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The Greatest Show on Earth

Reading The Greatest Show on Earth, it’s hard to avoid the impression that Richard Dawkins is a grumpy old man. Taxonomic naming conventions, the use of the term ‘epigenetics’ and Disney’s portrayal of A.A. Milne’s Eyeore are all subjects of irritation. But maybe you’d be grumpy too if you’d spent significant amounts of time faced with creationists who, despite a wealth of informative fossils, persist in saying things like “show me the fossils”.

The Greatest Show on Earth is a showcase for evolution and the giant, flashing neon signs of evidence that point towards it. From fossil evidence to molecular genetics, geography to plate tectonics, and homologous body plans to a lack of economy in nature, Dawkins regales the reader with the many avenues of mutually supporting evidence for evolution. Many fascinating anecdotes are present, including the co-evolution of orchids and insects, and the distinctly dog-like features that resulted as a side-effect of fox domestication. It’s hard not to be carried along by the evident enthusiasm for the subject matter.

Dawkins does seem to get carried away in some of his explanations, for example a large swathe of text is dedicated to explaining exactly why origami is a good metaphor for some aspects of embryology. Some areas of science are neglected - the impact of mutation on gene expression for one. However these concerns are probably of little importance for the general audience at which The Greatest Show on Earth is squarely aimed.

That evolution is more fact than theory is a point that few readers of EUSci would dispute - but The Greatest Show on Earth makes the point strongly and eloquently and in the elegant style typical of Dawkins’ writing. Creationist ‘history deniers’, whose world-view is not associated rational examination of available information, will not be swayed. Those rational individuals unlucky enough to have creationism foisted on them will find a wealth of arguments and awkward questions (exactly why did penguins travel exclusively to the antarctic from the Ark?) For the rest of us, The Greatest Show on Earth is a well-encapsulated, amazingly illustrated and fascinating summary of the evidence for evolution.

Jon Manning is post-doc in the Centre for Cardiovascular Science

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