The book reviewed here is ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ by Richard Dawkins. Both Dawkins and his wife actress Lalla Ward narrate the book in an engaging style and in the process convey the awe of nature that permeates the book. Indeed for those unfamiliar with Dawkin’s works – he is a champion of communicating the beautiful and at the same time inexorable logic of evolution while at the same time answering the common criticisms that have been levelled against evolution. In my opinion, Dawkins writing represents the embodiment of rationalism in search of an ephemeral eternal truth about nature which because of the subject of its enquiry takes on a transcendent quality. Dawkin’s latest work references many of his earlier works, reiterating important nuances in evolutionary theory such that it parallels a collection of axiomatic proofs building to a final conclusion. The conclusion in this case is the essence of several billion years of evolution on Earth. Dawkins examines the possible origins of life with a fascinating reference to Darwin’s profound passage on the chemicals in a pond which might contribute to the beginnings of life. He covers artificial, natural and sexual selection and illustrates each of these with elegant examples that reaffirm the concepts. Indeed what it is striking is Dawkin’s ability to effortlessly take such examples which are selected from across vast expanses of time as well as geographically and phylogenetically disparate regions and which reveal a supreme familiarity with the natural world. Indeed it seems that any debate about the underlying principles of evolution should begin with a demonstration on both sides of such familiarity particularly as the significance of the natural world is rarely contested. Dawkins also discusses the gene pool and this part in particular I had found interesting. I had overlooked that the individual and successful genes are part of a gene pool within the organism and this relationship between an individual gene and the remainder of the genome (or genomes if the wider group is considered) adds a necessary layer of complexity. For instance, the small changes in genes which may initially cause problems can be compensated by the actions of other gene products. This is interesting in the light of recent evidence that in people, each generation results in an average of 100 mutations in the genome*. In this regards it was also interesting to note that different parts of the genome have staggeringly different rates of mutational change with such changes being particularly rare in histone-related genes. On further reflection about some of the underlying evolutionary principles, I thought that these might easily be abstracted in mathematical form and this became more evident when Dawkins describes one of the computer programs he had written to simulate evolutionary changes (indeed genetic algorithms have been particularly successful in real world applications). This again testifies to the skills and effectiveness of Dawkins in translating such refined arguments into a format that is easily accessible. He has in the process developed a language which combines the underlying logic of evolution with those additional components of knowledge which reach out to a wider audience**. This is another indispensable work for those with an interest in the wonders of the natural world.
* It is tempting to suppose that multi-gene mutations may produce significant changes in a network effect although such an effect is improbable if such mutations are independent (given the size of the genome)
** It would be interesting to see if such rules could form the basis for an open-source educational and research software paradigm
Richard Dawkins. The Greatest Show on Earth. Narrated by Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward. Random House Audio Books. 2009.
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