Amanda's Reviews > The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins
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's review
Oct 01, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: pop-sci, atheism
Read in November, 2009

Approaching this with an education (albeit only just over half an undergrad degree for now) in evolutionary biology was a rather different experience, I would imagine, than approaching it with minimal knowledge of the subject matter. As it stands, I liked the book; I thought it was well put together and used some really classic as well as some really new and exciting examples of experiments that have been done and discoveries that have shaped our current understanding of evolution. But I also have some complaints and differences of opinion with it.

The book seems to be a bit bipolar in terms of its intended audience. Obviously Dawkins wants to write for his usual fan base/ the generally curious and somewhat scientifically literate public. But another major aim of the book is to try and educate creationists. So it ends up switching back and forth between explaining the simplest of things (common sense stuff for anyone who's ever taken grade 9 or 10 science) and assuming you know them already. The end result is that the text patronizes even the layman reader while alienating the scientifically illiterate creationist who will not be able to grasp the concepts completely.

Now, there are a few things I take issue with in terms of how he explains certain evolutionary concepts, but these are mostly nitty gritty details that I think could be worded to better convey the information without creating common misconceptions and thus aren't really worth focusing on too much. He doesn't really do evolutionary forces other than natural selection much justice (specifically random genetic drift), but as a friend of mine said: "Just getting the idea of natural selection across to creationists is a challenge; bring out genetic drift and the shit will start to fly. One step at a time, here!"

I think my major issue with the book pops up in the introduction. After explaining the scientific use of the word "theory" and contrasting it with the colloquial use, Dawkins decides that in order to avoid misconceptions, it would be best to use a different term. So he decides to make up a word. He borrows the mathematical term "theorem" and purposes misspells it "theorum". The "theorum" of evolution. He could just have easily referred to it as the fact of evolution, which is what he actually does for the rest of the book, only mentioning "theorum" once or twice more near the end. The whole thing is an exercise in futility and doesn't really do anything towards his goal of promoting scientific literacy. It just makes him sound silly. Although I suppose that "theorum" does sound better than if he were to purposely misspell "law" as "luw" of evolution.

In spite of all the criticisms I've put forward, it actually is a good summary of evolutionary theory and deserves to be widely read. If we could make textbooks as engaging as this, I suspect that many more people would understand evolution and be less susceptible to creationist misinformation.
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