The Case for Evolution

The whole religion vs. atheism debate has become incredibly tiresome.  The loudest, most annoying voices on either side have hijacked the bullhorns and ceaselessly screech about the ridiculous idiots/evil heathens who populate the other side.   Personally, I place myself pretty much smack in the middle of this issue – which usually means I’m a convenient target for both sides.

In one particularly relevant and inflammatory aspect of these culture wars, however, I find myself squarely in the atheists’ court.

Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth is a spectacularly intelligent, and thankfully focused, examination of why evolution is, and must be, the process by which life on earth came to be the way it is today.  His arguments are clear and, more importantly, the evidence is overwhelming.  Everything that scientists have ever discovered about life on this planet points to the process of evolution by natural selection as the driving force leading to the amazing variety of species that now exist – indeed, have ever existed – on this planet.

What surprised me the most about this book was its lack of antipathy towards religion in a general sense.  Dawkins relentlessly mocks creationists – those people who believe that the world was created 6000 years ago and that Adam and Eve pranced around with the dinosaurs Flintsones-style like Fred and Wilma.  His mocking, however, is pointedly aimed at their purposeful ignorance of scientific fact rather than at their belief in a higher deity.  From the author of The God Delusion, I had expected a bit more vitriol to be spewed in the direction of religious belief itself. In fact, Dawkins goes so far as to point out that most senior clergy and theologians have no problem with the theory of evolution and often actively support scientists in this regard.  He cites his own “agreeable” collaboration with Bishop Richard Harries of Oxford as an example.  The collaboration he refers to is a campaign to preserve the integrity of the science classroom.

I recognize that I’m editorializing here, but I whole-heartedly agree with Dawkins and Bishop Harries that the teaching of creationism in a science classroom is indefensible lunacy.  Creationism, like alchemy or astrology, cannot, by any logical stretch, be called a science.  There are little gaps in the chain of evidence proving evolution – we’re dealing with a process billions of years old, remember – and Dawkins acknowledges this.  Minor gaps, however, do not nullify a solid base of incontrovertible evidence.  Nor do they lend credence to an idea completely lacking in any factual support.

As for the larger debate of science vs. religion (one that Dawkins wisely avoids in this book), the fact of evolution is neither a threat to religious belief nor is it evidence for atheism.  It’s simply a fact of nature, like gravity or photosynthesis, and a wondrous one at that.  As Dawkins presents the evidence for evolution, he reveals what an amazingly complex and beautiful process it actually is.  And that’s something that believers and non-believers alike could appreciate.

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9 comments

  1. I remember when I was teaching behavioral sciences to a bunch of college freshmen (young impressionable undergraduates) we have this huge discussion about evolution and religion and the whole debate surrounding the issue as we discuss anthropology, archeology, etc – I recall asking them to read Richard Dawkins’ letter to his daughter Juliet entitled Good and Bad Reasons for Believing (are you familiar with this?). Recollecting these long-gone moments never fail to make me smile. I bought this book (The greatest show on earth) several months back on a booksale here in Singapore but never really had a chance to completely read through it. After reading your post here (thanks to bookblogs in ning), this just might move up in my to-be-read pile.

  2. I’ve read several of his books ( the selfish gene, blind watchmaker the god delusion etc) and have always found him to be a reasoned individual, if I recall correctly, he even states that belief,faith etc can be beneficial to mankind, that it need not be harmful. As you say it’s not religion that he attacks, just those blind fundamentalists that denounce all that cannot be fit into their tiny frame of reference. Which makes it all the more necessary, that there are voices of reason, willing to keep open debate on subjects such as this.

  3. I’m pretty in-the-middle on the issue as well. I also really dislike both camps trying to impose their will on me. It is so unbecoming. If it’s any consolation, I guess imposing wills is a way both these camps try to reinforce their beliefs for themselves–“this is true, this has to be true!”– meaning, in a nutshell, they are no closer to the truth than you or I.

  4. Fantastic review – agree with you whole-heartedly on the teaching of creationism in schools. What a joke! I picked this book up on the discount shelf at B&N a few weeks ago, having read and mostly enjoyed The God Delusion. I realized as I was perusing this book in the store, that if I ever got into an argument with a creationist (who’s only real argument is “well, I believe what I believe to be true, and so it must be true because I believe it”), I don’t really have a good enough understanding of evolution to offer much of a rebuttal. Can’t wait to read this – I like Dawkins’ style. Yeah, at times he’s a little rambunctious and chest-pounding – but that makes his writing quite a bit more interesting! Thanks for review this!

  5. This book sounds great and while I do think creationists are an easy target but the fact that it is being taught in schools is, as you said perfectly “indefensible lunacy”. I don’t know that I’d read The God Delusion, but I’d love to check this one out.

  6. @myragarcesbascal – Thanks for stopping by. I’m not familiar with Dawkin’s letter to his daughter. I’ll have to look for it. It must have been very interesting discussing this issue with college freshman. Dawkins makes copious use of a statistic that 40% of Americans doubt evolution – where were you when you were teaching and did you have any students who were creationists? I’d be fascinated to hear how they would react to a classroom discussion of this sort.
    @Parrish – Dawkins, at least from this book, does seem to be a reasonable sort. I also got the same impression of him when he was promoting this book a few years back on the Colbert Report. I haven’t read The God Delusion, but I have it queued up on my e-reader. I’m very curious as I’ve heard conflicting reports about it. I’ve read, even from other prominent atheists, that he wanders a bit outside considerable knowledge base.
    @teejay17 – That pretty much sums up the debate – “I’m right, you’re an idiot.” Personally, I don’t understand the vitriol. In my mind, the fundamental conflict between science and religion is a false dichotomy created by extremists on both sides.

  7. @Greg – It’s absurd that teaching creationism in the science class is even an issue. As a person who grew up in a household that was both very religious as well as very education-oriented, I can’t even begin to fathom how a scientific fact could be seen as a threat to religious belief, nor how so many people could possibly deny the obvious. Anyway, this book is a fantastic primer on the evidence for evolution – although, I’m not sure how useful facts would be in a debate with a creationist. Still, it’s a fascinating read. Hope you enjoy it!
    @Alley – Creationists do make easy targets and I cringe at the self-righteous condescension aimed at believers by some non-believers. At the same time, a science classroom is a place for science. Demonstrably false ideas have no place being taught as viable alternatives to a proven fact. You should pick this one up, I think you’d like it.

  8. I tried to read The God Delusion and had to stop because of all the vitriol. I really wanted to be persuaded with cold hard fact (as a biology major I definitely don’t fall in with the creationists) rather than barely disguised contempt for religion. Was this book better than God Delusion in that respect??

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