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Thoughts on “The Greatest Show On Earth” — chapter 1 — Only a Theory?


In chapter 1, Richard Dawkins lays out a contextual framework for the book, which serves as his introduction to the what and why of the book. Interestingly, the framework isn’t a scientific one, but a philosophical and an emotional one.

The Battle

He opens with an imaginary scene of you, the reader, being an enthusiastic professor of the Latin language and Roman history, battling against “a baying pack of ignoramuses” who deny everything you know to be true—everything which is soundly and undeniably shown true by the historical evidence. Not only are your foes ignorant, they are persistent, political and well-funded. Oh, the pathos!

Though the scene is imaginary, the analogy is to the sorry plight of evolutionary scientists who sadly have to waste precious time defending the truth of evolution against fools ignorant of the vast evidence that shows evolution is undeniably and unarguably true.

So Dawkins clearly establishes his worldview from the outset. We may as well not beat around the bush. Though it’s certainly not a surprise, coming from Dawkins. The opposition is introduced as “braying ignoramuses”, whose position is tenable only by ignorance, irrationality or the blindness of religious faith. Apparently it’s not an option that his opposition might have any evidence or reasoning that might be worthy of serious debate. Dawkins stakes his position on the scientific high ground, and talks downwards to the opposing views.

The only thing I’m unsure of is his primary motivation for this: does he seek to emotionally weaken the creationist reader with a well-aimed gibe... or does he seek to emotionally strengthen the ranks of fellow evolutionists with a well-aimed gibe at the opposition?

Religion should accept evolution

Next, an appeal is made to the fact that some or many senior religious leaders are happy to support evolution. It may seem odd for Richard Dawkins to seek to align himself with religious figures such as Bishop Harries of Oxford, but that he does, in a joint letter to the British prime Minister (defending evolution and pleading for monitoring of science curricula in British faith schools). But his aim is not to align himself with religious figures, but to show how religious figures are aligned with himself, as much as it enables his message to go forth to the religious masses he seeks to influence.

As far as religious leaders go, he seems satisfied that they are on-side. But the laypeople are not. He cites Gallup poll results that show more than 40% of Americans believe humans were created “pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” I find this frustrating on two levels. Firstly, the Gallup poll presents 3 choices, but there are some variants of creationism that fall outside the scope of any of these options. It oversimplifies the debate, which should be more nuanced than it is. (But I guess that’s what opinion polls do.) Secondly, Dawkins likewise seems to miss the significant difference between old-earth and young-earth creationists, whose interpretation of the scientific data are wildly different, yet who could both pick the same answer on the Gallup poll (but not all of them would). I’m sure Dawkins doesn’t want to get caught up in discussion of all the different flavours of creationism—he will have to suffice with the gross approximation that “creationism” equals “young-earth creationism”. That’s certainly most convenient for him, because young-earth creationism is easier to argue against.

Theories and facts

Finally, chapter 1 argues against the idea that evolution is “only a theory”, with a discussion of what the word “theory” means to scientists in this context. He discusses the nature of “proof” as understood by mathematicians and scientists. Fine. He describes the limitations of human observation, and the value of inference of truth from data as done via the scientific method. Fine—I have no problems with any of that discussion. Again, he assures us that the evidence for evolution is compelling and irrefutable—unless you’re mad or ignorant. His conclusion is that evolution is soundly and rigorously supported by good science, and we can have confidence in its conclusions. Perhaps for laypeople, the implication is that we ought to trust the scientists and the scientific method, and not get caught up in any silly idea that evolution is not fully supported by scientific evidence and inference.

All up, there’s nothing in chapter 1 to make a scientific case for evolution backed by evidence. But there is the assurance that that will come, in the chapters that follow. He is content to assure the reader that evolution is indisputably a done deal:

In the rest of this book, I shall demonstrate that evolution is an inescapable fact... The aids to inference that lead scientists to the fact of evolution are far more numerous, more convincing, more incontrovertible, than any eye-witness reports that have ever been used, in any court of law, in any century, to establish guilt in any crime. Proof beyond reasonable doubt? Reasonable doubt? That is the understatement of all time.

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