to one there would be no energy to power us.  Without the ever-escalating arms races between predators and prey, parasites and hosts, without Darwin's 'war of nature,' without his 'famine and death' there would be no nervous systems capable of seeing anything at all, let alone of appreciating and understanding it.  We are surrounded by endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful, and it is no accident, but the direct consequence of evolution by non-random natural selection - the only game in town, the greatest show on Earth.
That it is.

Next week, thee shall have the Q&A section, which shall include actual photos of the great event, and insights from Richard Dawkins available nowhere else.  At least, you'll have as many insights as I can reconstruct from my wretched attempts at note-taking...

As always, click the pics for photo sources.


stevec said...

Nice post.

I especially liked the picture of the eagle and the Tuang baby fossil... where'd you find that?

I like this book quite a bit, though I though Jerry Coyne's "Why Evolution is True" might have been a bit more concise and to the point.

There were a couple of things that bothered me about The Greatest Show on Earth, though they are both minor nitpicking, easily ignorable. One, though he mentions varves, he only gives a couple of sentences on this topic, (p. 90), and I think that the case which can be presented against a young earth with varves is much much stronger than what Dawkins presents.
For instance, see the wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varves
Likewise, if he's battling young earth creationists, he might have mentioned the annual layers of ice, and ice core samples taken that go back 400000 years:

Then at the top of p. 402, there's a weird little paragraph that talks about the logical fallacy known as appeal to consequences, which is a favorite of religious peoples the world over. But the paragraph doesn't seem to fit into the book where it's placed. It's almost as if there's a whole section of the book missing which this paragraph should fit into. It doens't seem to me to fit into the surrounding text. Being as it's towards the end of the book, I suspect it was the victim of last minute editing, cutting and pasting, and the like. That paragraph just seemed weird there.

But, as I say, these are minor nitpicks, overall the book is excellent.

BTW, if you haven't read Carl Zimmer's "Microcosm," that's a really good, really interesting book. After reading that, you do kind of have a feeling like... "it's amazing I'm not dead of some kind of molecular machinery malfunction right now."

Efrique said...

I'm in the last few pages of chapter 13 now.

It's a fantastic book. I had thought I wouldn't enjoy it as much as the more concise book by Coyne, but actually I found I enjoyed it more.

Both are great, though, and Dawkins has in several places avoided or made more concise topics that were well covered by Coyne, making owning both very worthwhile.

Once I am finished, I will have Robin Williams' Unintelligent Design (the one Dawkins refers to, which I have had for a few years now), Shubin's Your Inner Fish, Coyne and Dawkins all side by side, with Darwin's On the Origin of Species and then D'Arcy Thompson's classic On Growth and Form (which again, Dawkins refers to) all in a row on my shelf.

Cujo359 said...

I love that T-shirt. I think the fact that most Christians, Jews, and Muslims don't go through life committing genocide, stoning people for piddling offenses, and sacrificing their children to their gods is proof that people don't get their morality from belief in a deity.

lasthussar said...

Channel 4 have just shown a 3 part series by Dawkins called "The Genius of Charles Darwin", even my Christian wife was getting upset with the bigotted fundies in the last one. My 13 year old loved it, watched all three parts with me, and not only lectured a friend about how we are NOT decended from monkeys. (He is a high IQ aspergers, who recognises the condition in himself. This means if you are going to try and sell him woo, you better sound damned logical- bits that don't fit properly get argued with)

lasthussar said...

damn missed a bit Not only [lectures a freind...], but seems to have taken a few steps down the route of atheism.