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Book Review. The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
Richard Dawkins
The Free Press
470 pages, $30.00

Like many biologists, Richard Dawkins doesn’t understand the difference between animals and human beings and why so many philosophers say that God exists. In a textbook used by 65% of all biology majors in the United States, the index includes the phrase “mind-body duality.” I’m sure Dawkins and Charles Darwin would find no fault with this explanation:

And certain properties of the human brain distinguish our species from all other animals. The human brain is, after all, the only known collection of matter that tries to understand itself. To most biologists, the brain and the mind are one and the same; understand how the brain is organized and how it works, and we’ll understand such mindful functions as abstract thought and feelings. Some philosophers are less comfortable with this mechanistic view of mind, finding Descartes’ concept of a mind-body duality more attractive. (Neil Campbell, Biology, Menlo Park, CA: The Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company, Inc., 4th edition, p. 776)

That abstract thought is unique to humans is not the only thing there is to know about it. What a biologist more than anyone else should understand is that the knowledge that humans generate abstractions does not come from one of the five senses. This knowledge comes from our ability to make ourselves the subject of our own knowledge. Also, abstract thought cannot be defined or explicated. Consider, for example, knowing the page we are looking at is black and white. This knowing means more than that light is entering our eyes and a signal is going to our brains. It means an awareness of this. This gives rise to the unanswerable question: What is the conscious knowledge of humans as opposed to the sense knowledge of animals? Its unanswerability means humans are indefinabilities that become conscious of their own existence. To quote Shakespeare, ”We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” The infinite abyss we are surrounded by when we contemplate our own existence is incomprehensible. Some say this mysterious part of self-knowledge is God.

René Descartes attempted to explain why a human is able to control its body as if it is a possession. This question is called the mind-body problem. According to Descartes a human consists of two different beings, like a stagecoach with a driver and a team of horses. Cartesian dualism is inconsistent with the metaphysical truth that a human being is one being, not two beings. It is a matter of common sense that human beings are embodied spirits. Body and soul are metaphysical principles or incomplete beings that explain why humans are equal to one another but at the same time different from one another. This is why evolution applies only to the bodies of humans, not their souls. The cosmological proof of God’s existence comes from the metaphysical analysis of the finitude of beings.

Some knowledgeable people say the proof of God is just an argument. I don’t agree because that implies you have to decide whether to be an atheist, theist, or agnostic. I don’t see any reason to make such a decision. Jean-Paul Sartre is supposed to have been an atheist, but this is what he said:

Thus the passion of man is the reverse of that of Christ, for man loses himself as man in order that God may be born. But the idea of God is contradictory and we lose ourselves in vain. Man is a useless passion. (Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, New York: Washington Square Press, p. 784)

What we have to decide is whether or not God has revealed himself to mankind, regardless of how incomprehensible, contradictory, and hypothetical God may be. This decision is as personal and emotional as the decision to live the life of a selfish libertine or a virtuous ascetic. It is the connection between this decision and evolutionary biology that clouds the discussions about evolution and fuels the controversy about teaching evolution in schools. This is Dawkins discussing evolution reasonably:

By the time Darwin came to publish On the Origin of Species in 1859, he had amassed enough evidence to propel evolution itself, though still not natural selection, a long way towards the status of fact. Indeed, it was this elevation from hypothesis towards fact that occupied Darwin for most of his great book. The elevation has continued until, today, there is no longer any doubt in any serious mind, and scientists speak, at least informally, of the fact of evolution. All reputable biologists go on to agree that natural selection is one of its most important driving forces, although —as some biologists insist more than others—not the only one. Even if it is not the only one, I have yet to meet a serious biologist who can point to an alternative to natural selection as a driving force of adaptive evolution—evolution towards positive improvement. (p. 18)

What Dawkins calls the “fact of evolution” is also called common descent. Adaptation and common descent are two separate phenomena. Adaptation refers to the ancient observation that species are adapted to their environment, and common descent refers to the 20th century discovery that all species evolved from a single prokaryote over a period of 3.5 billion years. I consider it significant that Dawkins does not refer to the complexity of life in the above summary. There was not much of an increase in complexity when natural selection caused polar bears to acquire only hair without pigment, but complexity increased considerably when fish evolved into mammals. By using the adjective “adaptive” and the phrase “positive improvement” and by not mentioning complexity, Dawkins is saying that natural selection explains adaptation only and does not explain common descent.

The reason natural selection can’t explain common descent is that a living organism is presumably a collection of molecules and atoms and subject to the second law of thermodynamics. According to this law, there is a tendency for molecular systems to go towards a state of greater disorder and less complexity. In the free expansion of a gas, for example, there is a decrease in complexity because there is less knowledge about the location of each gas molecule. In a protein, there is a high degree of complexity because the location of every amino acid in the protein is known exactly. This limitation on natural selection is explained in a peer-reviewed paper titled, “Conflict between the idea of natural selection and the idea of uniqueness of the gene does not seem to be near a solution yet” (Nature, Vol. 224, 1969, p. 342). This paper calculates the small probability of a protein composed of three hundred amino acids evolving by random chance. I’m unaware of any biology textbook, peer-reviewed paper, or scholarly work that states natural selection explains the increase in the complexity of organisms. With the exception of advocates of intelligent design, I also don’t know of any biologists that attempt to draw the line between adaptation and common descent.

In this passage, Dawkins gives a different account of natural selection. The word adaptive is dropped and an explanation for the complexity of life is given:

When creationists say, as they frequently do, that the theory of evolution contradicts the Second Law of Thermodynamics, they are telling us no more than that they don’t understand the Second Law (we already knew that they don’t understand evolution). There is no contraction, because of the sun!

…energy from the sun powers life, to coax and stretch the laws of physics and chemistry to evolve prodigious feats of complexity, diversity , beauty, and an uncanny illusion of statistical improbability and deliberate design…Natural selection is an improbability pump: a process that generates the statistically improbable. It systematically seizes the minority of random changes that have what it takes to survive, and accumulates them, step by tiny step over unimaginable timescales, until evolution eventually climbs mountains of improbability and diversity, peaks whose height and range seem to know no limit, the metaphorical mountain that I have called ‘Mount Improbable’…Life evolves greater complexity only because natural selection drives it locally away from the statistically probable towards the improbable. (p. 415)

According to the Bible, especially John 1:1–2 (“In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God”), God created the universe ex nihilo. Hence, the lack of a scientific understanding of the Big Bang, and to a lesser extent, the origin of life and evolution is one of the reasons to believe in the Bible and the Koran. Dawkins is aware of this reasoning and it probably causes the author of The God Delusion to overstate the scientific understanding of these three phenomena. In the above quote, he is saying natural selection explains common descent. Dawkins’s analysis reveals a lack of understanding of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. When a plant grows, its complexity increases because the complexity of the sun decreases, not its energy.

You can see this same mind-set at work in his discussion of J. B. S. Haldane’s answer to a question posed at a public lecture:

Evolution skeptic: Professor Haldane, even given the billions of years that you say were available for evolution, I simply cannot believe it is possible to go from a single cell to a complicated human body, with its trillions of cells organized into bones and muscles and nerves, a heart that pumps without ceasing for decades, miles and miles of blood vessels and kidney tubules, and a brain capable of thinking and talking and feeling.

JBS: But madam, you did it yourself. And it only took you nine months. (p. 211)

J. B. S. Haldane spoke simple truth to his skeptical questioner, but he would not have denied that there is mystery, verging on the miraculous (but never quite getting there) in the very fact that a single cell gives rise to a human body in all its complexity. (p. 217)

Notice that Dawkins associates lack of scientific knowledge (“mystery”) with a sign from God (“miraculous”). Also notice he doesn’t realize that Haldane’s answer was not an answer at all but gave another reason to be an “evolution skeptic.” Haldane in effect pointed out another thing that had to evolve besides “miles of blood vessels,” i.e., the development of a grown human from the initial fertilized egg over a period of 15 to 20 years. Human brains, for example, grow bigger after birth so the fetus can get through a pelvis narrow enough for upright walking. According to the theory of natural selection, I suppose, babies with small heads had a better chance of surviving than babies with big heads because their mothers were more likely to survive their birth.

The following is another example of Dawkins’s scientism because he must be thinking of the Big Bang and must be thinking the Big Bang solves something:

…Darwin went on to say, ‘It is mere rubbish, thinking at present of the origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter.’ He didn’t rule out the possibility that the problem would eventually be solved (indeed, the problem of the origin of matter largely has been solved)… (p. 417, emphasis added)

Another example of wishful thinking is his discussion of the origin of life:

We have no evidence about what the first step in making life was, but we do know the kind of step it must have been. It must have been whatever it took to get natural selection started. Before the first step, the sorts of improvement that only natural selection can achieve were impossible. And that means the key step was the arising, but some process as yet unknown, of a self-replicating entity. (p. 419)

Dawkins repeatedly refers to creationist as history-deniers, but he denies a lot of history himself:

The popular canard about Hitler being inspired by Darwin comes partly from the fact that both Hitler and Darwin were impressed by something that everybody has known for centuries: you can breed animals for desired qualities…Don’t be mislead by the ill-chosen and unfortunate subtitle of Darwin’s great book: The preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. (p. 62)

Darwin said humans are superior to animals, not because humans have spiritual souls, but because humans are more intelligent and civilized. The idea that humans don’t have souls means humans are not equal under God. This negation of human equality leads to the idea that some individuals are more useful to humanity than other individuals and that some human races are more evolved than other human races. The following quote justifies calling Darwin the founder of the eugenics movement:

If the various checks specified in the last two paragraphs, and perhaps others as yet unknown, do not prevent the reckless, the vicious and the otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better class of men, the nation will retrograde, as has too often occurred in the history of the world. We must remember that progress is no invariable rule. (Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998, p. 145).

In the United States, 65,000 handicapped individuals were forcibly sterilized in 33 states in order to improve the human race. In Germany, over 400,000 were sterilized in similar programs. The link between Darwin and Hitler is Ernst Haeckel, who was Darwin’s advocate in Germany and who said things like this repeatedly:

…the difference between the highest and the lowest humans is greater than that between the lowest humans the highest animal. (Richard Weikart, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004, p. 105)

Humanism is the philosophy that our purpose in life is not to serve God and hope for salvation, but to serve mankind and strive for self-realization. Darwinism is the pseudo-scientific foundation of humanism, which caused many well-intentioned people to find meaning in life by joining various political and social movements. Richard Dawkins finds meaning in his life by promoting humanism.

David Roemer graduated from Fordham College in 1964 with a B. S. and from New York University in 1971 with a Ph. D. in physics. He became a science teacher for the New York City Department of Education in 1984, after working in sales and marketing for manufacturers of radiation therapy equipment. Since 1998, he has been working as a copyeditor and writer of science textbooks and ancillaries.

Visit the David Roemer website.

Published: May 7, 2010

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