Australian politics, society & culture

Unbelievers

Richard Dawkins' 'The Greatest Show on Earth'

Ian Lowe

Medium length read1300 words
 

You wouldn’t believe me if I claimed that almost half the people in a rich, modern country still thought the earth was flat, or that the Roman Empire never existed. It would be a ridiculous assertion. Yet almost half of all adults in the United States believe that human beings did not evolve from other species, but were created by a divine being less than 10,000 years ago. A similar statistic is true for Turkey, now being considered for admission to the European Union.

As Richard Dawkins puts it in The Greatest Show on Earth, believing that the world is less than 10,000 years old – when it is actually around 4.6 billion years old – is equivalent to thinking that North America (or Australia, for that matter) is less than 10 metres across! It is wrong by a factor of about a million. To be that far out is, as Dawkins writes, to be “deluded to the point of perversity”. It requires denial or ignorance of whole fields of science: not just biology, but physics, chemistry, geology, cosmology and archaeology, as well as history.

Dawkins, one of the world’s leading science communicators, holds the Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. Infuriated by the facile nonsense of ‘creation science’ – and its recent re-badging as ‘intelligent design’ – he has in his new book summoned the evidence of the Earth’s unimaginably great age and the time this has allowed for species to evolve through natural selection. It is, as the cover claims, a brilliant tour de force, drawing together an impressive range of science.

The Greatest Show on Earth reminds us that we are surrounded by examples of evolution driven by human selection: food crops, milking cows, racehorses, not to mention varieties of garden flowers and the plethora of different dog breeds. In discussing these examples, Dawkins reminds us that there are always trade-offs in selective breeding; we emphasise one characteristic at the expenses of others. For example, the breeding of racehorses for speed makes their legs fragile and susceptible to injury, especially when jumping (this may explain the recent spate of horses dying in Victorian jumps races). A wide variety of examples of natural selection in action is also documented here, ranging from the decreasing weight of elephants’ tusks in Uganda, to the ways different species have responded to changing dietary or breeding opportunities. More amazing, though, are the changes observed in laboratory experiments. One followed the evolution of bacteria through 45,000 generations, equivalent to about one million years of human history (longer than our entire existence as an identifiable species). To drive his point home, Dawkins draws together evidence from the fossil record, genetics and molecular biology; each shows that there is no rational basis for denying evolution.

So why does he feel the need to crack this nutty delusion? He says he was provoked by the ongoing refusal to accept the vast body of scientific knowledge. That denial is usually associated with religious fundamentalism – mostly Christianity in the US and Islam in Turkey.

In Queensland, we had a brush with ‘creation science’ 25 years ago. Lin Powell, then Minister for Education, told science teachers they could teach evolution as a scientific theory, but that they should teach creation as the origin of species! Most teachers ignored this ridiculous advice, but a small group of fundamentalists at a state high school in Brisbane took it as a green light to push their creationist agenda. Universities began encountering science students who were convinced that evolution was a dubious theory peddled by militant atheists to erode religious faith.

It was quite easy to debunk ‘creation science’ because of its cherry-picking of data, its dishonest misrepresentation of reputable scientists, and its willingness to ignore whole bodies of inconvenient truth. But I thought that it had a more fundamental flaw. Creation science was based on a non-negotiable explanation that refused to consider evidence or observation: the a priori assumption that the book of Genesis was literal truth. That position is the very antithesis of science.

At the time, I reflected that this nonsense might have been inadvertently promoted by a style of science teaching that presented this field as a concrete body of knowledge, a set of eternal truths supported by the authority of the scientific community. Meanwhile, creation science lobbyists claimed God was on their side, giving them even greater authority. But science is a process of trying to explain the complex world and advance our understanding, and a scientific theory must be testable by observation or experiment. We can be very confident in the science of climate change because we are now seeing the effects that were predicted 20 years ago. Still, what we call ‘knowledge’ is always provisional. Research is constantly revealing what was previously accepted to be incomplete, or even wrong. The most dramatic example of this in my adult lifetime was the discovery that sea floor was spreading in the mid-Atlantic. This transformed the naïve populist idea of ‘continental drift’ into the respectable science of plate tectonics, almost overnight.

So what might the impact of Dawkins’ book be? I doubt it will convince creationists, because their position is not based on logical argument. I see a parallel between them and those who are still denying climate change; as each spurious argument is refuted, they concoct a new objection to avoid facing the reality  of our need to radically change our energy use. The Greatest Show on Earth will be useful to those seeking reassurance that their scientific understanding is solid.

They may need this encouragement. Dawkins notes a worrying trend in the UK for fundamentalist Christians and Muslims to object to the teaching of evolution. (It is not yet as bad as the situation in the US, where textbooks are doctored to pander to this sort of dogma.) Consequently, a generation of young people is being deprived of the opportunity to understand one of the most powerful ideas in science. More importantly, they are cut off from realising that knowledge can free us from a limited view of the world and empower us to shape a better future.

The insights of science have gradually transformed us from believing we were the summit of creation in the centre of the universe. We now see ourselves as the dominant predator on one planet, circling an ordinary star in a remote corner of an undistinguished galaxy. Some people are understandably unsettled by this change and long for a return to an earlier, simpler conception. The rise of religious fundamentalism can be explained by this wish. But civilisation will only survive if we accept that we depend on complicated ecological systems which we do not yet fully understand. Retreating from this may offer short-term comfort, but would condemn us to an impoverished future in a degraded environment. That is why we must not be complacent and assume that the denial of evolution only happens in the US and Turkey. We should see defending the process of scientific inquiry, and introducing our children to it, as an investment in our common future.

Published in The Monthly, September 2009, No. 49