In the appendix to Richard Dawkins’ latest book – The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution – the author reproduces the results of Gallup’s 2008 poll sampling American popular opinion about evolution. An astonishing 44% of those polled identified the statement “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so” as the one that most accorded with their own beliefs. Even allowing for the error margins inherent in polling of this kind, the results would seem fairly consistent: Gallup has been asking this question at irregular intervals since 1982, and it always comes out between 40% and 50%. In other words, nearly half the citizenry of the most powerful and technically advanced civilisation in history are young-earth creationists who – in the teeth of all evidence to the contrary – insist the (unknown) nomadic scribes of Genesis knew more about the origins of life, the universe, and everything, than all of the sciences. This isn’t a small error. As Dawkins points out in the book, thinking the world is about 10,000 years old is the equivalent of measuring the width of north America to within a few yards.
In America the fight against creationism is a legal as well as intellectual battle. As the proponents of creationism know they cannot gain acceptance in the scientific arena – that would involve research, experimentation, and publication – they have instead opted for a calculated PR exercise aimed at capturing the ‘hearts and minds’ of a scientifically illiterate population – especially its young. Despite the successes of Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987 and Kitzmiller v. Dover in 2005, the cynical attempt to violate the constitution’s ‘establishment clause’ by teaching the sectarian, religiously inspired pseudo-science of ‘intelligent design’ in public schools is ongoing and even gaining momentum. In 2008 Republican governor of Louisiana (and ‘Tea Party’ favourite) Bobby Jindal signed into law the “Louisiana Academic Freedom Act”, a piece of legislation designed to open the back-door to creationism by allowing public school teachers to ‘supplement’ the teaching of evolution with material ‘critical’ of the theory. The material critical of evolution, however, comes not from within the sciences themselves – where there is no disagreement about evolution’s centrality to biology – but from the ‘intelligent design’ crowd. Similar ‘Academic Freedom’ bills are being forwarded across many states of the union as I write.
Even in a supposedly secular and godless country like Britain, the ideas of the creationists have gained a foothold, with the rise of the American evangelical influence, coupled with Tony Blair’s fondness for faith schools, resulting in a row like the one over Emmanuel College Gateshead – and a tension between science, religion, and education that seems to me to be something quite new. In Dawkins’ appendix he cites, with barely disguised alarm, a 2005 Eurobarometer poll that highlighted the extent of scientific ignorance among the British public, with a full 19% of respondents, for example, believing that the earth takes a month to orbit the sun. Even more worrisomely, a 2006 Ipsos MORI poll found 22% clinging to the creationist view.
Given all this, the question that naturally arises is: what do we do about it? How do those of a rational and reasoned mind (whether religious or otherwise) project a coherent and understandable vision of scientific reality in the face of such blanket denial? How do those with a commitment to truth balance freedom of speech and belief against the need to keep the sciences scientific? Does it even matter that millions of people believe the world was somehow magicked into existence after the domestication of the dog? These questions hold not just for creationism, but also for all manner of pseudo-science and pseudo-history, including ‘alternative medicine’, ‘new-age’ mumbo-jumbo, and all flavours of conspiracy theories (of which creationism is just one among many). Simply laying out the truth of the matter is clearly inadequate, as it is for dedicated Holocaust deniers and 9/11 ‘Truthers’, especially one considers the well-funded and politically powerful campaign to undermine scientific teaching, operating as it is in a world where reason and empiricism have been systematically undermined by the fashionably relativistic.
Many of those who chide Dawkins for his combative and vituperative approach to his subject tend to forget that he has, through no fault of his own, found himself in this embattled position for his entire career. Physicists, by and large, don’t find their classes or lectures interrupted by those who insist that E=MC²can’t possibly be true as it isn’t in the Bible. If Dawkins comes across as prickly – and I admit that he sometimes does – it is for a reason.
In discussing the Gallup poll, Dawkins concludes that, “This book is necessary”. Which, of course, it is – but necessary for whom? Although I enjoyed the book and learned much from it, it occurred to me that perhaps I was not best placed to benefit from its erudition. For me the question of whether we are evolved or created beings was settled long ago. Ideally a book like The Greatest Show on Earth should be read by the 44% who believe we descended from Adam and Eve. Here, however, we have a problem.
One of the favourite tactics of creationists is the setting up of a false dichotomy between religion and science. Telling religious people that they must choose between Darwin or God is offering them no choice at all. Unfortunately Dawkins inadvertently plays into their hands here – his reputation as the world’s most vocal non-believer means it is easy for people to equate evolution with atheism, and therefore to resist it with all their intellectual and emotional fibre. Those who would benefit most from reading his book are, therefore, among the least likely to read it. The 44% of respondents to the Gallup poll are as unlikely to pick up Dawkins’ book as I am of converting to Islam. His reputation doth proceed him.
This is a shame, as Dawkins is as articulate and passionate an advocate of evolution as one could wish for, and this book, like his previous work, readily displays his skill in getting across complicated scientific ideas to the non-specialist. Although his irritation with creationists is – at times to the book’s detriment – never far from the surface (“If the history-deniers who doubt the fact of evolution are ignorant of biology, those who think the world began less than ten thousand years ago are worse than ignorant, they are deluded to the point of perversity”), his writing is never less than lucid and on occasion raises to the brilliant (describing the publication of the first edition of On the Origin of the Species as “the one that thumped the Victorian solar plexus and drove out the wind of centuries” being perhaps my favourite example). At its most thoroughgoing – as in the chapters on radiometric dating and embryology – it is easy to get lost in the labyrinthine nature of the subject (I mentally marked these for a rereading). Dawkins’ passion for his discipline cannot be doubted: the book’s description of Richard Lenski’s ground-breaking work with E. coli, for instance,is practically a love-letter to experimentation.
Where The Greatest Show on Earth succeeds best is in its power to cast new light on a much explored subject; to make even those who are already acquainted with the rudiments of evolutionary biology think again about the theory’s immense explanatory power. In a chapter entitled ‘History Written All Over Us’ Dawkins takes us through what has sometimes been termed ‘unintelligent design’; that is, those oddities and ‘mistakes’ in our biology that point to evolutionary tinkering and improvisation rather than a designer operating with forethought. The mammalian eye, which is unfailingly held up by creationists as a miracle so profound as to deny a naturalistic explanation, is a notorious and pertinent example. The photocells that make up our retina face away from the light source, while the nerves that connect those cells to the brain point towards the incoming light, resulting in a retina that is covered by a tangled mesh of nerves through which any photons must first penetrate before the brain can turn this information into vision. Because of this back-to-front wiring we are left with a blind-spot where the nerves are gathered and bunched into the optic nerve. The eye of the squid, by way of contrast, contains no such flaws. If the inefficiencies of such a system are blatantly obvious to a mere human observer, then they ought to have come to the attention of any intelligent designer (or, as Dawkins puts it with characteristic bluntness, “it’s not just bad design, it’s the design of a complete idiot”).
Building on this and other examples, Dawkins, in one of the book’s best passages, makes a wonderful point about the illusion of design that, like all brilliant ideas, seems somehow both blindingly obvious and profoundly unexpected:
…When we look at animals from the outside, we are overwhelmingly impressed by the elegant illusion of design. A browsing giraffe, a soaring albatross, a diving swift, a swooping falcon, a leafy sea dragon invisible among the seaweed, a sprinting cheetah at full stretch after a swerving, pronking gazelle – the illusion of design makes such intuitive sense that it becomes a positive effort to put critical thinking into gear and overcome the seductions of naïve intuition. That’s when we look at an animal from the outside. When we look inside, the impression is the opposite. Admittedly, an impression of elegant design is conveyed by the simplified diagrams in textbooks, neatly laid out and colour-coded like an engineer’s blueprint. But the reality that hits you when you see an animal opened up on a dissecting table is very different. I think it would be an instructive exercise to ask an engineer to draw an improved version of, say, the arteries leaving the heart. I imagine the result would be something like the exhaust manifold of a car, with neat lines of pipes coming off in orderly array, instead of the haphazard mess that we actually see when we open a real chest.
My purpose in spending a day with the anatomists dissecting a giraffe was to study the recurrent laryngeal nerve as an example of evolutionary imperfection. But I soon realised that, where imperfection is concerned, the recurrent laryngeal is just the tip of the iceberg. The fact that it takes such a long detour drives the point home with peculiar force…But the overwhelming impression you get from surveying the innards of a large animal is that it is a mess! Not only would a designer never have made a mistake like that nervous detour; a decent designer would never have perpetrated anything of the shambles that is the criss-crossing maze of arteries, veins, nerves, intestines, wads of fat and muscle, mesenteries and more.
There is, indeed, grandeur in this view of life. As the (deeply religious) Russian biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously wrote: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. What a shame, then, that large swaths of American society (and a significant minority of Europeans) lack both the intelligence and imagination to incorporate the wonders of evolutionary biology into their theological worldview alongside their fellow Christians such as Dobzhansky. If God exists, then evolution must count among His finest work. To deny the reality of evolution therefore seems – even to an old heathen like me – an exercise in sacrilege. The truth, alas, is not democratic. Even if the determined efforts of the creationist lobby were to succeed in their attempts to banish evolution from the classroom, this would change nothing. “Evolution is a fact,” writes Dawkins, “Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact.” That millions of people have yet to accept they have already lost this argument says more about mankind’s seemingly limitless capacity for self-deception and grand delusion than it does about the nature of the scientific endeavour.
In the face of a highly-motivated, well-financed, and well-connected PR campaign to obscure and obfuscate the reality of evolution, all one can really hope to do is seek to persuade and enlighten where one can. As with the political and moral arena, this can be done in the living room and the street as much as in the law courts. As with the political and moral arena, such efforts will be lost on the literal, dogmatic and inflexible, who are (almost by definition) incapable of changing their minds whatever evidence is presented to them. Those who have the capacity for reflexive and disinterested thought, on the other hand, are halfway there, and remain the most receptive potential audience for the elegance of evolution, and the beauty of life’s shared ancestry. Though The Greatest Show on Earth, for all its style, wit, and erudition, is unlikely to win any converts in the short term, it is nonetheless a welcome contribution to a debate that should have ended in 1859, but shows no signs of going extinct.