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

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