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?
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'?
[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.
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.
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.
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.
Dry eye in the house? I shouldn't think so, although mirth was responsible for the tears this time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'.
A fact IDiots often forget. Or actively, willfully deny.
....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.
We come now to the end, page 425, Chapter 13, There is Grandeur in This View of Life.
That it is.
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.
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.