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Book Review: Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth

January 16, 2020

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for EvolutionThe Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A lot of the content could be good if it wasn’t written with such an aggressive rhetoric. I found some key errors in his reasoning, which I have always found to be present in those who push evolution as “fact”. Very often they engage in Anthropic principle style argumentation and in claiming that the target of evolution is whatever happens to survive. The problem with survival as the goal is twofold.

Firstly, it always entails an after the fact assessment in relation to whatever happened to survive. Secondly, before the fact, it is totally non-committal as to what it means by survival, rendering predictive content of the theory never specific and direct and always generic and indirect. If you are looking for an empirical observation of evolution by natural selection and survival of the fittest, how is it going to come about if we look at the definition of an “empirical observation”?

On the one side, there can be no empirical confirmation of the concept of something surviving due to evolution, as we define after the fact, whatever survives as what has evolved. There is a definitional dependence here that makes it non-empirical.

On the other side, if we want a genuine prediction we must have some definite specified target of evolution agreed upon before the fact, (rather than a mere placeholder term like “survival” that only waits to be filled after the fact with what has “survived”.) But, of course, if we have some target agreed upon before the fact, this would be a design to natural selection guiding the process that is the very thing they are trying to deny in favor of randomness to avoid preemptive projection of purpose on to life processes. In this case there is nothing to observe.

So, on the one side evolution is non-empirical and from the other it is non-observable.

Of course, this is all just technically speaking. Of course, there is this real process taking place that we largely cannot predict and that for methodological reasons we are well-advised in science to avoid projecting our own designs and sense of purpose on to natural phenomena as it leads to a skewing and misunderstanding of many things. It also can lend to support to the idea of an external, timeless designer of things that prejudges and undermines scientific study of a field.

So, for all these methodological reasons, evolution is a good methodology for understanding biological phenomena and their transformations over time. But, if you are going to insist that it be empirically observed as a “real”, “factual” thing you are asking for something impossible that can only lead to a different kind of dogmatism. We don’t create models for understanding reality, then expect to observe those models as being the reality itself. This is a confusion of our concepts and models with reality.

The fact also remains is that always some placeholder of design is left that is only filled in after the fact. As I say, this is a great methodological device, but it is not something that can be proven true, it is not even trying to be proven true, as it is specifically set up to make itself immune to being falsifiable.

In one chapter in the book a claim is made of evolution being observed in the shortening of elephant tusks due to poaching. The over simplification involved here is astounding. Any animal in a threatening environment changes the physiological hormones they release instantly. This is known, basic science. If elephants were in such an environment, as opposed to a happy go lucky environment for them in the past with no predators, then of course, immediately they are going to reduce their production of certain hormones and this would have an effect on things such as tusk length. To me, this is the only explanation for this phenomena, for given elephants lifespan, there is no conceivable way that a natural selection process could have caused the changes observed there that quickly.

This was just one example that I found very unconvincing, and I am not even someone who needs to be convinced!

Evolution is our best conceptualisation of the process of how life develops and transforms over long time spans. This is agreed. Lets stop over pushing dogmas in line with our religious beliefs, which in this case is the atheistic over push of claiming that all design is an illusion. When we don’t know this, and could never possibly know this. What we know is that over long time spans it is critical to not postulate an external design or project any design of our own on to the development of living phenomena, and instead let how they develop and survive speak for itself.

Lets have much more of this, letting nature speak for itself, rather than us speaking for it. I think this is the kind of humility people admired in Darwin and the kind of arrogance they find repulsive in a dogmatist like Dawkins, whose final gleeful conclusion would be that all animals act blindly and randomly, and selfishly, no short term targets and designs except after the fact what survived, no credit to any life for getting where it got, except to humans who are left placed on a special pedestal, contemplating morality…

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