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The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

4.2 252
by Richard Dawkins

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Richard Dawkins transformed our view of God in his blockbuster, The God Delusion, which sold more than 2 million copies in English alone. He revolutionized the way we see natural selection in the seminal bestseller The Selfish Gene. Now, he launches a fierce counterattack against proponents of "Intelligent Design" in his New York Times bestseller,


Richard Dawkins transformed our view of God in his blockbuster, The God Delusion, which sold more than 2 million copies in English alone. He revolutionized the way we see natural selection in the seminal bestseller The Selfish Gene. Now, he launches a fierce counterattack against proponents of "Intelligent Design" in his New York Times bestseller, The Greatest Show on Earth.

"Intelligent Design" is being taught in our schools; educators are being asked to "teach the controversy" behind evolutionary theory. There is no controversy. Dawkins sifts through rich layers of scientific evidence—from living examples of natural selection to clues in the fossil record; from natural clocks that mark the vast epochs wherein evolution ran its course to the intricacies of developing embryos; from plate tectonics to molecular genetics—to make the airtight case that "we find ourselves perched on one tiny twig in the midst of a blossoming and flourishing tree of life and it is no accident, but the direct consequence of evolution by non-random selection." His unjaded passion for the natural world turns what might have been a negative argument, exposing the absurdities of the creationist position, into a positive offering to the reader: nothing less than a master’s vision of life, in all its splendor.

Editorial Reviews

"Darwin's Rottweiler" is at it again. Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, returns with a comprehensive examination of the current state of evidence for evolution. Unlike the aforementioned book, which described religion as a virus of the mind, The Greatest Show on Earth is not primarily about the absence of a supreme being, but rather about the mechanics of species change and diversification. Dawkins draws on his expertise as an evolutionary biologist to describe how the science of the past two centuries has confirmed and refined Darwinian theory. An important scientific work certain to garner major reviews. Now in paperback. (Hand-selling tip: This Dawkins' most affirmative, accessible book.)
Publishers Weekly
Reviewed by Jonah Lehrer

Richard Dawkins begins The Greatest Show on Earth with a short history of his writing career. He explains that all of his previous books have naïvely assumed “the fact of evolution,” which meant that he never got around to laying “out the evidence that it [evolution] is true.” This shouldn't be too surprising: science is an edifice of tested assumptions, and just as physicists must assume the truth of gravity before moving on to quantum mechanics, so do biologists depend on the reality of evolution. It's the theory that makes every other theory possible.

Yet Dawkins also came to realize that a disturbingly large percentage of the American and British public didn't share his enthusiasm for evolution. In fact, they actively abhorred the idea, since it seemed to contradict the Bible and diminish the role of God. So Dawkins decided to write a book for these “history-deniers,” in which he would dispassionately demonstrate the truth of evolution “beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt.”

After only a few pages of The Greatest Show on Earth, however, it becomes clear that Dawkins doesn't do dispassionate, and that he's not particularly interested in convincing believers to believe in evolution. He repeatedly compares creationists and Holocaust deniers, which is a peculiar way of reaching out to the other side. Elsewhere, Dawkins calls those who don't subscribe to evolution “ignorant,” “fatuously ignorant” and “ridiculous.”

All of which raises the point: who, exactly, is supposed to read this book? Is Dawkins preaching to the choir or trying to convert theuninformed? While The Greatest Show on Earth might fail as a work of persuasive rhetoric—Dawkins is too angry and acerbic to convince his opponents—it succeeds as an encyclopedic summary of evolutionary biology. If Charles Darwin walked into a 21st-century bookstore and wanted to know how his theory had fared, this is the book he should pick up.

Dawkins remains a superb translator of complex scientific concepts. It doesn't matter if he's spinning metaphors for the fossil record (“like a spy camera” in a murder trial) or deftly explaining the method by which scientists measure the genetic difference between distinct species: he has a way of making the drollest details feel like a revelation. Even if one already believes in the survival of the fittest, there is something thrilling about learning that the hoof of a horse is homologous to the fingernail of the human middle finger, or that some dinosaurs had a “second brain” of ganglion cells in their pelvis, which helped compensate for the tiny brain in their head. As Darwin famously noted, “There is grandeur in this view of life.” What Dawkins demonstrates is that this view of life isn't just grand: it's also undeniably true. Color illus. (Sept. 29)

Jonah Lehrer is the author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

Library Journal
In books such as The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, and Climbing Mount Improbable, Dawkins has contributed significantly to the public understanding of evolutionary theory. Here, he backtracks, offering not a discussion of the magnificence of the evolutionary view of life but several basic proofs of its validity. He argues that this is necessary because of recent assaults from creationists upon the very concept of evolution by natural selection. There are many books that address the need of better informing the public about why the theory is essential, e.g., David Sloan Wilson's Evolution for Everyone and Jerry A Coyne's Why Evolution Is True. Dawkins has an influential voice in the debate, so the broadsides that he launches against creationists in this book will certainly cheer his many fans. However, he seems to be primarily preaching to the choir and probably won't win converts (a metaphor that Dawkins, an atheist and author of The God Delusion, might find objectionable). VERDICT The author's name will guarantee a readership, but the sincerely curious and undecided would benefit more from other recent titles.—Gregg Sapp, Evergreen State Coll. Lib., Olympia, WA
Kirkus Reviews
Look out, creationists. There's a new sheriff in town, and he talks like an Oxford don. In fact, Dawkins (The God Delusion, 2007, etc.) gave up the Oxford chair in the Public Understanding of Science in order to write full-time, and to spend more time agitating against antiscience and pseudoscience. The author opens with guns a-blazing, demanding what we might think of a Latin teacher's being forced to prove that the Romans ever existed and, more provocatively, a history teacher's having to give equal time to Holocaust deniers: "Fashionably relativist intellectuals chime in to insist that there is no absolute truth: whether the Holocaust happened is a matter of personal belief; all points of view are equally valid and should be equally ‘respected.' " Nonsense and balderdash, cries Dawkins, adding, against those who deny the factuality of evolution, "Evolution is a fact in the same sense as it is a fact that Paris is in the Northern Hemisphere." As such, it would seem that the battle for evolution should have long been over, but there are still deniers aplenty. For them, Dawkins provides careful explication of selection-natural, adaptive, human-induced et al.-and of evolutionary notions such as the (much misquoted) survival of the fittest. The author writes with terrific wit ("Cabbages are a vegetable affront to essentialism and the immutability of species") and considerable learning, but what is interesting here is his fire. Without the strictures of academia, it seems, he relishes the opportunity to light into his opponents. Whether anyone will stand up to refute his notions remains to be seen, but for now Dawkins wins on points. A pleasure in the face of so much scientificignorance-biology rendered accessible and relevant to the utmost degree.
From the Publisher
“Brilliant, detailed, anecdotal and immensely readable . . . Poignant, revealing. Dawkins is canny, funny, and beguiling . . . [He lays] out evidence with such fascinating detail that the book is both scientifically exciting and completely convincing. It's badly needed in this era when the science of evolution is being threatened in our schools.”

—San Francisco Chronicle

“Unambiguous, beautifully argued, with prose like quicksilver. Entertaining. Dawkins emerges like a prize-fighter, knocking out of the ring all objections.”


"This is a magnificent book of wonderstanding: Richard Dawkins combines an artist's wonder at the virtuosity of nature with a scientist's understanding of how it comes to be.'' — Matt Ridley, author of Nature via Nurture

"'There is grandeur in this view of life,' said Darwin, speaking of evolution. There is no one better qualified to convey this grandeur than his worthy successor, Richard Dawkins, who writes with passion, clarity, and wit. This may be his best book yet." — V. S. Ramachandran

"To call this book a defense of evolution utterly misses the point: The Greatest Show on Earth is a celebration of one of the best ideas humans have ever produced. It is hard not to marvel at Richard Dawkins's luminous telling of the story of evolution and the way that it has shaped our world. In reading Dawkins, one is left awed at the beauty of the theory and humbled by the power of science to understand some of the greatest mysteries of life." — Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish

"Up until now, Richard Dawkins has said everything interesting that there is to say about evolution — with one exception. In The Greatest Show on Earth, he fills this gap, brilliantly describing the multifarious and massive evidence for evolution — evidence that gives the lie to the notion that evolution is 'only a theory.' This important and timely book is a must-read for Darwin Year." — Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution Is True

"This is the book Richard Dawkins needed to write and many need to read — a comprehensive account of evolution that faces the difficulties and questions his critics have raised. In it he draws on his great ability to write about science in a way that is clear, absorbing, and vivid." — Lord Harries of Pentregarth (formerly Bishop Richard Harries)

"With characteristic flair and passion, Dawkins has put on a stunning exhibition of the evidence for evolution. In his own words, 'Evolution is a fact...and no unbiased reader will close the book doubting it.'" — Dr. Alice Roberts, biological anthropologist, author, and broadcaster

"'...he is an awesome thinker, a superb writer whose explanatory skills I envy, who dismisses his opponents with the thoroughness of a top silk'....A beautifully crafted and intelligible rebuttal of creationism and intelligent design." — The Times

"Dawkins gathers up the weight of evidence into a huge lump and hurls it at us from the highest heights his rhetoric can scale...his grandness of vision still dazzles." — The Sunday Telegraph

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The Greatest Show on Earth

  • Meet the Author

    Richard Dawkins is a Fellow of the Royal Society and was the inaugural holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He is the acclaimed author of many books including The Selfish Gene, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow, The Ancestor’s Tale, The God Delusion, and The Greatest Show on Earth. Visit him at RichardDawkins.net.

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    The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 250 reviews.
    Generalreader More than 1 year ago
    It's about time for Dawkins to write a general account of evolution. He is one of the best science writers ever, marrying great knowledge and deep passion. Even those who know the basics will be enthralled. For those who don't know, and who have never read a book by Dawkins, they have a great treat in store. And for those who think science is a cold, unfeeling enterprise, well, they are about to learn the truth.
    Vp3 More than 1 year ago
    As far as books that try to teach evolution go, most lack the ability to engage and entertain the reader as well as The Greatest Show on Earth. This is nothing less than a expertly organized and compelling adventure that actually manages to grab you and make you want to keep reading much like a suspense novel would. More current than 'What Evolution Is' by Ernst Mayr and more comprehensive than 'Why Evolution is True' by Jerry A. Coyne. For anyone that is curious about the thoery of evolution or just a fan of Richard Dawkins I highly reccommend you pick this up.
    Marcus_Ar More than 1 year ago
    I have read several books by Richard Dawkins. I very much appreciate how he promotes critical thinking and brings evolutionary biology to a wider audience. The rejection of many people of evolution is something which is damaging the prestige and science education in the United States and this book is effective at healing that wound. This book is not as technical as some others he authored but does give an excellent overall view of the overwhelming evidence for evolution. For those worried that the book is promoting atheism, I was Christian before I read the book and remain a Christian now.
    Zack-Z More than 1 year ago
    I have read a few of his other books. This book brings out new information and is presented in a way that will make you think "that's it!" It puts it all together for a student of Dawkins and evolution. It is a must read and clarifies to the casual observer why the intelligent designers have no cause. The book again, is one that I couldn't put down. I look forward to his next study.
    kendall94 More than 1 year ago
    This book not only is about Evolution, it actually gives examples of scientific projects that prove by replication, using actual organisms with short generation spans, how organisms evolved, e.g, 45,000 generations of bacteria which equals the generations of humans for 1,000,000 years. The text is accompanied by illustrations (in color)of pictures of physical specimens, with the exception of the Painting "The Earthly Paradise" by Jan Brueghel the Elder. Each "creationist" belief is proved to be in error especially about the age of th Earth. All the scientific methods used to "date" the age of fossils and other specimens are explained, including nine "elements" used for dating back as far as 49 Billon years as well as the element most familiar to most of us, carbon 14 (dateing).
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    A great read and very authoritative. Perhaps not the best on the subject I've read recently but far more than is needed to combat any of the prominent creationists of today.
    DavidSchwartz More than 1 year ago
    A good author knows what the public has already read and comes up with new arguments for his subject. Dawkins does so, wonderfully. He has so many new examples of "nonintelligent design" that he is very convincing. He is also very emotional, admitting to being choked up at the start of operations of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and upset and perplexed at the high numbers of people in both the US and England that don't accept evolution at this late date. He is also emotional at the grandeur of nature in general. You don't often get these things in a book about science. At the same time, he proves his case that evolution is indeed "The Greatest Show on Earth" with well-thought-out examples from today and eons ago, from highly-developed animals to one-celled ones. This is also that rarest of scientific books -- a page-turner that makes you anxious to find out what will happen on the next page.
    Omega5001x More than 1 year ago
    This is a book that everyone should read. In fact, it should be required summer reading for high-schoolers entering biology. I think very highly of Richard Dawkins both as a scientist/educator and also as a writer. All of his books that I've read have been challenging but a pleasure to read. One can learn so much from his books. This book in particular gives such good explanations of not just how evolution works but how we know. I think the "how we know" element included in scientific writing puts it leaps and bounds ahead of other books that just give you a bunch of interesting facts. After reading this book, you come away armed with an amazing story AND clear supporting details that show the story's reality. Again, everyone should read it.
    nybruce More than 1 year ago
    Dawkins doesn't cover much in the way of new information, but that isn't his point. Each chapter takes on one aspect of creationist mythology and debunks it with real science. A must read for science teachers and anyone who is appalled by the level of scientific ignorance in this country.
    jrcasey1960 More than 1 year ago
    From one of the world's leading Darwinian biologists comes this wonderful summary of the evidence for the theory of evolution. With his usual clarity, frankness, and wit, Dr. Dawkins shines yet again. Should be required reading for any thoughtful person and humanist.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This book is a well written explanation of why evolution is a fact.  Dawkins tells about evidences of evolution including dating techniques and how they work, genetics, bacterial evolution, human evolution, the evolution of dogs, and has fascinating research that he summarizes. Definitely glad I read this book it has really left me feeling a lot more knowledgeable about how exactly evolution works.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Whoever disagrees with evoluton must nut understand the theory and/or genetics. Also evolution does not account nor did it ever account for the origin of life. It is about the diversity of life, hints the name "Origin of Species". Evolution is a theory so simple and easy to understand but so beautiful at the same time. And despite what one reviewer has said, the vast majority of scientists are in agreement that evolution is completely accurate.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Well researched and well versed in the English language, Professor Richard Dawkins stands on the shoulders of giants to provide definitive evidence for Darwin's legacy
    scubasteve111 More than 1 year ago
    It has some difficult vocabulary, but it's a good book if you are interested in evolution. I'd also recommend "Evolution for Dummies" if you're new to Evolutionary biology.
    Sara Dingel More than 1 year ago
    It explains evolution in the modern age beautifully. How DNA comes into play and why the missing link in fossils is irrealivant. He gives great analogies to support and explain these basic ideas of science.
    cherryteresa More than 1 year ago
    Dawkins did a great job of painting a visual picture in my head with his explanations. I was already a believer in the fact of evolution and studied it in school and had a good basic understanding. But this really helped me understand even more specific concepts. This, along with certain parts of The God Delusion, have really helped me to look at just about everything from an evolutionary viewpoint. It's really made me look at things differently and correctly. He's given me a deeper understanding. The photos that are in this book are also great.
    Bmohr More than 1 year ago
    My headline pretty much states it. From anyone whom is from mildly to very knowledgeable on evolution will love this. Very up-to-date.
    KYBoy More than 1 year ago
    Dawkins is a passionate writer and in earlier books I've read I thought his passion at times obscured his logic. Not this time. I have never read a better compilation of the evidence explaining why scientists embrace evolution. What's more, it is written in an accessible, even fun style with pages of colored photos to illustrate. It incorporates not only the evidence one normally thinks of, but whole branches of science I never considered as part of the evolutionary process - geography and plate tectonics for example. I learned a lot and I enjoyed learning it. This book should be a "must read" for every high school or college student.
    RunePsyche More than 1 year ago
    So am I. A simple, "Oh, I don't believe in evolution," is mind boggling. How on earth can you not? I'm not a scientist, but I love science and understand its importance. It can be like banging your head against a brick wall, but sometimes I can't help but question the doubters. "The Greatest Show On Earth" does a wonderful job of laying out the evidence in a clear, logical manner, with many, many examples of evolution. It's an interesting read and I learned so much. People who are already well versed in evolutionary science may not find it as compelling, but it's great for the layman or novice.
    nycdbe More than 1 year ago
    incisively clear presentation of evolution
    FullyAlive More than 1 year ago
    Dawkins delivered! This book is beautifully written, comprehensive to any adult reader, and explains and show the evidence for evolution in a way no one else but Dawkins could. Dawkins' respect, awe, and love for life and its complexities are evident on every page. The pictures were amazing; when I brought this book to work to read on my lunch breaks, everyone passed it around to look at the fascinating photography. The detail he used in his explanations, making certain his book was understandable for his target audience, was astounding. He left no stone unturned. I hope that this book accomplishes what Dawkins was going for: to illustrate that evolution is the proven and ONLY explanation for the diversity of the greatest show on earth...life.
    chessnut More than 1 year ago
    OUTSTANDING, well researched( as usual ) clear, intelligent, and ( gasp!) true. Read it, join the club and throw off the yoke of ancient fantasy.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    AnnieBM More than 1 year ago
    Dawkins presents a clear case of the extensive and diverse evidence for Darwinian evolution with his usual interesting notes and asides. He avoids jargon and connects the basic science behind ideas and techniques like radioactive decay and dating. He balances this explication with the Creationist/Intelligent Design arguments clearly showing their difficulties and inadequacies. He also short circuits the typical questions or objections raised to evolutionary theory and presents clear rebuttal to these. By this probing of the counter arguments, Dawkins raises serious questions concerning biblical interpretation and the problem of evil which people of faith very much need to revisit. While Dawkins is right concerning the evidence and science, I find his treatment of the more philosophical/theological side of the questions a bit heavy handed. But then, Dawkins is not addressing the full body of philosophical and religious perspectives on spirituality and the meaning of life. I highly recommend this book.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago