The+Greatest+Show+on+EarthRichard Dawkins is one of the world’s most famous atheists. These days he is arguably more widely known for his book The God Delusion than for his science writing. Given the topic of The Greatest Show on Earth (the undeniable evidence supporting evolution) there is some mention of religion. But of the religious people in the world, those that deny evolutionary theory are a very particular subset – creationists. Here, they are the target of Dawkins’ frustration and incredulity. He points out that the likes of the Pope are not creationists, they incorporate their belief in God, in a creator, with evolution; God didn’t create the world all at once, with dinosaurs living amongst humans, he set everything up and then let evolution do its work. It’s not hard for anyone (religious and atheist) to see that creationists are ridiculous, so Dawkins is on fairly uncontroversial ground.

Who is Dawkins’ audience here? He writes as if he’s hoping he turns some creationists, if you’re already on board with evolution why do you need an overview of the evidence in its favour? But The Greatest Show on Earth isn’t for creationists really; he’s far too rude to get any of them on side in the extremely unlikely event any of them actually read his book. And it’s probably not for people with vast scientific knowledge. I read it because I have a decent grasp of evolution from high school science but thought a Dawkins-guided overview would be entertaining and fill any gaps, which it did. So, I guess there’s his audience – non-creationists who are interested in evolution but don’t know much about it.

Dawkins explains everything step by step, sparing no detail. The Greatest Show on Earth is designed to be able to be read by anyone with a curious mind no matter how lacking their background knowledge – he explains the structure of atoms in order to explain exactly how carbon dating works. Dawkins briefly writes about regression analysis so his reader will better understand an evolution experiment involving bacteria. I’ve studied both those topics in the past so it wasn’t new. I didn’t mind the refresher, but for someone well versed in things like that it might get a bit tedious.

Dawkins’ personality leaps off the page, making The Greatest Show on Earth a nice hybrid of entertaining reading and reasoned, analytical thought. I listened to his interview with creationist Wendy Wright (of which he includes extracts of in this book) and Dawkins writes exactly like he talks. It’s a kind of conversational erudition, with a propensity for reusing favourite words like ‘beautiful’ (‘a beautiful example of…’) that I found quite endearing. And his explanations are so elegant. Dawkins’ hairpin thought experiment has stayed with me. It perfectly explains, using the visual of a hairpin bend, why while a series of intermediate animals do connect a rabbit to a leopard it does not follow that there need be (indeed there should not be) a ‘rabbipard’. I won’t try to sum up Dawkins’ explanation, I couldn’t do it justice, but suffice it to say it created the perfect visual.

There’s an awful lot of stopping along the way to spend time on extracurricular pieces of trivia, so I wouldn’t recommend The Greatest Show on Earth to those readers irritated by completely irrelevant asides. I quite enjoyed it but it gives the book a slightly scatterbrained structure that might offend the sensibilities of those more scientifically minded than myself. Dawkins may not hit his targets with laser-like accuracy but his writing has an effortless quality that I can’t help but find engaging.

Dawkins’ enthusiasm for his subject is palpable. Yes, he’s trying to point out how idiotic creationists are for disbelieving evolution (part of his enthusiasm can’t help but come from delighting in making them look bad) but Dawkins is clearly a huge fan of evolution. Evolution is an elegant and wondrous answer to the mystery of life on Earth, and it frustrates him deeply that not everyone can see that.