If you only know of Richard Dawkins as a militant anti-theist, then you don’t know Richard Dawkins. In his purest form, the man is an enthusiastic and impassioned science communicator, and one of the biggest fans of Charles Darwin that I have ever read. (And a bigot.) This was made crystal clear to me as I read The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. I decided to read this book when everyone on the Internet collectively made it known to me that it was an amazing, must-read book.
Who is this book for?
When I review books like these, I try to measure them against the criteria that the author gives himself so that I look at it within the right context. I had a hard time finding out Greatest Show‘s intended audience (whether it is best suited for those who don’t believe in evolution at all, or for those who do but want to argue it better), but the book’s goal is clear enough. In the introduction, Dawkins explains that he has several books dealing with evolution (he lists six), but that he has never “present[ed] the actual evidence that evolution is a fact.”
Throughout the book, the intended audience does not get much clearer. The beginning of the book primes the reader for understanding how natural selection is possible by explaining how artificial selection has allowed us to domesticate dogs and how flowers, bugs, and birds can selectively breed each other. This made me think Dawkins was aiming his words at a creationist who needed to warm up to the idea of natural selection, but throughout the book he speaks a language that only a true fellow science enthusiast can appreciate, and I don’t think a creationist would make it through the book.
I once wondered how this book differed from Jerry Coyne’s evolutionary masterpiece Why Evolution is True. (He’s also a bigot.) I remember reading the explanation that Coyne’s book covered more topics in less detail and Dawkins’ book covered fewer topics in greater detail. I must say I agree (although I think they have many more differences).
I said in my review of Outgrowing God that Dawkins “makes me feel like a high schooler in biology class whose teacher is trying to ignite his same passion for science in all his students.” This rang true throughout The Greatest Show on Earth. When Dawkins gets started talking about, say, an intricate experiment about bacteria, he cannot help but to cover the entire story of the experiment in tireless detail. This is no accident, either. Before going almost entirely off topic about a species of nematode worm in a chapter on embryology, Dawkins says, “I know that not all 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.” I felt like he was talking directly to me!
A dose of brutal honesty
I’m just going to be honest with you. I did not like this book. The only reason I read through to the end was to write this review, because there was nothing else driving me to pick it up and read it. I don’t have the same kind of dislike for this book that I do, say, for The Case for a Creator. I get a weird enjoyment from reading apologetics books and leaving furious notes in the margins. It’s like a debate where I always get the last word. But this book didn’t make me feel that way. It just made me wish I was reading Why Evolution is True, or anything else. Honestly, there was nothing in Greatest Show (that I enjoyed) that wasn’t also in Coyne’s book. I can’t help but recommend that instead.
I know that my low rating of this book isn’t entirely Dawkins’ fault. It’s also my own fault. I was able to read it and see what other people might like about it, and just never get that same feeling for myself. Maybe I was expecting it to be more like Why Evolution is True. Maybe I only want to read books on human evolution anymore, and when you start talking about bugs and worms and bacteria, I can’t stay interested. It seems that Dawkins’ writing style just doesn’t speak to me, and what he’s passionate about isn’t what I’m passionate about.
Very well then, not every book can equal Why Evolution is True or Lucy. I have a great feeling that I will much more thoroughly enjoy my next read, Megan Phelps-Roper’s Unfollow, which I’ve already started. All the same, I know that The Greatest Show on Earth is one of Dawkins’ best-received works ever, so feel free to let me know whether or not you agree with my assessment in the comments!