The Greatest Show on Earth Review

If you only know of Richard Dawkins as a militant anti-theist, then you don’t know Richard Dawkins. In his purest form, the man is an enthusiastic and impassioned science communicator, and one of the biggest fans of Charles Darwin that I have ever read. This was made crystal clear to me as I read The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. I decided to read this book when everyone on the Internet decided to collectively make it known to me that it was an amazing, must-read book.

When I review books like these, I try to measure them against the criteria that the author gives himself so that I look at it within the right context. I had a hard time finding out Greatest Show‘s intended audience (whether it is best suited for those who don’t believe in evolution at all, or for those who do but want to argue it better), but the book’s goal is clear enough. In the introduction, Dawkins explains that he has several books dealing with evolution (he lists six), but that he has never “present[ed] the actual evidence that evolution is a fact.”

Throughout the book, the intended audience does not get much clearer. The beginning of the book primes the reader for understanding how natural selection is possible by explaining how artificial selection has allowed us to domesticate dogs and how flowers, bugs, and birds can selectively breed each other. This made me think Dawkins was aiming his words at a creationist who needed to warm up to the idea of natural selection, but throughout the book he speaks a language that only a true fellow science enthusiast can appreciate, and I don’t think a creationist would make it through the book.

I once wondered how this book differed from Jerry Coyne’s evolutionary masterpiece Why Evolution is True. I remember reading the explanation that Coyne’s book covered more topics in less detail and Dawkins’ book covered fewer topics in greater detail. I must say I agree (although I think they have many more differences).

I said in my review of Outgrowing God that Dawkins “makes me feel like a high schooler in biology class whose teacher is trying to ignite his same passion for science in all his students.” This rang true throughout The Greatest Show on Earth. When Dawkins gets started talking about, say, an intricate experiment about bacteria, he cannot help but to cover the entire story of the experiment in tireless detail. This is no accident, either. Before going almost entirely off topic about a species of nematode worm in a chapter on embryology, Dawkins says, “I know that not all my readers like my digressions, but the research that has been done on Caenorhabditis elegans is such a ringing triumph of science that you aren’t going to stop me.” I felt like he was talking directly to me!

I’m just going to be honest with you. I did not like this book. The only reason I read through to the end was to write this review, because there was nothing else driving me to pick it up and read it. I don’t have the same kind of dislike for this book that I do, say, for The Case for a Creator. I get a weird enjoyment from reading apologetics books and leaving furious notes in the margins. It’s like a debate where I always get the last word. But this book didn’t make me feel that way. It just made me wish I was reading Why Evolution is True, or anything else. Honestly, there was nothing in Greatest Show (that I enjoyed) that wasn’t also in Coyne’s book. I can’t help but recommend that instead.

I know that my low rating of this book isn’t entirely Dawkins’ fault. It’s also my own fault. I was able to read it and see what other people might like about it, and just never get that same feeling for myself. Maybe I was expecting it to be more like Why Evolution is True. Maybe I only want to read books on human evolution anymore, and when you start talking about bugs and worms and bacteria, I can’t stay interested. It seems that Dawkins’ writing style just doesn’t speak to me, and what he’s passionate about isn’t what I’m passionate about.

Very well then, not every book can equal Why Evolution is True or Lucy. I have a great feeling that I will much more thoroughly enjoy my next read, Megan Phelps-Roper’s Unfollow, which I’ve already started. All the same, I know that The Greatest Show on Earth is one of Dawkins’ best-received works ever, so feel free to let me know whether or not you agree with my assessment in the comments!

10 thoughts on “The Greatest Show on Earth Review

  • I think this book suffered from Dawkins being a late comer to this genre and he knew it. There was demand for a book on this from Dawkins but his mention of others who have covered this ground well, and his skipping of the excellent story of whale evolution because it has been adequately covered elsewhere, was telling. Perhaps if he written something similar in the 70’s it might today be a classic.

    I’ve read four of Dawkins’ books and this was my least favourite. That doesn’t mean it is a bad book, the others were very good. The Ancestor’s Tale is my favourite, actually my favourite non-fiction overall. That may change when I get around to The Blind Watchmaker, Unweaving the Rainbow or The Extended Phenotype.

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  • If you haven’t read it yet I highly recommend “The Selfish Gene” which after reading most of his books I still think it’s his best. It really helped me grasp how “survival of the fittest” and evolution itself primarily takes place on the genetic level.

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  • Poor Richard. He comes across as harsh to most, let me say, younger and newer atheists. Once we become, or join, the elder group of thinking humans we enjoy the wit, sarcasm and depth found in Dawkins, Loftus, Scott, Dillahunty, Stenger, Tarico, Dennett & Hichens.
    Until the age of 14 I had bad catholic karma problems- you have had it almost as bad as a victim of M. Luther. I’ve been an atheist for 66 years and soon you will understand that kindness towards those who hate you is a lost cause but Richard is not bitter or rude he just hammers his point home a little harder than some want to hear.
    At the same time I agree with whenbeliefdies: Coyne has super patter and wit.
    Yet in the end if we consider results: Dawkins both wins more arguments and as a spokesperson turns more heads our way than most others.

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  • Been a long time since I read it, but I pretty much agree. I read it as much more preaching to the chior than an attempt to convert young earth creationists. I didn’t mind the detail, although I do see the criticisms. My favourite parts were the educational aspects, not so much the debunking of theist talking points. The whole section of his interview with the creationist woman I thought could have been left out. The coolest part I learned from the book was the ‘evolutionary u-turns’.

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    • I liked that part too! There were a few things that I didn’t know already AND that I found interesting, like how natural selection has an economy of how much “work” an organism can afford to put into a certain feature. But I felt like I could list fewer than 10 bullet points that I liked this much, and just say “everything else that I liked was in Why Evolution Is True but was told better there.” 😂

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  • Hmm, I haven’t read this one by Dawkins, but I can understand the points you’re making. Much as I appreciated ‘The God Delusion’, and that some of the ideas were new to me, it did seem rather like I was just reading something that repeated what I knew. And Dawkins does tend to go into the technical aspects in too much detail. I do, however, think the description of him as a ‘militant’ is unfair. You wouldn’t call someone who put across the case for there being a god ‘militant’ (would you?) Unless they went about it in a particularly aggressive way, or were trying to curb people’s freedom not to believe?
    The church applies the word ‘militant’ to anyone who questions their ideas, as a kind of aggressive coercion – an attempt to discredit valid ideas and opinions. Those of us with open minds shouldn’t fall into the trap of accepting the church’s distortion of language. I thought you were on our side Rebekah! ;¬]

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  • I read to learn, grow and discover.

    If someone else has covered the subject and engaged your excitement more effectively, that isn’t a negative on the author.

    I love Dawkins, but I found Coyne to be a far better engager on the page.

    Saying that Dawkins is far better at verbal communication than Coyne, in my opinon.

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