A Concise Review of The Greatest Show on Earth

November 17, 2009 — 1 Comment

Richard Dawkins - The Greatest Show on EarthHopefully this post can live up to its title and actually be concise and to the point and not sprawling and wordy. Much of today relies on yesterday’s ideas about logic, so if you haven’t read that, go back and read A Few Thoughts on Logic.

Now that you’ve done that, we can more forward with an examination of Richard Dawkins’ latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. The typical evangelical response I would assume, is to write off the scientific data and given by Dawkins. I am going to propose though that this is wrongheaded for two reasons.

First, I do not know of anyone off hand who is competent enough in Dawkins’ discipline to ardently dispute data with him. I can already tell from the overall tone of the book that he is extremely peeved with people for trying this tactic. Evangelicals in general I think can be bad about this, since they are bringing in the assumption that Genesis 1 stands in scientific contrast to any evolutionary process whatsoever. And if that is your assumption then you would have to dispute any data given by an evolutionist.

Notice though that I have been focusing on the data, because the issue really lies with the explanation of the data, not the data itself. Which leads to reason two why it is wrongheaded to just write off Dawkins’ data and explanation…

If you remember from the post from yesterday, we noted that in scientific theory making, data always underdetermines a theory. So, why argue over the data anyway? No finite amount of data will ever prove evolution to be true. By that same token though, no finite amount of data can prove creation either.

When I say this, please understand I am referring strictly to data within the natural world, which a scientist committed to methodological naturalism would be restricted to study. Methodological naturalism is not a bad thing, and in fact science relies on it to proceed in explaining natural processes. Trouble arises though when one moves from methodological naturalism to metaphysical naturalism, which is a philosophical position that claims only nature exists. I have dealt with this elsewhere, so I won’t get into it here.

So rather than just write off the data Dawkins presents, what are the options?

The book itself is an attempt to present the hard evidence for evolution to discredit the history-deniers (anyone who doubts evolution) and state what for Dawkins had seemed painfully obvious. In this case then, the book can tend to have a rather caustic tone. Evolution doubters are compared to Holocaust deniers (presumably for its emotional force, not because the analogy works) as well as in the opening paragraph to someone who would doubt that the Latin language ever existed (which fails as an analogy as well). In any case, after reading the book (and studying Genesis more) I can understand some of Dawkins’ frustration with creationists, even though he himself admits candidly toward the end of the book he doesn’t know how everything got started (although in his view this certainly does not open the door to an initial creation by a god, although the possibility of aliens is acceptable).

The bottom line for Dawkins is that evolution is fact.

Dawkins ardently states over 17 times in the first chapter alone. He goes over just what a fact is and what a theory is and how evolution is clearly the former and more than just the latter. The book then proceeds to unfold the evidence for this claim, proceeding like so:

  • If the theory of evolution is true, then we should observe certain data
  • We observe certain data,
  • Therefore the theory of evolution is true.

If you have studied logic at any length, something about the above should bother you. While you may not recognize the phrase, “affirming the consequent,” that is nonetheless the technical term for this logical fallacy. To put it in a different form, letting T be the theory of evolution and D be the data Dawkins presents, this is the reasoning:

  • If T is true, then D should be present
  • D is present
  • Therefore T is true

Aside from the issue of presenting selective evidence, even if we just assume all the evidence Dawkins presents is all the possible, relevant evidence, it still does not prove that evolution is true or that it actually happened.Further, his reasoning is actually invalid and cannot prove the point anyway. Data always underdetermines theories, there are many other possible explanations for the data Dawkins presents, evolution just represents one such explanation.

At every turn, if one is reading for it, you can see how Dawkins’ underlying assumptions that evolution must be true lead him to the conclusions he makes from the data. None of the ultimate ideas of evolution are self-evident within any of the date he presents. With pre-conclusions about the veracity of evolution, one can make a pretty convincing stab at authenticating the theory, but it still, in spite of Dawkins’ protests, simply remains just that, a theory for origins that originates in naturalistic philosophy and was given a scientific veneer by Darwin. And no amount of data can actually prove that it and it alone is the true explanation of the origins and development of life. Science unfortunately just doesn’t work that way.

Dawkins’ book covers much ground, from the basis for the ideas of natural selection, to the fossil record, to embryology, to radioactive clocks, to even plate tectonics. However interesting the content may seem, it does not in the end support the claims of evolution, that is unless you are willing to take the leap of faith into metaphysical naturalism and assume the conclusion before you look at the data. So in a sense, this book is just preaching to the choir, and will in effect only be convincing to anyone who has already accepted the philosophical commitments necessary to believe in evolution as Dawkins presents it.

As a Christian, one should not be alarmed by the evidence Dawkins presents. Some of it may stand the test of time, some of it may not. However, none of it conclusively proves evolution and can just as easily be explained by the Christian as the evidence of how God works in the world, superintending the development of his creation. Nothing Dawkins presents can necessarily exclude that as an explanation, he just doesn’t see it as reasonable because of his background assumptions.

So in the end, the real issue is not the science, it is the background beliefs of the person engaged in science. This should help guide discussion away from scientific data issues to the heart of the issue, which is really the person’s unbelief, not their science. Dawkins is a brilliant scientist, but he is a poor logician and his fondness for atheism clouds his ability to be reasonable. Given his fallacious reasoning, one is not at all unreasonable in rejecting his conclusions while affirming his evidence. The logical thing to do in this case is not to agree with Dawkins, but rather to be honest about the data and realize that other explanations are certainly possible.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Genesis 1: Concluding Thoughts | Marturo - January 30, 2012

    […] The philosophy underlying evolution is negated by Genesis 1:1, however, this says nothing about the potential age of the earth, or the process by which our modern species have come to be. Given the immense diversity of life that we now see, and if we take Noah’s Ark as factual, then everything we have now can potentially be traced back to a single pair of ancestor animals for its species. Evolution on a micro level does happen, which Darwin helped bring to the table. However, on the macro level, there is no evidence of say a modern kangaroo and a modern tree frog sharing a common ancestor, which is exactly what individuals like Richard Dawkins will argue for (you can read more on that here). […]

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