Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Greatest Show on Earth

I finally finished the new book by Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. It was a good, interesting read, and made me want to finally get around to finishing The God Delusion. His anecdotes are usually very amusing, and he does well with finding metaphors that can be used with most people regardless of whether or not they have a science background. My main complaint is that he occasionally drones on about silly details, some of which are amusing, and some of which force me to scan through a few paragraphs until he gets back to the topic at hand. Either way, he is a very intelligent man and I appreciate how he tries to get information to those who haven't the time, energy, or background to go through the mountains of scientific journals about the subject of evolution. I'm a first year medical student with a degree in Bioengineering, and he still managed to surprise me a couple times with new information or by clarifying details that previously had not made complete sense to me.

(More after the jump)

Anywho, back to the matter at hand (and here I was bitching about him going off on tangents). Richard Dawkins is one of the more well-known proponents of atheism, which seems to polarize a lot of people one way or the other even when it comes to his non-theological works. However, he did something a little different from this book: he kept religion out of it and sticks strictly to the science. He starts the book out by mentioning how even the Pope (at least Pope John Paul II, I'm not sure about Pope Benedict XVI) has accepted the fact of evolution. Pope John Paul II made exception to a couple things like the human soul, but when it came to just about everything else with evolution, he was on board. This is important because it demonstrates to people that evolution is not necessarily antagonistic to religion. Regardless of one's particular religious views, come on, even the freaking Vatican can accept the fact of evolution -- and this is a group that took how many centuries to apologize about that whole ordeal with Galileo?! I appreciated Dawkins putting religion aside for this book because it allows me to recommend it to some of my religious family/friends without them getting upset about him going on about the problems with religion. It's hard to focus on the science when people feel like their theological foundation is constantly under fire. He often refers to creationists of any religion as "history-deniers", which is by no means a bash on religion itself. Rather, it's just a very simple way to describe a group of people who outright disregard the enormous amount of evidence (historical and present) in favor of evolution. As evidenced by Pope John Paul II, evolution and religion can co-exist just fine.

As a science major whose future career hinges on the fact of evolution, I found GSoE to be very relevant. But it's really relevant to everyone, seeing as the science used to investigate evolution is the same kind of science that needs to be valued and taught in our schools if the US hopes to be competitive academically in the future. As a future doctor, evolution is something I need to be aware of, as it applies to much of what we know about physiology and how we obtained that knowledge:
  • Model systems developed during animal testing are applicable due to our evolutionary relationship to other animals such as mice. The imperfections in such model systems must also be acknowledged in order for the data to be useful.
  • Viruses and bacteria are constantly trading strategies and evolving, making their associated infections more formidable.
  • Some transplants and new medical technologies use tissues of other animals (such as a pig) in medical procedures or as a starting point for growing human tissues/organs. I'm not making this stuff up either! Pretty cool huh?
Either way, I recommend GSoE to anyone who's ever had a few nagging questions about evolution. Maybe you don't understand how we can accurately date archeological findings back millions of years, or how we know that our radiological "clocks" are even accurate; GSoE goes into all of that and more. If you already know quite a bit about evolution but want to read something that will allow you to explain evolution more clearly, this is the book for you. If you're a very religious person who never understood evolution at all, at least give this book a shot. Dawkins is an expert on evolution, and this book can give you the science without doting on the many theological differences you may have with him.

Overall: highly recommended!

No comments: