Saturday, November 14, 2009

Richard Dawkins' new book: an inadequate attempt to supply the needed evidence

I had a sinking feeling as it occurred to me that MAYBE I should read Dawkins' latest book (The Greatest Show on Earth. See ad at his website) because it's intended to be a mustering of the evidence for evolution. (His other books have merely assumed evolution). What we want IS a thorough mustering of the evidence and I would very much like to read a book that promised to do this, but that sinking feeling is a forboding, based on much experience in the effort to find just such a compendium of evidence, that this book is not likely to live up to its promise -- because evolutionists really do not understand fully what evidence is (I MUST conclude this from their strange inability to produce much that really fits the requirement) or what sorts of evidence we need. This in itself is testimony to their own sloppy thinking that amounts to faith rather than reason in their embrace of evolutionary theory, but be that as it may, I was very happy to run across this wonderfully insightful and articulate review of his book at Amazon, which has spared me the expense and frustration of finding out for myself that it's not worth my time:
183 of 224 people found the following review helpful:
A good book, but didn't live up to its subtitle, September 28, 2009
The Agnostic Apatheist

This book is the latest among a long list of evolutionary texts by Dawkins. By his own admission, this book differs from his previous works. While his other books assume the truth of evolution, and thus, sought to answer specific and common criticisms against evolution (often espoused by creationists), this is the first time Dawkins has attempted to lay out the actual evidence for its acceptance by the scientific community.

His book was well written, articulated in a readable style, and quite enjoyable. In fact, I found it difficult to put the book down. Dawkins provides a good general view of why scientists accept evolution and a good case for the plausbility of natural selection as the vehicle for adaptive change. However, I do have some criticisms of his book, which prevented me from giving it 5 stars, especially if I view it from the mindset of a biblical literalist (a view I once shared many decades ago... and these are the people who need the most convincing).

My number one complaint is that he did not provide much in evidence, and where he did provide evidence it was short on detail. For instance, in Chapter 2, Dawkins mentions that all dog breeds are descended from the wolf. Similarly, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and other commonly distinct vegetables today are all descendants of the wild cabbage. While this might seem evident to the scientifically literate, if you don't accept evolution, you might need some convincing to show that this is true. But he doesn't provide evidence or even an explanation of how we know that dogs descended from wolves or broccoli from cabbage. He merely asserts this as evidence and then moves on to chapter 3, which concerns natural selction.

In chapter 3, he discusses flowers and insects (and birds) and presents this as evidence for evolution (specifically by natural selection). But he doesn't provide much explanation of how we know this to be true. For instance, why should we conclude that this arrangement between pollen producing flower and pollinating insect to be the result of co-evolution? How do we know that the pollen producing flower was not always the way it is and that the pollinating insect was not always the way it is and that these two merely "found" or discovered one another, in essence, falling into and exploiting a niche that was always present? [This might seem crazy, but this was actually used in an argument by a creationist]

Another criticism. He was careful to define the distinction between a scientific theory and a mere hypothesis or conjecture. Yet through much of the first few chapters of his book, he is short on evidence and long on speculation. For instance, he mentions the Heika japonica crab, with the resemblance of a samurai warrior on the back of its shell. While Carl Sagan states that this was the result of natural selection, Dawkins states it probably was not; it was likely coincidence. But this very case has often been cited as evidence for evolution (by selection). Is this evidence of evolution or not? And if not, then why is Dawkins' mentioning this in his book. If anything it calls into question how we determine that something is the result of evolution (and therefore qualified as evidence), as opposed to coincidence or something else? From this example, it seems almost arbitrary.

His review of the fossil record is compelling but rehashes the same information presented in other books. And he doesn't explain how we know that the discovered fossils represent a history of the same clad, as opposed to distinct, unrelated organisms. This is particularly important since we are often comparing fossils from different time periods, from different geographical locations, and don't have access to the entire skeletal remains (let alone genetic information) of the organisms that we are claiming are descended from one another. For example, how do we know that we aren't merely pattern seeking when we look at Pakicetus, Ambulocetus, and Basilosaurus? Or Australopithecus and Homo? Moreover, he spends most of the chapter on human evolution explaining why paleontologists feud over the specific genus (or species) of particular fossils and why such arguments would be predicted under evolution precisely because they represent intermediates. But his explanation could've been condensed into 1 paragraph. It would've been far better if he spent the time to present more evidence among the mountains of evidence that are claimed to exist.

His chapter, "You did it yourself in nine months", was spent explaining by analogy that matter is capable of self assembly from the bottom-up, rather than a top-down approach as espoused by creationists. He presents his hypothesis that this is possible via "local rules" and uses the analogies of the starling and origami as examples, but this is not evidence. In fact, while analogy can clarify and improve understanding, it does not constitute evidence. Dawkins forgets that the "local rules" are functioning from a template coded in our genome. Thus, can we truly say that it is the "local rules" that create the appearance of design when a recipe is necessary for determining these "local rules"? He needs to show that the genome is capable of self assembly by local rules and that a complex organism can be created from this base. While he implies that possibility during his discussion of viruses, he does not provide much detail. Thus, the reader is left unconvinced and with more questions. Thus, if you get to this point, you will have read 50% of the book and realize that much of the book has been devoted to explanation, speculation, hypotheses, and very few presentation of actual evidence. He uses computer models to illustrate or make his points. But once again, while these models may help explain concepts, they do not constitute evidence.

The last few chapters of the book are better (beginning around page 285), but by this time he's likely to have lost most of his readers, that is, those who have not already accepted evolution prior to reading this book.

My final criticism is in regard to his reference section. Most good books concerning scientific topics contain plenty of references to primary articles. But there are very few primary articles listed in this book. In fact, you'll find more scientific literature referenced in a pop diet book than here. And I am not joking! Go to a bookstore and look at the "Notes" section of Dawkins' book yourself. He does include a bibliography, but most of the entries represent secondary or tertiary sources. This doesn't mean the information is inaccurate, but it would've been nice to have citations to primary sources for those wanting to do further research.

There are some experiments mentioned in the book (rather clever ones too), but given the fact that evolutionists are always touting the volumes of evidence (and not just from fossils) for the fact of evolution, I was disappointed to find that only a handful are mentioned in the book. As mentioned earlier, most of the book is either providing background information (about rudimentary chemistry or biology), providing explanation, or tearing down common creationist arguments or criticisms against evolution, rather than focusing on positive evidence favoring evolution. Moreover, Dawkins practically ignores the evidence from molecular biology and glosses over genetics.

In short, Dawkins writes his book as if he is talking to a fellow evolutionist (preaching to the choir). But such a person does not need convincing or evidence of evolution. You can merely point or mention the "obvious" and expect the person to understand. You don't need to go into detail or explain much. On the other hand, if you do not accept evolution or require convincing, then you will likely find that Dawkins assumes too much and does not provide sufficient data or detail as to why evolution is the best explanation for the observations under discussion.

Needless to say, I was disappointed with the book since it failed to live up to its subtitle - "The Evidence for Evolution". A more apt title would've been "The Plausbility of Evolution". He makes a good case for the reasonableness of evolution but does not provide much compelling evidence. If you are a creationist contemplating whether there is sufficient evidence for evolution, you will not be convinced by reading this book. Two far superior books (that provide better and more compelling evidence) can be found in "Why Evolution is True" and "Making of the Fittest". It isn't that Dawkins' book is bad; it provides sufficient information (on a high level) to be useful and entertaining, but don't expect it to arm you for a debate with a creationist or use it as a reference. And don't expect your creationist friend to read it and walk away a convert.
[my emphases throughout] Yup, my forboding is anticipated and articulated in this review as only too prescient. This same reviewer thinks this is a better book and I might consider getting this one, though I suspect it's going to be only a more sophisticated defense of faulty reasoning and denial of the obvious.

[Later: a look at the Table of Contents suggests that it might be more interesting than that. He touches on issues that aren't usually part of the debate that I think I may have some good creationist answers to, such as vestigial organs and other examples of supposed "bad design," the implications of tectonic plate movement, pseudogenes (also known as junk DNA) and so on].



  1. Faith, instead of reading book reviews written by people who have the same problem you have, why don't you just read the book?

    I agree that "Why Evolution is True" and "Making of the Fittest" are better books to read, because Dawkins sometimes goes into such extreme detail that it is sometimes a bit tiresome to get thru it all. Still, the book Dawkins wrote is a masterpiece that every educated person should own and read.

    I have read all three of these books. They're all excellent but Coyne's book is the easiest to read, easiest to understand, and it was very enjoyable because even though I have been studying evolutionary biology for several years I still learned quite a bit.

    1. "Why Evolution is True" by Jerry Coyne, published in 2009.

    2. "The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution" by Sean B. Carroll, published in 2006.

    3. "The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution" by Richard Dawkins, published in 2009.

    "He touches on issues that aren't usually part of the debate that I think I may have some good creationist answers to ..."

    This is your problem. You are not interested in understanding anything. You just want to look for imaginary problems to defend your Dark Ages anti-science ideas.

  2. From About This Blog: "There's the geological argument which is basically that you can see with your naked eyes that this world once went through a global Flood, as the Bible reports. That takes care all by itself of the whole Old Earth theorizing that evolution depends on."

    I was just looking at a news website and I think you should see this reader's comment:

    Ben wrote "If we just look at things logically for 30 seconds we can easily discount creationism. If we go with the creationist claim that the universe is only 6,000 years old, we should only be able to see astronomical events within 6,000 light years of earth. A few months ago GRB 090423 was observed at 13 billion light years away from Earth."

    Faith, you are fighting the entire scientific community and more than a century of scientific progress. What's your point? Do you expect thousands of brilliant scientists to throw out everything they know to accommodate your childish religious beliefs?

  3. Sorry, just one more thing.

    "He touches on issues that aren't usually part of the debate"

    What debate? There is no debate in the scientific community about the established truth of evolution, which is a basic scientific fact.

    Evolutionary biology has many basic facts. They are called facts because they have massive and powerful evidence, evidence that you prefer to complain about instead of trying to understand. Evidence that you don't even know about because you would rather read book reviews than read books.

    My favorite basic fact of evolution is the idea that people and chimps share an ancestor. Actually we are distant cousins of every species on earth, but we are most closely related to the chimpanzee apes, and the ancestor species we share with them lived about six million years ago.

    The ancestry with share with the other modern ape species (humans are one of the modern ape species which is another basic scientific fact) is not an opinion. It's a basic scientific fact because molecular biologists can see this evolutionary relationship with their own eyes when they compare DNA sequences of the human ape and chimpanzee ape species.

    Now if you want to claim you know more about molecular biology than all the molecular biologists in the world, that's fine with me if you don't mind being laughed at.

  4. I am really enjoyed the greatest show on earth, just like I enjoyed others of Dawkins books. But I have to admit that The Agnostic Apatheist makes a few good points about how the evidence is put forward.

    If you think about evolution and creation as two opposing views, and especially if you also are religious, I am not surprised that the evidence doesn't impress you. That is becuase most forces in the world will seem petty and small compared to an all-knowing all-powerful God. So if your starting point is that there is such a God that has the habit of interferring in the physical world on a regular basis, evolution has a huge disadvantage. I will suggest that you try and keep your physics and metapysics stricktly separeted before picking up a book on evolution. Kenneth Miller makes good sense when it comes to God and Evolution.

    From a non-believers point of view, the creation story simply isn't an alternative, because it will not be considered an explaination, but something that needs a further explaination. If evidence came in against evolution, like rabbit fossils in the cambrian strata or something that completely and profoundly overthrew the central thesis of natural selection, not me nor anyone else who thinks evolution is true, would therefor assume that creationism must be true. We would think that Darwin got it wrong after all and start looking for another natural explaination. Even if God spoke to me in a dream or in my kitchen, the chances are good that I would call my psychiatrist before a call a priest.

    Note also that even if Darwinian natural selection was thrown out. That would not necessarily mean the end for evolution. There were other theories of evolution before Charles Darwin. Most famously Lamarkian evolution and Charles Darwins grandfather also believed in a sort of unspecified evolution.

    I'll get back to the point. Is the evidence that Dawkins puts forward in the greatest show on earth good evidence or not? If you start by completely separating, in your mind, the things that are physically real, from the things that are not. And allow yourself, just for the length of book to only accept an explaination that does not include anything metaphysical you might find it very convincing. Consider it a thought experiment.

    If you manage to do this you will probably see why so many people find Darwinism so convincing. It really can account for pretty much anything, and it is not as if there are any alternative scientific explaination at the moment. The mere fact that the essentials of natural selection has not been disproven (but confirmed in great detail) by all the spectacular new technological advances since Darwins time, is in my opinion very great evidence indeed. Because it is so slow, it is hard to prove, but as an model of explaination it is extremly powerful.

    I really hope you get around to giving science a real chance. Consider that people alive today have an opportunity that most people who ever lived and died never had. We CAN actually know the secret of life, in fantastic detail. You can still keep God, but you must keep the physical strictly seperated from metaphysics. Again, check out Kenneth Miller.

    Good luck to you.

  5. Hello Bob,
    Thank you very much for posting here. I appreciate your thoughtful comment.

    First I have to say that the reviewer I quote from DOESN'T "have the same problem [I] have," that's why his review is so valuable. He USED to be a creationist but is now completely convinced of evolution. I'm impressed that he is still able to recognize the creationists' frustration with the lack of evidence we encounter in evolutionist presentations, and describe it so well. He's convinced me that this particular book is not the one for me to read -- I don't need more frustration with speculation, analogy, hypotheses and computer models offered as if they were evidence. The book by Coyne sounds like the one for me to get at this point, and I have the book by Carroll in mind as a possible follow-up.

    As for what can be seen with the naked eye, I'm looking at planet Earth, not astronomical events -- which really CAN'T be "seen with the naked eye," and all I can say about that arena of inquiry is that time is a fairly mystical concept beyond our immediate frame of reference -- space too, apparently. But this planet shows evidence at every turn that it once went through a cataclysmic global Flood -- you can see it wherever the layering is exposed, you can see the evidence on satellite maps and and I think you can see it in the general tumble-down appearance almost anywhere you look.

    Am I "looking for problems?" I don't think so. I was merely excited to see that Coyne discusses some FACTS -- not "problems" but phenomena that can probably be interpreted just as plausibly another way.

    There IS a debate, Bob, even if most scientists ignore it.

    I dispute, of course, that we share a common ancestor with chimps, and I dispute it on scientific grounds. The commonalities and similarities found in the DNA are not hard-and- fast evidence for genetic relatedness. That is merely a plausible conjecture IF evolution is ASSUMED. And these similarities are just as plausibly interpreted as reflecting design factors, not descent -- we have similar body structure so the DNA for such similar structure will of course also be similar. AND I've written out the reasoning on there being a natural barrier to evolution (or speciation or variation) that natural selection and other allele-reducing forces that split populations inevitably run into, which if true means the evolutionist interpretation of DNA needs to be rethought along with all the other plausible but erroneous conjectures that support evolution theory. I've learned a fair amount about science, though certainly I'm an amateur at it.

    Thanks again for your comment.
    ---CJA (Faith)

  6. Hi Alfred,
    Thanks for your considerate comment.

    But please note that it isn't that the "evidence doesn't impress [me]" but that what is given as evidence isn't evidence, and the reviewer is very clear in explaining how it isn't.

    Also, I DON'T take as my "starting point" your idea that there is "a God that has the habit of interferring in the physical world on a regular basis" -- I believe nature runs according to laws God established and that his occasional interventions do not violate his laws. AND I'm not trying to convince you of Biblical Creationism in this blog, I'm simply trying to answer SCIENTIFIC problems I see in current evolution theory. If current evolution theory should be overthrown we'll consider whatever then comes down the pike when it comes.

    "I'll get back to the point. Is the evidence that Dawkins puts forward in the greatest show on earth good evidence or not?"

    According to the reviewer I quoted at length, it is NOT good evidence, Alfred, that was the whole point -- he fails to produce sufficient evidence despite his promise, offering instead analogies, speculations, hypotheses, computer models and the like, which are NOT evidence, as the reviewer explains. And truly, Alfred, so MUCH of evolutionist writing is made up of this kind of non-evidentiary thinking most of you who are convinced of it are falsely convinced and need to sharpen your skills at distinguishing valid arguments from mere speculations. Most evolutionist writing is rife with very clever, entertaining and plausible-enough (if you accept a bunch of assumptions) thinking that PASSES for science, and I wish all you sincere seekers after scientific truth would develop more logical and scientific rigor in your assessment of it.

    Natural selection (and all the other evolutionary processes that split and isolate populations) IS demonstrable for living populations. What is sometimes called "microevolution" occurs all the time on these principles and creationists do not normally dispute this. But there are many reasons why these processes will never change anything outside the genetic limits that define a "Kind" (a term I use sometimes because "Species" --which also MEANS "kind" --can be ambiguous, because in common usage there are too many levels of speciation possible).

    I'll never be a scientist, that's not my field of talent or interest in the way it is for scientists, but believe me, before I became a Christian I absorbed a lot of the thinking about evolution nevertheless and tried my best to understand it. Even then I was often frustrated that evidence trails could just about never be found or followed out to any kind of certainty and I found that I always had to give up trying to follow them and just take the conclusions of the scientists pretty much on faith. I read the Origin of Species, I read lots of stuff by Stephen Jay Gould, very entertaining stuff, I read Skeptical Inquiry regularly, and so on. I investigated science about as far as the average intelligent non-scientist can be expected to. It was only after I became a Christian that I got into studying the creationist answers and took seriously my earlier experience of frustration with the lack of evidence for evolution. I sincerely wish that those who find it convincing would rethink it a lot more carefully because the evidence is really not there to the extent you think it is.

    Thanks again for your comment and the polite way you expressed it. Much appreciated.

    I will take a look at Kenneth Miller.

    --CJA (Faith)


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