Richard Dawkins seems to like a good scrap. He’s been writing books about evolutionary biology since 1976 and devoting sections of them to refuting the notion of a supernatural creator since 1986. He’s been debating fundamentalist religious figures in public for decades. He removed his leather glove and gave creationists a good hard slap in 2006 with The God Delusion, selling two million copies worldwide (and counting), its shiny silver cover still attracting the eye in bookstores. But if his goal was to convince religious believers and fence-sitters that science trumps blind faith, I’d say he failed. The God Delusion gives plenty of conversational ammunition to atheists but certainly makes creationists cling to their faith all the stronger - not because Dawkins doesn’t argue his points well, but because he does so in a mocking, sneering tone. We hold our views emotionally. Ridicule them, and we’ll leap to their defense, even if we don’t have better arguments. We’ll still know we’re right.
Dawkins returns to his primary field of expertise in his newest book The Greatest Show on Earth - The Evidence for Evolution (2009), and I can see it winning more converts. Gone is Dawkins the battling polemicist, replaced by Dawkins the researcher and professor, so overwhelmed by the grandeur of his subject that he oscillates with delight. He presents a world where the magnificent surrounds us in fabulous abundance, and one can’t help but marvel at the elegant nuances made plain by the scientific eye.
First, let me back up the claim I made about the tone of previous book, The God Delusion. This quote opens Chapter 2 - The God Hypothesis:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
Can you imagine a fundamentalist Christian reading that and saying “well, he does have a point”? Or maybe their life-long faith would sway when Dawkins relates St Anselm of Canterbury’s argument (made in 1078) that God exists, and then adds his refutation of it:
It is possible to conceive, Anselm said, of a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. Even an atheist can conceive such a superlative being, though he would deny its existence in the real world. But, goes the argument, a being that doesn’t exist in the real world, is, by that very fact, less than perfect. Therefore we have a contradiction and, hey, presto, God exists!
Let me translate this infantile argument into the appropriate language, which is the language of the playground:
‘Bet you I can prove God exists.’
‘Bet you can’t.’
‘Right then, imagine the most perfect perfect perfect thing possible.’
‘Okay, now what?’
‘Now, is that perfect perfect perfect thing real? Does it exist?’
‘No, it’s only in my mind.’
‘But if it was real it would be even more perfect, because a really really perfect thing would have to be better than a silly old imaginary thing. So I’ve proved that God exists. Nur Nurny Nur Nur. All atheists are fools.’
In the preface of The God Delusion Dawkins thanks his wife, actress Lalla Ward, who read the book aloud to him twice in various stages of its development “so I could apprehend very directly how it might seem to a reader other than myself.” So the book’s tone was completely intentional. Maybe he wasn’t trying to convert his opponents. Maybe he’s long given up even trying. Which makes his change in tone for the next book all the more surprising.
The phrase “The Greatest Show on Earth” was made famous by Barnum and Bailey’s traveling circus. Cecil B. Demille directed a Best Picture winning film of that name in 1952, opening it with script on the screen from Demille himself:
We bring you the circus — Pied Piper whose magic tunes greet children of all ages, from 6 to 60, into a tinseled and spun-candy world of reckless beauty and mounting laughter; whirling thrills; of rhythm, excitement and grace; of blaring and daring and dance; of high-stepping horses and high-flying stars.
Dawkins is our ringmaster in his new book, guiding us through one example after another of the profound complexities of nature. There are thirty-two pages of colour photos - a caterpillar whose tail looks just like the head of a snake, starlings in flight, a human embryo at eleven stages of development, Galapagos marine iguanas, orchids and matching moths. Dawkins describes the intricacies of nature with the zest and enthusiasm of a delighted teacher. His tone is friendly, almost conspiratorial:
There was another theoretical possibility, and an extremely tantalizing one. This is where the story starts to get quite complicated so, if it is late at night, it might be an idea to resume reading tomorrow...
He runs off on digressions, even acknowledging this:
I know that not all of my readers like my digressions, but the research that has been done on Caenorhabditis elegans is such a ringing triumph of science that you aren’t going to stop me.
Here’s one of his footnotes:
The Dutch ‘wildebeest’ is increasingly used in preference to ‘gnu’. I am trying to save ‘gnu’ because, if it dies out altogether, the witty song by Flanders and Swann won’t make sense any more. (‘Gnor am I in the least/Like that dreadful hartebeest/Oh gno gno gno, I’m a gnu!’)
He concludes the book like a ringmaster who knows he’s wowed a packed house with a spectacle they’ll never forget:
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.
I can’t imagine anyone reading Dawkins’ new book without already having a sense of his reputation and whether they’d place themselves on his side or against it. But if that were to happen, I’d expect that reader would be seduced into his world of wonder, wanting to explore it further and understand it better. Dawkins would like to see a public with a more ready grasp of the mechanics of nature and evolution. This type of book, with its tone of enthusiasm and wonder, could succeed in doing just that.
Despite Dawkins’ reputation as an outspoken atheist, the vast majority of his published work concerns evolutionary biology. It’s good to see him return to this subject so joyfully in The Greatest Show on Earth. In a turn worthy of a Zen parable, by (at least temporarily) setting aside his inclination to beat the shit out of his opponents, he might have won a few people over, and by stepping out of the way, allowed the true beauty and wonder of the natural world to shine through.