The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins | Book review

Richard Dawkins's latest broadside just misses its target. By Richard Fortey

If Thomas Henry Huxley was famously "Darwin's bulldog", then Richard Dawkins is probably best described as "Darwin's pit bull". He gets his teeth into an argument, locks on and shakes it until submission is the only option. There's a certain glee when he admits to being "the devil's disciple" or the high priest of "ultradarwinism", and his admission has an undeniably macho swagger about it. Real men (and women) take the toughest line on natural selection. Suffering and pain in nature and humanity are merely there to service the genes. Anything else is "Sentimental, human nonsense. Natural selection is all futile." There is something bracing about belonging to this most astringent and clear-sighted set. Deluded theists! Wishy-washy agnostics! Welcome to the Fight Club. One is reminded of lines by Dawkins's favourite poet, WB Yeats: "Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, pass by."

The greatest story is, of course, the story of evolution. This latest addition to the Dawkins canon is his summary of the vast array of evidence supporting the science. Palaeontology, embryology, anatomy, genetics, artificial breeding and geography are all grist to his evolutionary mill. Dawkins's writing demonstrates once again his consummate skill as an explainer. He never makes assumptions about prior knowledge; when he chooses an analogy it does actually cast light on the thing to be explained (some scientists seem to find this extraordinarily difficult); and occasionally he coins a brilliant phrase. Those who have already climbed Mount Improbable with him or contemplated the blind watchmaker will not be disappointed, even though some of the same ground has been re-ploughed for a new crop.

The science covered is, it must be said, pretty standard stuff. The Galápagos islands were Darwin's natural laboratory, and here they appear once again. The dramatic detour taken by the laryngeal nerve in mammals, the convergence between the wings of bats and extinct pterodactyls, the discovery of a whole gallery of human ape fossil "links", the deciphering of the human genome, the development of the human embryo – they all line up in what would be termed in an American university "Evolution 101". Steve Jones went through a lot of the same menu a decade ago in Almost Like a Whale. But the topics are all laid out with that combination of clarity and verve that is Dawkins's hallmark, and pursued to his customary conclusion: "There is no architects's plan, no architect."

His second agenda is – as always – kidney-jabs at creationists and allied trades wherever the chance arises. All rationalists must be scared by the statistic that fewer than one in five Americans believes that mankind descended from an ape without God's guiding hand. Maybe even "Evolution 101" is having a hard time these days. However, I am not sure whether Dawkins is rehearsing his arguments here to stiffen the backbones of those involved in the debate with "intelligent designers", or whether he really thinks that the scales will fall from their religious eyes, cauterised by his searing arguments. Indeed, one wonders whether this book will do more than preach to the already converted (isn't it hard to escape the language of the pulpit?). One sympathises with Dawkins's attempt to talk evidence with convinced creationists – he reproduces a dialogue with one Wendy Wright ("Concerned Women of America") that would have most rational souls tearing out their hair. But still he plugs away at the fundamentalist opposition, courageously getting nowhere.

Perhaps it is this very determination to give no ground that occasionally introduces irritating holes into his science. When the Egyptian tombs were opened at the end of the 18th century, the great French naturalist Baron Cuvier identified mummified remains of a bird held sacred by the Egyptians – an ibis identical in all respects to the living species. It was not on the way to being an ibis for all its thousands of years of antiquity – it was an ibis. No scientist worth his or her salt doubts the genetic continuity between species all down the complex evolutionary tree of life, nor that the selfish genes are battling it out in a continuous way, but it does seem to be a fact that many species remain morphologically similar for long periods of time, whatever is going on in the genome. According to the eminent historian Martin Rudwick, Cuvier used lack of change in the ibis as a refutation of his contemporary Lamarck's "transformationalist" views. The science of stratigraphy has worked very well since the time of Darwin, and depends upon fossil species retaining identity of shape through appreciable periods of geological time. There's a whole new science built around computerised correlation of rocks based on first and last appearance of species, which Dawkins seems not to know about. If the fossil record were a kind of slippery morphological soup then it would not work at all. The fact is that both continuous and discontinuous change happens in fossil lineages, and this poses interesting questions about what species mean, questions that Dawkins simply ignores.

Then there is the occasional cheap shot. Dawkins has a go at the business of taxonomy, regretting that the name of our ancestor Australopithecus has priority over the "better name" Plesianthropus. There is a "rule" that says that the first published name takes priority. "I'm still mischievously hoping," writes Dawkins, "somebody will uncover, in a dusty drawer in a South African museum, a long-forgotten fossil . . . but bearing the scrawled label 'Hemianthropus-type specimen 1920'. At a stroke, all the museums in the world would immediately have to relabel their Australopithecus specimens and casts . . ." Well, actually, they wouldn't, because this supposed name Hemianthropus would have no status at all in the scientific world unless it was properly published somewhere. In which case we would already know about it. If in my museum career I had paid attention to all the scraps of paper in drawers I would have done little else but fret. I hope this does not look like nit-picking. The naming problem in human anthropology is mainly due to vaingloriousness on the part of scientists. The rules have sorted problems out; Dawkins's ultimate hero Darwin was on the original committee to set up these nomenclatural rules, responding to the chaos in scientific naming of organisms that bedevilled scientific research in the early 19th century. It does Dawkins no credit to snigger at taxonomy.

Richard Fortey's Dry Store Room No 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum is published by HarperPerennial.

Richard Fortey

The GuardianTramp

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