The Only Game In Town
By Max Dunbar.
The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, Richard Dawkins, Bantam, 2009
A brace of troubling poll data prompted Richard Dawkins to write another book on evolution, not just aspects and curiosities of the process but the evidence, spelled out, on the table. According to Ipsos MORI, about 39% of the UK population believe in some form of creationism – that is, either God pulled us out of the air at some point in the last ten thousand years or that ‘certain features of living things are best explained by the intervention of a supernatural being’. (Apparently, and incredibly, 19% of us also believe that the earth takes a single month to go round the sun. Dawkins: ‘What, I wonder, do they think a year is?’)
UCL’s professor of genetics claimed in 2006 that:
I get feedback from Muslim schoolkids who say that they are obliged to believe in creationism, because it’s part of their Islamic identity, but the people I find more surprising are the other British kids who see creationism as a viable alternative to evolution.
A general credulity infected not only the masses but the intellectual elite. Government placed faith at the centre of its policies with religious groups consulted and funded on social welfare and counter-terrorism. The op-ed pages of leading liberal newspapers hosted a range of pro-faith commentary from pseudo-liberal Anglicans to frothing Islamists. Burnished hardbacks from Karen Armstrong, Terry Eagleton and John Gray explained how these one-trick philosophical ponies had learned to stop worrying and love the church. Maybe science didn’t have all the answers. Weren’t the gas chambers invented by scientists? Isn’t science, in the end, just another form of dogma, and atheism a kind of fundamentalism?
Given all this, it’s a relief to come back to Dawkins, to feel the strong keen wind of understanding on your face. In this book he’s explaining evolution rather than attacking creationism. Yet the intelligent design theory has holes you can drive a bus through. Why would a god install the human retina back to front, necessitating an elaborate detour of fibre and nerve? Why do some ants have wings? What’s the point of having a laryngeal nerve that goes via the thorax, for fuck’s sake? Because life doesn’t have the option that a god would have: of tearing up the work in progress and starting again. As Dawkins says, the outer majesty of some animal and birds gives the illusion of co-ordinated design but inside life is a mess, is all spit and prayer, post hoc compensation. But it is also beautiful.
From a layman’s point of view the book becomes more and more compelling as you realise the basic truth of natural selection in more and more personal ways. Feel fear, and goosebumps ripple on your arms, the body making itself superficially bigger to ward off enemies. Stretch your hand; don’t the bones look so much like those in a bat’s wing? ‘History is written all over the body,’ Dawkins says, ‘not just once but repeatedly, in exuberant palimpsest.’
Many scientists are also mystics, perhaps for the same reason that great magicians like James Randi and Penn and Teller are also dedicated sceptics. There is so much more going on. Imagine a flock of starlings, overlapping dust shapes in the sky, made from local rules. Plants and insects bartering gently for nectar and pollen. A forest of pines, grasping for photons.
‘There is grandeur in this view of life,’ Darwin wrote, and I’d go further: there is more grandeur, more insight, more beauty, more art, more grounds for hope, more going on in the life cycle of a single leaf, than in our most potent creation myths. It should not surprise us, because faith is born out of a fundamental incuriosity and a thirst for easy answers to the big questions of the universe.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, September 19th, 2009.