The Greatest Show on Earth fills a gap in Richard Dawkins' impressive sequence of books about evolution, from The Selfish Gene thirty years ago to The Blind Watchmaker and The Ancestor's Tale. The new book is primarily a clear, thorough explanation of the evidence for evolution and of its inner workings. Dawkins' enthusiasm for his subject is obvious and contagious: the explanations are constantly enriched by humorous asides and lively anecdotes about oddities of the natural world.

He begins with the often-misunderstood fact that a scientific 'theory' (of evolution or gravity or anything else) is not an airy-fairy wild guess but 'a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment … a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed.'

Then he shows us evolution at work, in domestic plants and animals, in bacteria, and in wild animals. A chapter on the earth's clocks (radiocarbon dating, etc) demonstrates that there has been plenty of time for evolution to produce the stunning variety of living beings around us, and he shows that the present geographical distribution of animal families agrees very neatly with continental drift. Evidence from genetics is brought to bear on the relationships between different groups of animals and is tracked backwards all the way to the common ancestors of men and mice, donkeys and dragonflies, so long ago that most of us will never really grasp the timespan involved.

Dawkins is a fine writer and a great teacher, so he ties it all together in a grand finale which echoes and amplifies the voice of Darwin saying, 'from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.'

But I said at the beginning that The Greatest Show on Earth is 'primarily' an explanation of evolution. Its other side is an attack on creationism and 'Intelligent Design'. Dawkins tries to avoid attacking religion (he did that in The God Delusion) but can't always restrain himself since he can't make himself forget or ignore the troubling fact that 40% of Americans, and nearly as many Britons, believe that Genesis is literally true. Such people, insisting that the world was created in one week some 6000 years ago, flatly deny the truth of evolution and therefore, as Dawkins shows, the truth of even larger parts of modern science – all of cosmology, nearly all of geology, much of chemistry, most of biology, and so on. They also, as he is careful to point out, deny the teachings of many of their own church leaders, who accept that evolution is the 'how' of 'God created the world'. I am somewhat troubled by this polemical aspect of the book, simply because I doubt that it will do much good. If creationists can so resolutely ignore the evidence for evolution presented in hundreds of books since the Origin, one more book seems unlikely to change their opinions; and Dawkins' fulminations against them sometimes disturb the flow of his main story, so The Greatest Show on Earth might have been even better without the confrontation.

The 150th anniversary (in November 2009) of the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species brought us many books on evolution but this must be among the best of them – perhaps sharing top ranking with Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True, which is a little shorter and appeared earlier in the year.

Bantam, September 2009, $35.00

Review originally published Dec 2010
Page created Aug 2010