Saturday 10 October 2009

Book Review: The Greatest Show On Earth by Richard Dawkins

Back in the spring (see post for May 9, 2009) I reviewed Jerry Coyne’s excellent Why Evolution Is True, a book that runs through all the strands of evidence for evolution. Last month Richard Dawkin’s book on the same theme, The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution, was published. This is a much bigger book than Coyne’s and illustrated with 32 colour pages. Whilst it covers the same ground Dawkins presents the material in a very different way with different examples and has a very different, more literary style with more digressions and anecdotes. There’s much more detail and information too. Early on Dawkins demolishes the idea that because it’s called the theory of evolution it isn’t proven and the rest of the book is about showing why it’s a fact. (As an aside, I’m not sure about his invention of the word theorum as a substitute for theory to avoid confusion with the non-scientific meaning of the latter as speculation or conjecture). Dawkins then goes on to discuss the gene pool and artificial selection (a nod to Darwin who began The Origin of Species with artificial selection); macro-evolution; natural selection; the measurement of time by tree rings, radioactive clocks and carbon dating; evolution in the laboratory (I was fascinated by the description of a long-term experiment with bacteria that shows evolution in action); the fossil record; human evolution; embryology; biogeography (with praise for Jerry Coyne for a “masterful treatment” of this in Why Evolution Is True); molecular biology, vestigial traits and much, much more. I found the book fascinating, satisfying and enriching as I think would anyone interested in natural history and how life evolved.

Richard Dawkins being a hugely successful writer and a somewhat controversial figure The Greatest Show On Earth has been extensively reviewed. I read many of these reviews before reading the book and again after reading it. With a few exceptions the impression I gained was of reviewers who had at most skimmed through the book, looking mainly for attacks on creationists, and then reviewed it based on their opinion of the author and his anti-religion book The God Delusion. Few discussed the book they were meant to be reviewing in any depth or detail. Some appeared not to understand what it was about or why it had been written. Happily, such is Dawkins popularity (which in itself seems to annoy some reviewers) the book has been a great success, which it deserves.

How does it compare with Why Evolution Is True and which one would I recommend to someone wanting to learn about evolution? Well, I’d recommend both! But to a complete novice with no knowledge of biology or natural history I would suggest reading Jerry Coyne first as his book is more succinct and the information is more simply presented. I can imagine the Dawkins being a little daunting if it was the first book on the subject someone had ever picked up. But it should certainly be read next, to provide more information and detail and just because it is a beautifully written and wonderful book.

Richard Dawkins has an interesting website with an active, entertaining and informative forum. Many of the reviews of the book I found on this website.


  1. I like Richard Dawkins but I have to be in "in the mood" to read him if you know what I mean. He weaves disparate threads into a fully interwoven story with what looks like consummate ease. He is a very intelligent writer (and person!) and sometimes strays into anti-creationism bit not as much as some would have you believe. The Selfish Gene remains one of my favourite books and I havent had chance to read this latest work but I am sure I will get round to it sometime!

  2. Good review! I loved The God Delusion and have several other of his books "on the nightstand." What a passionate and steadfast advocate for science!

  3. I've just had a look at his website, Chris, thanks for the link. It was an eye-opening experience. :)
    Some scary people on there!
    Mike fae Dundee

  4. You're in good company - Derren Brown is a great supporter of the gent's writing