The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (2009), by Richard Dawkins


“The general case,” the brilliant and passionate Dawkins tells us in The Greatest Show on Earth about Darwin and the idea of evolution, “is the nonrandom survival of randomly varying hereditary equipment.” Call those processes (a) and (b). In (b), genes are the unit. Genes (unknown to the intuitively brilliant and prescient Darwin) are, we’ve discovered, like cards, and hence gene pools are like decks of cards; genes don’t blend or merge but, rather, in natural selection, over almost unimaginably long periods, and owing to various forces such as wind, pollinating insects, the survival duels between predator and prey on the Earth’s plains as well as unknown countless other forces, are, in a long but finally temporary realm made possible by almost infinitesimally diminishing energy from the Earth’s robust but doomed sun, “randomly” reshuffled ceaselessly into new “hands” (metaphorically and literally). Progressing here in reverse order to (a), there now ensues Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” (a terminology Dawkins says will suffice but, among today’s experts on evolution, will receive arcane qualification), obviously itself “nonrandom,” which then decides continuously what evolves among the constantly produced “mutations” in a messy, unplanned, manifestly imperfect Descent or, if you prefer, Ascent. Imprecisely but tellingly, you could say that Rube Goldberg lives here in the curious design of all creatures, to use an impudent characterization perhaps bringing a new, sobering spirit of self-reflection. We don’t scientifically know the why of life, or even exactly its cause, but, Dawkins says, we know that it began with the first self-replicating gene. Darwin says that perhaps this seminal event, not accessible to us because we’re forever blocked from validly recreating its conditions, occurred in a “warm pool,” a nice Victorian metaphor from a poetic scientific hero.

Darwin, evidently taking no joy in the reactionary, as well as in the calmer, disillusionment his idea of evolution brought to many, nevertheless implied that the onus of elucidating and of proving any Grand/Deistic explanation of the origin of life itself (as opposed to species) falls entirely on the theologians; and good luck to them!  Otherwise, is the apparent implication, the only teleology available is blind faith; there may be seven steps to heaven, but there were not a mere seven days of creation (i.e., “creation”).

Darwin, deeply disturbed by the suffering caused by the Ichneumon wasp as a terrible haunting embodiment of the cruelty of natural selection, also says that nevertheless there is “grandeur” in natural selection in its ceaseless, strange, perhaps improbable appearance on Earth (and perhaps on no other place). Yet he was caught up in the theodicy question in which the massive and constant and necessary-to-natural-selection pain and suffering of living creatures is forlornly attempted to be reconciled with the notion of a good and just Deity.

Darwin and Dawkins say that one might set aside the theodicy question and find not only grandeur but “liberation” in accepting the teleological impasse brought by the Darwinian Meridian. Interestingly, neither Darwin nor Dawkins remind of Captain Ahab’s rage against the cruelty of nature in all Melville’s complexity, trapped as the Pequod and its multicultural crew are on the nightmarish infinite series of waves (a nightmare analogous to the experience of Escher’s sketches when their initial bemusement dwindles and their deeper import dawns) beneath which lurk told and surely untold horrors and against which a mere wasp is not the representative of Melville’s slightly pre-Darwinian angelic intuition of the savagery of natural selection, but the biggest creature gravity will allow.

Dawkins is a crusader and a born teacher and a fine writer. Nothing he says in heroically trying very hard (and stunningly succeeding) in re-explaining Darwin in light of our times hasn’t, you imagine, been said less accessibly already (or, perhaps in a case or two [of which I am unaware], more accessibly). But he makes some instructive distinctions that bridge narrow, deep questions (and don’t we all?). Most stunning is his distinction between natural selection and artificial selection. The latter, he says, produced King Charles Cavalier spaniels and tumbler pigeons and gardeners’ rare roses. Civilization and all its many moving and static parts are, the implication seems to be, artificial selection as well if grander by far. In short, we move from the “grandeur” of the unplanned (read, unknowing) and savage natural evolution to what seems “anthropomorphic” but which some might say is largely a master teacher’s device of explanation. Yet…. The question here isn’t whether To Be Or Not To Be but, rather, whether all, everything, including all that has been done through the mutation of human intelligence, must live or die through natural selection because, from the most Olympian prospect imaginable (and most likely one not so far imagined) all is really natural selection and only natural selection, including our conceits (which, unerringly, are well-named as such).