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A Book By Its Cover

Emma Park

dawkinsRichard Dawkins
The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
Bantam Press, 2009
406 Pages
ISBN 978-0593061732

“We are surrounded by endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful”, reads the back cover of Dawkins’s latest. A black dust jacket with a pretty, Escher-esque pattern of moths and butterflies and a title that frames evolution as entertainment: Dawkins, it seems, wants to harness the beauty of science to seduce us away from the television—and the Sunday School. The inside cover is more strident. “Richard Dawkins takes on creationists”, it proclaims, just as he “took on” the entire population of believers in The God Delusion. At least, notes The Independent, he has narrowed the field.

Dawkins is one of many evolutionists, as their opponents call them, who has seized upon Darwin’s 200th anniversary to intensify public awareness of his claims. But is The Greatest Show the definitive answer to creationism? Dawkins’s is not the first serious attempt, even this year. And yet, reviews in the leading papers—a biting parody in the Guardian excepted—are broadly sympathetic to his cause.

This is because the real issue is not Dawkins but a much larger pedagogical debate over the 40 percent of Americans and a significant minority of Britons who, he charges, maintain an untenable position through active ignorance. The issue is organisations like the Kentucky Creation Museum and the British Truth in Science company, which increasingly intersperse sin with scientific terminology to “modernise” their case. Few people beyond the hexaemerists would deny the dubiousness of such claims.

There is, however, something disturbing about the way that even The Greatest Show polarises and moralises the debate between good and evil, evolution and creation, leaving no room for learned uncertainty. If creationists are imitating the language of science, Dawkins and his supporters are doing the same with religious vocabulary. In oracular tones, the blurb on the book’s cover claims that Dawkins “bears witness to the truth of evolution”. The implicit parallel between Dawkins and Darwin, the “great scientist” whose work Dawkins continues, oversimplifies the complex history of evolutionary theory into what is in large measure an ego trip. To see the intolerance and cult of celebrity this propagates, one need only glance at Dawkins’s official website.

Not to mention the profit to be garnered from books costing £20 a pop.

Emma Park is reading for a DPhil in Classics at University College, Oxford. She is an editor of ORbits.