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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Proof Positive, 7 Dec 2009
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This review is from: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (Hardcover)
Why, asks Richard Dawkins at one point in his latest rebuttal of the Creationist fantasy, if all animals on earth now are descended from a couple of each saved on the ark and deposited on Mount Ararat, did all the marsupials, without exception, immediately make a beeline for Australia? And all the lemurs, also without exception, shot straight off to Madagascar. Just two of the rather obvious flaws in the fantasy, a little bit though like employing Bertrand Russell to tell the kids Santa doesn't exist. (Sorry, but he doesn't.)

Leaving aside for the moment the bating that Dawkins indulges in, this is a fantastic book. In between disabusing the unfortunates of their delusions Dawkins has some incredible tales to tell of the evidence for evolution.

From the great apes (including homo sapiens), showing the key similarities and differences, and pointing out that no, we're not descended from our simian cousins but we do share a common ancestor.

From the cetaceans (whales and dolphins), indicating how, unlike fish, they have evolved vertically articulating backs, as opposed to the lateral articulation of fish, and how as a group they have changed their minds once or twice on the evolutionary trail, being unable to decide on living on land or in the sea.

From chelonians (turtles, tortoises, terrapins), tortoises being the branch of the family that, for the time being, has decided to live on land, but evidence of whose vacillations provide some of the backstory to Darwin's discoveries on the Galapagos.

There are also a couple of interesting asides on experiments on E coli and foxes, both providing fasttrack demonstrations of how evolution works; a discussion of the "why are there no crocoducks?" argument put forward by some creationists (a rather desperate argument in the first place, if you ask me); and an evocation of some of the absurdities of evolution, epitomised most starkly by the circuitous route by which the giraffe's laryngeal nerve reaches its destination, as a riposte to the intelligent design camp.

At times, I have to admit, as Dawkins aims another barb at the creation myth, I thought something along the lines of "overkill", "sledgehammer to crack a nut" and "mocking the afflicted". But then I am not altogether averse to this kind of behaviour, and felt it rather less extreme than the behaviour of the creationazis in American classrooms who disrupt lessons on evolution. And, as Dawkins points out, despite the evidence there is still a sizeable proportion of the American population, 44% or thereabouts, who reject the theory of evolution. I was left as despondent as he is about the fact.

Unfortunately, like The God Delusion before it, I doubt that The Greatest Show On Earth will sell well in that fraternity, and Dawkins is left preaching to the choir.

Just one point of detail to close. At one point Dawkins compares the differences between ape and human DNA to differences in sentences in two ancient biblical scrolls. Now I'm no expert in this field, but my understanding from Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus is that these scrolls were not written in sentences in the first place - in fact not even the individual words are separated by spaces. This is slightly careless on Dawkins's part, to be unaware of a feature of the source text for the creation myth that was a key factor in driving even Ehrman himself, formerly a fundamentalist Christian textual scholar, away from his faith. As Ehrman points out, far from being the product of divine ispiration, the bible we have today is the handiwork of mortals and the outcome of centuries of power struggles between them.
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