Richard Dawkins Explains the Evidence for Evolution

51U7X4lEa4L._SL500_AA240_P.Z. Myers has reviewed Richard Dawkins’ new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, for Seed Magazine:

While our public schools are failing to educate people about the science of biology, the barrier to picking up the basic information has never been lower. These books are wonderfully written, easy to absorb, and great at communicating the basic principles; an interested person can pick up one and in a few evenings of pleasant reading get a good idea of why evolution has been such a powerful idea in biology.

Ah, if only the problem of creationism could be solved as easily as simply handing out copies of Richard Dawkins’ latest book…but it’s a necessary preliminary. Most of the critics of evolution don’t have the slightest idea of the principles of the theory (I’m always being told that it’s entirely about chance conjuring complex organisms into existence, the old “tornado in a junk yard” canard) and certainly have no knowledge of the multiple lines of detailed evidence that support evolution. Creationists assert that there are no transitional fossils, for instance, so we have to show them a few hundred. They don’t understand how the sequence data is only comprehensible if organisms are related, so we have to explain genes and genomes.

Richard Dawkins talks about reaching the fence-sitters, and education is an important first step. When I get into an argument with a confirmed creationist, someone who is clearly not sitting on the fence, I’m not trying to convince that person—I’m trying to reach all the others who are listening in. If an opponent throws out a claim that is patently a product of abysmal ignorance—such as, “If evolution is true, then why are there still monkeys?” or “The Cambrian explosion was a sudden event that can only be explained by the work of a designer”—it’s very helpful if the audience is already aware of how silly those arguments are; it spares me time that otherwise has to be spent addressing the most elementary basics, and suddenly, the creationist is looking very, very ill-informed. It’s great!

Seed previously interviewed Dawkins about the book here. A portion of the interview:

Seed: This book provides evidence for evolution. What’s the best way to make a case to someone who is undecided?
RD: I try to speak about it in terms of history, of a kind of detective story where you have to decipher from clues what has happened—but on a timescale that is far longer than we can observe. People can see how a white moth can become a black moth—that’s not a problem. It happens on a human timescale. But seeing how a fish can become a mammal, that’s something else entirely. The sheer length of time involved is a great barrier, so couching it in terms of a historical puzzle helps.

Seed: What’s a frequent mistake people make in arguing against evolution?
RD: You often find people who say, well, evolution is a theory of chance, in the absence of a designer. If it really were a theory of chance, of course they would be right to dismiss it as nonsense. No chance process could give rise to the prodigy of organized complexity that is the living world. But it’s not random chance. Natural selection is the exact opposite of a chance process. I’ve dedicated a number of my other books to showing that it is not.

Seed: Making this detective analogy, where one convinces by force of evidence, where do the strongest facts come from?
RD: Comparative molecular genetics. It is a remarkable fact that all living creatures that have ever been looked at have the same genetic code. The machine code of life is the same, wherever we look. And when we look at particular genes in any one animal, we can find the same genes in other animals—almost the same, but with a few differences, which we can actually count.

And the wonderful thing is that you can find genes that are shared not just among very similar animals like humans and chimpanzees, but also among more distant animals like humans and fish, or humans and snails. And again, we can count the differences—literally count—just as you can count the number of letters by which two versions of the same written text differ. This gives you a measure of the similarity/difference between any one species and any other.

When you examine the pattern of resemblances between pairs of animals and plants, you find that it makes a perfect hierarchical tree. The only sensible interpretation of this tree is that it is a family tree: The tree of evolutionary relationships. This is, in my opinion, the most compelling evidence there is—especially given that different genes give the same tree.

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1 Comment

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    Bestcelebrity says:

    A good interview and a good performance by Richard as always. I must say, in several interviews he’s gotten a bit annoyed at questions about atheism – “that’s got nothing to do with the new book” – but surely it’s not unreasonable to be asked these questions, given his previous work and his fame as a champion of freethought? After all, the interviewers can’t be expected to ignore the questions their listeners want to hear, and just help spruik the new book. 

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