Not Just for Fence-Sitters

Featured Blogger / by PZ Myers /

Dawkins’ new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, demonstrates the power of storytelling in communicating evolution’s biological evidence.

We’re entering a kind of golden age for popular science books on evolution. Scientists are aware of the assaults on science by the conservative religious right and are making great efforts to reach out and explain their work to the lay public. There are no excuses now for not being informed about the core principles of the socially (but not scientifically!) controversial theory of evolution. When people ask me what they can read to be brought up to speed relatively painlessly on the topic, I can suggest a long list of great books: Donald Prothero’s Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters; Sean Carroll’s The Making of the Fittest; Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish; Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True; and now the latest entry, Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth. (See Seed’s interview with Dawkins about his book here.) The flow of information isn’t stopping, either, with Carl Zimmer’s The Tangled Bank coming out in October.

While our public schools are failing to educate people about the science of biology, the barrier to picking up the basic information has never been lower. These books are wonderfully written, easy to absorb, and great at communicating the basic principles; an interested person can pick up one and in a few evenings of pleasant reading get a good idea of why evolution has been such a powerful idea in biology.

Ah, if only the problem of creationism could be solved as easily as simply handing out copies of Richard Dawkins’ latest book…but it’s a necessary preliminary. Most of the critics of evolution don’t have the slightest idea of the principles of the theory (I’m always being told that it’s entirely about chance conjuring complex organisms into existence, the old “tornado in a junk yard” canard) and certainly have no knowledge of the multiple lines of detailed evidence that support evolution. Creationists assert that there are no transitional fossils, for instance, so we have to show them a few hundred. They don’t understand how the sequence data is only comprehensible if organisms are related, so we have to explain genes and genomes.

Richard Dawkins talks about reaching the fence-sitters, and education is an important first step. When I get into an argument with a confirmed creationist, someone who is clearly not sitting on the fence, I’m not trying to convince that person—I’m trying to reach all the others who are listening in. If an opponent throws out a claim that is patently a product of abysmal ignorance—such as, “If evolution is true, then why are there still monkeys?” or “The Cambrian explosion was a sudden event that can only be explained by the work of a designer”—it’s very helpful if the audience is already aware of how silly those arguments are; it spares me time that otherwise has to be spent addressing the most elementary basics, and suddenly, the creationist is looking very, very ill-informed. It’s great!

Of course, I don’t want just fence-sitters to read these books. People who are already confident in their knowledge about evolution should read them, too, because what Dawkins is also demonstrating is the power of the story and skill in the presentation of biological evidence. The good guys need to up their game as well. I’m also hoping that many more devout creationists will also feel obligated to read the stories Satan, I mean Dawkins, is telling them because they really need to improve their arguments—they’ve been getting boring!

Originally published September 22, 2009

Tags bias data public perception theory truth

Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More

Now on SEEDMAGAZINE.COM

  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.

Portfolio

Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

SEEDMAGAZINE.COM by Seed Media Group. ©2005-2015 Seed Media Group LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM