Richard Dawkins is ready, apparently, to reach out. After sparking global controversy with his take-no-prisoners defense of atheism, The God Delusion, the Oxford biologist has written a new book, The Greatest Show on Earth (Free Press, September 22), which presents an eloquent and accessible narrative of the facts supporting evolution. This time he’s not preaching to the choir: Dawkins aims to educate creationists and fence-sitters in hopes that the burden of evidence will change minds. With more than 40 percent of Americans rejecting evolution, his task is a heavy one. And considering Dawkins’ reputation, will anyone who’s undecided even bother picking up his book?
Seed’s Veronique Greenwood spoke to Dawkins about his expectations for the book, the role of symbolism in modern theology, and how evangelizing evolution is like writing a whodunit.
Seed: The Greatest Show on Earth is far from the only recent book for popular audiences that assembles the facts in support of evolution. One notable example is Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True. Why write another one?
Richard Dawkins: Well, I love Jerry’s book. We have different takes on the same subject. I think that the more books there are out here like this, the better.
Seed: How successful do you think you’ll be in reaching the fence-sitters?
RD: I’m glad you used that phrase—the fence-sitters. Those really are the people I’m trying to reach. While it’s hard for me to say exactly how it will be received, I should say that this book has gone straight to the top of the best sellers list in the UK in its first week. My other books sometimes gradually climbed to the top, but this one has started out there. So that seems a good sign.
Seed: Are you worried that you’ve alienated much of the fence-sitting audience with The God Delusion?
RD: Maybe a few. But I’d have alienated myself, and everyone I respect, if I had worried about that kind of thing and written a dishonest book.
Seed: You’ve written letters and articles with many senior clergy who have had no problem with evolution. Do you think they are failing to convey the truth of evolution to their congregants?
RD: Well, it seems that a lot of bishops and other theologians often speak symbolically—they speak of the sin of Adam, the sin of Eve—and they know that they are not being literal. But their flocks don’t know it. Clergymen may not mention it—they never really say anything about it.
Interestingly, an ordained theologian, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has just written an article praising me at the expense of sophisticated modern theologians. He and I agree that the existence of God is an important question. We just disagree about the answer. The sophisticated theologians he is criticizing don’t even agree that it’s an important question. They care more for symbols than for reality.
Seed: This book provides evidence for evolution. What’s the best way to make a case to someone who is undecided?
RD: I try to speak about it in terms of history, of a kind of detective story where you have to decipher from clues what has happened—but on a timescale that is far longer than we can observe. People can see how a white moth can become a black moth—that’s not a problem. It happens on a human timescale. But seeing how a fish can become a mammal, that’s something else entirely. The sheer length of time involved is a great barrier, so couching it in terms of a historical puzzle helps.
Seed: What’s a frequent mistake people make in arguing against evolution?
RD: You often find people who say, well, evolution is a theory of chance, in the absence of a designer. If it really were a theory of chance, of course they would be right to dismiss it as nonsense. No chance process could give rise to the prodigy of organized complexity that is the living world. But it’s not random chance. Natural selection is the exact opposite of a chance process. I’ve dedicated a number of my other books to showing that it is not.
Seed: Making this detective analogy, where one convinces by force of evidence, where do the strongest facts come from?
RD: Comparative molecular genetics. It is a remarkable fact that all living creatures that have ever been looked at have the same genetic code. The machine code of life is the same, wherever we look. And when we look at particular genes in any one animal, we can find the same genes in other animals—almost the same, but with a few differences, which we can actually count.
And the wonderful thing is that you can find genes that are shared not just among very similar animals like humans and chimpanzees, but also among more distant animals like humans and fish, or humans and snails. And again, we can count the differences—literally count—just as you can count the number of letters by which two versions of the same written text differ. This gives you a measure of the similarity/difference between any one species and any other.
When you examine the pattern of resemblances between pairs of animals and plants, you find that it makes a perfect hierarchical tree. The only sensible interpretation of this tree is that it is a family tree: The tree of evolutionary relationships. This is, in my opinion, the most compelling evidence there is—especially given that different genes give the same tree.
Front page image courtesy of Kevin Dooley.
Originally published September 22, 2009