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'Greatest Show on Earth' sheds more light on Darwin (9/24)

September 24, 2010|By ALLAN POWELL

Richard Dawkins, the brilliant and honored British biologist, has written another superb piece of literature. A much respected Fellow of the Royal Society (Science) and of Royal Society of Literature, he has just published, "The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution." This is a formidable masterpiece - a virtual library of up-to-date, reliable information about the multiple sciences that support the Darwinian (and post-Darwinian) account of evolution.

There is no longer any excuse for being uninformed or misinformed about the subject of evolution. This work was a response to the popular resistance to Darwin's inspired thoughts. A 2008 Gallup poll reported that 44 percent of Americans believed that God had created man in his present form within the last 10,000 years. Also that year, a Pew Forum poll noted that 42 percent of Americans held the view that life on this planet existed in its present form since the beginning of time.

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Space permits only a few examples of Dawkins' excellent coverage of some of the specialized research in biology, but following are some points to think about. Many who have a visceral dislike for Darwin attempt to diminish the power of his thought with "evolution is only a theory." They are unaware that, in science, certitude advances from a hunch or hypothesis to theory and possibly then to a law of nature. At each stage there is more factual support and more acceptance by those qualified to judge. Also, at each level the proposition is openly verifiable or falsifiable.

Dawkins gives considerable attention to the objections put forward by creationists and those who wish to attribute intelligent design as a necessary causal force in evolutionary development. He finds both the biblical and theological bases of origins unacceptable and steadfastly employs the naturalistic explanations of mutation and natural selection.

As would be expected, Dawkins gives an abundance of sketches and pictures of the fossil record. These are used to refute the continued charges that evolution is a flawed theory because there are so many "missing links" and "no transitional forms." In fact, both are plentiful unless one willfully puts on blinders. We are fortunate to have any at all when one realizes that nature took no pains to save the delicate tissue, blood and bone needed to give evidence for the record of evolution.

To show direct transitional forms, there is the well known case of "archaeopteryx" (an intermediate between reptiles and birds). An interesting, newly discovered "liklaalik" (an intermediate between fish and limbed animals) is a fossil estimated to be 375 million years old.

A more comprehensive picture of intermediate forms is presented by Dawkins with the imagery of a tree of life. The tree model shows the trunk with the extending limbs, branches, stems and twigs - each representing the speciation of life and their relations to each other. This makes it clear that every species between the first limbs and those above on the various branches are all intermediate forms.

One useful anecdotal story included in this fabulous work is about the famous British scientist, J.B.S. Haldane. A lady - skeptical of the claims made by evolutionists - asked Haldane how he could possibly believe that a complex creature such as humans, with their powers of thought, could evolve from a single cell. Haldane, with a calm, cool response, replied: "But Madam, you did it yourself, and it only took nine months."

Dawkins gives his conjecture as to why there is so much resistance to evolution in view of the solid evidentiary base which supports this pillar of biological science. It is that many judge the validity of evolution on the basis of simple like or dislike. They just don't like the idea - it's got a bad smell.

This test has a logical fallacy which has a Latin name, "argumentum ad consequentiam." Put bluntly, they don't like the consequences of accepting this new and scary idea. Most likely, someone they respect has told them to expect something smelly. We can only hope that, eventually, there will be enough people to trust their own nose - then Darwin will not smell so bad.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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