The Greatest Show on Earth

Dawkins Greatest ShowThe Greatest Show On Earth

Richard Dawkins

Bantam, September 2009, $35.00

The Greatest Show on Earth fills a gap in Richard Dawkins’ impressive sequence of books about evolution, from The Selfish Gene thirty years ago to The Blind Watchmaker and The Ancestor’s Tale. The new book is primarily a clear, thorough explanation of the evidence for evolution and of its inner workings. Dawkins’ enthusiasm for his subject is obvious and contagious: the explanations are constantly enriched by humorous asides and lively anecdotes about oddities of the natural world.

He begins with the often-misunderstood fact that a scientific ‘theory’ (of evolution or gravity or anything else) is not an airy-fairy wild guess but ‘a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment … a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed.’

Then he shows us evolution at work, in domestic plants and animals, in bacteria, and in wild animals. A chapter on the earth’s clocks (radiocarbon dating, etc) demonstrates that there has been plenty of time for evolution to produce the stunning variety of living beings around us, and he shows that the present geographical distribution of animal families agrees very neatly with continental drift. Evidence from genetics is brought to bear on the relationships between different groups of animals and is tracked backwards all the way to the common ancestors of men and mice, donkeys and dragonflies, so long ago that most of us will never really grasp the timespan involved.

Dawkins is a fine writer and a great teacher, so he ties it all together in a grand finale which echoes and amplifies the voice of Darwin saying, ‘from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’

But I said at the beginning that The Greatest Show on Earth is ‘primarily’ an explanation of evolution. Its other side is an attack on creationism and ‘Intelligent Design’. Dawkins tries to avoid attacking religion (he did that in The God Delusion) but can’t always restrain himself since he can’t make himself forget or ignore the troubling fact that 40% of Americans, and nearly as many Britons, believe that Genesis is literally true. Such people, insisting that the world was created in one week some 6000 years ago, flatly deny the truth of evolution and therefore, as Dawkins shows, the truth of even larger parts of modern science – all of cosmology, nearly all of geology, much of chemistry, most of biology, and so on. They also, as he is careful to point out, deny the teachings of many of their own church leaders, who accept that evolution is the ‘how’ of ‘God created the world’.

I am somewhat troubled by this polemical aspect of the book, simply because I doubt that it will do much good: if creationists can so resolutely ignore the evidence for evolution presented in hundreds of books since the Origin, one more seems unlikely to change their opinions. Meanwhile, Dawkins’ fulminations against them sometimes disturb the flow of his main story, so The Greatest Show on Earth might have been even better without the confrontation.

The 150th anniversary (in November 2009) of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species brought us many books on evolution but this must be among the best of them – perhaps sharing top ranking with Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True, which is a little shorter and appeared earlier in the year.

  • Review originally published in the Townsville Bulletin in December 2009 and added to Green Path in July 2019.

Tasmania’s Wilderness Battles

Buckman - Tasmania's Wilderness BattlesGreg Buckman

Tasmania’s Wilderness Battles

Jacana, June 2008, $29.95

Wilderness has been a bigger community issue in Tasmania than in any other Australian state, so a history of the fight to preserve it has a lot of ground to cover. Buckman organises it chronologically within four strands – hydro-electric power, forestry, mining and national parks – and traces them from the 1850s to the beginning of this year.

‘The Hydro’ created the biggest issues: Lake Pedder and the Franklin River made national headlines and political history from the 1960s to the 1980s. The conservationists’ focus then shifted to forestry, confronting the rise of woodchipping and the (stalled, as of October 2008) Tamar Valley pulp mill.

The environmental damage caused by mining has been significant but generally localised, such as that around Queenstown, and the protests against it were therefore separate battles. Finally, Buckman examines the evolution of the now-extensive National Parks system and the balance between conservation values and tourist access in them.

A recurrent motif is the closeness of the relationships between big business, whether hydro-electricity, forestry or mining, and government, whether Labor or Liberal. Cronyism may be inevitable in a state as small as Tasmania, but its results have not been pretty. Buckman does not pretend to see Tasmanian history from the resource development viewpoint but does show that neither the HEC nor the forestry industry policies made any long-term economic sense, that they took no account whatever of any values other than the narrowly economic and that they (more or less accidentally) had negative consequences on every other front.

A more rational view would have been to assess each project in terms of the triple bottom line, maximising the social and environmental, as well as the economic, benefits. Only now, with the rise of a large and politically organised environmentalist constituency to counterbalance big industry, is that beginning to even look posssible in Tasmania.

The scope of Buckman’s study means he has little space for personalities so his book can seem rather dry, but it is valuable for the perspective it provides. As he says, many people have been involved over the decades but each tends to see their own campaign as an isolated event rather than a part of a broader public process. For a broader focus still, interested readers could seek out the histories of Australian environmental movements by Hutton & Connors (1999) and Doyle (2000).

  • Review originally published Aug 2008 in the Townsville Bulletin and added to Green Path in July 2019.

Landscape of Farewell: reflections on reconciliation

• This review was published in the Townsville Bulletin and then, in a longer form, in LiNQ before Green Path was conceived but is relevant enough to the blog to deserve a place on it. The date-stamp will say 2008, the date of first publication, although the review was only added to this site in 2017.

Miller Landscape of Farewell coverLandscape of Farewell

Alex Miller
Allen & Unwin (2007), 275pp, $35.00.

Eight novels in twenty years have established Alex Miller as one of Australia’s most respected authors. He received the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1993 for The Ancestor Game and another a decade later for Journey to the Stone Country, and has been shortlisted for it on three more occasions, most recently for the present book.

Landscape of Farewell revisits themes of Journey to the Stone Country (2002) but with quite different emphasis and treatment. The minimal narrative in the new book is little more than a frame for an extended meditation on history, culpability and reconciliation. In Australia that last word immediately means reconciliation between Aboriginal and European peoples, and that is indeed one of Miller’s subjects here but reconciliation between generations is at least as important to him.

One of the two central characters is Max Otto, a recently retired professor of history in Hamburg. Nearly 70 and grieving the recent death of his beloved wife, he is also immersed in a despair that is both personal and professional: he and his generation have failed to find a way to comprehend the war, and the failure has blighted their lives. A young boy at the time of World War II, Max forever avoided asking his father what he did as a soldier for fear of having to confront horrifying truths. Later, he retreated from it by making his professional specialty the Middle Ages. He has gradually realised, however, that both failures exemplify the self-protective but ultimately self-destructive amnesia of his generation of Germans:

When I was a boy during the war there was much I could not know, but I knew, as everyone knew, that an evil beyond the reckoning of humanity was being done in our names and that we were never to understand it or recover from it. It has haunted my generation and the ghost of it will not be gone until we are gone … No matter how lofty our moral principles, few of us proved immune to the pernicious charms of silence. My mother, my father, my sister and I. We all kept our silence. We children were crippled by it and lost our voices to it. [p227]

The other central character is Dougald Gnapun, an aboriginal man of similar age living in an abandoned mining township inland from Mackay. Dougald has been alone since his wife died, and he has taken on the responsibility of helping his people sort out issues of land ownership and traditional knowledge. He himself, however, has been away from his people’s country for decades for reasons which are never made clear.

Miller brings Max and Dougald together – against all probability – through Dougald’s niece Vita, a Sydney-based historian who meets Max at a conference in Hamburg, invites him to a similar conference in Sydney and then takes him to visit her uncle. The two men live quietly together, their relationship outwardly harmonious but strangely tenuous. They are together for weeks without impacting on each other and occasionally Max suspects that their inarticulate ‘getting along well’ is a fragile bridge over an abyss of mutual incomprehension.

Dougald is haunted by his need to pass on a story from his great-grandfather’s time:

‘I’m the only one left who knows the truth of what happened. If it’s not written down the truth of it will be lost when I die. It was told to me by my grandfather. It was his own father, my great-grandfather, who did these things and told him of them. … My fear is that I will die suddenly and it will be lost. That’s what I fear, Max. Not to die, I don’t fear that any more than you do. What I fear is to lose the truth of this thing.’ [p155-56]

The massacre at Cullin-la-Ringo near Springsure, the genuine historical incident at the centre of the book, occurred in October 1861 during rapid expansion of white settlements in Queensland. A party of settlers was attacked by men of the local tribe and nearly all were killed. One escaped to raise the alarm on a neighbouring property and the attackers were hunted down; reprisals, as so often in our colonial history, were bloodier than the attack that sparked them.

Dougald eventually tells Max the story as he had learned it from his grandfather but Miller transmits it to us only through Max’s imaginative re-telling, diluting its authority and immediacy while broadening its relevance.

His story preserved at last, Dougald takes Max on a trip to his ancestral country, a day’s drive away. The cliffs and gullies of remote Expedition Range, their destination, haven’t changed since the massacre. The emptiness and indifference of the country amplifies the individuals’ awareness of the ghosts they bring with them: the past haunts the present through the landscape. For Dougald, the visit to his great-grandfather’s grave high on the escarpment is a journey of reconciliation, re-integration, with the Old People and their country. Its effect on Max is almost complementary, though just as transformative, since it finally unlocks the chains he had forged from his past failings.

Landscape of Farewell is suspended in no-place and no-time. Expedition Range is unchanging while ‘Mount Nebo’, which can’t quite be identified with any real Queensland township, is explicitly a ghost. Even Max and Dougald are revenants of their respective pasts as much as real people in the workaday world. In such a limbo, realisations can unfold at their own pace.

Miller’s subtle suspension of realism is both a strength and a minor weakness, allowing him to grasp mythical, poetic truth at the expense of some loss of storytelling energy. If there is anything as explicit as a conclusion to his voyage of spiritual discovery, it is that we can only become whole by acknowledging our past and accepting responsibility for our present. But his achievement is not merely to tell us so, which is easy, but to induce us to see it for ourselves.

• Visit Wikipedia for the known facts of the Cullin-la-Ringo massacre and its aftermath. 

Forestry in Tasmania – a photographic souvenir

• This is one of a few articles I published elsewhere long before Green Path was conceived or begun but is still relevant enough to deserve a place on the blog. The date-stamp will say 2005, the date of first publication, although the article was only added to GP in 2016. 

I was lucky enough to be able to visit Tasmania for a mixture of business and social reasons at the end of March 2005. The Tuesday after Easter was a perfect Autumn day in Hobart and my host suggested a trip to Hartz Mountains National Park, just over an hour’s drive South-West of Hobart (more info here). By the time we arrived it was nearly lunchtime, but we set off towards Hartz Peak anyway.

Hartz peak

We walked as far as Lake Esperance and stopped for a sandwich. While we were there, another hiker pointed out to us a small cloud of smoke rising from a valley over to our East, between us and the Huon Valley.

We continued as far as Hartz Pass, the saddle leading to the peak, then decided that climbing all the way to the Peak would probably, unfortunately, turn the descent into a race against the sunset. (That isn’t the Peak behind our resting spot – it’s just the first hump to get over on the way to it!)

Hartz Saddle

Did I mention the weather was gorgeous?

On the way back down we paused at this little pool near Ladies’ Tarn for a photo.


But look up: what’s this band of cloud across the top?


Look to the left, and up again… this was what that ‘little cloud of smoke’ had become.

regeneration burn plume

Not little.

regeneration burn

We continued back to the carpark. On the way we noticed that the monster had a smaller partner nearby. We drove down the mountain to Waratah Lookout and stopped there for a few minutes. We realised that the cloud that was dimming our sunshine was the smoke from the two fires. It was still high enough overhead that we didn’t smell it, but it was making a bright day very grey indeed.

From Waratah you look down on the treetops, or out to the North and West…

regeneration burns

Our monsters had friends.

By this time it was after 4 o’clock so we drove on down the mountain towards Hobart. The road runs alongside the Huon River beween Geeveston and Huonville. It had been a very beautiful part of the trip that morning, but on the way home it was oppressive and quite ugly: the lowering sun shining through the smoke turned the river black with dull red highlights and the golden grass to rust colours, and almost the whole sky was a murky grey-brown. The smoke was coming down to ground level too, and we could smell it in the air.

We might have stayed in the Huon Valley for the evening, looking around the craft shops and galleries and maybe buying something before finding somewhere nice for dinner but did not want to stay under that choking pall any longer than we had to. The Huon Valley lost our tourist dollars.

Regeneration Burn

Our monsters ‘had friends’ in more ways than one. They were deliberately lit, by Forestry Tasmania.

It seems Forestry Tasmania call this kind of fire a ‘regeneration burn.’ It is the last stage in clear-felling a block of forest before planting it with seedlings which will in turn grow up to be clear-felled.

Now, the rationale for clear-felling rather than selective logging, the rationale for then turning perfectly good timber into woodchips, the rationale for then exporting the woodchips so that somone else can add value to them and re-sell them to Australians, and the reasons Australian taxpayers should support the whole scheme through government subsidies all strike me as being extremely dubious at best but I’m not going to address them here. I am not even going to discuss the morality of scattering poison baits afterwards to kill the wildlife which has been left nothing but seedlings to eat. I just wanted to talk about the ‘regeneration burn.’

Turning good organic matter into ash and carbon dioxide, killing every living creature in the process, contributes to regeneration the same way ‘ethnic cleansing’ contributes to peace and love. Calling it a ‘sterilization burn’ wouldn’t make the act any better but it would at least be an honest description of what Forestry Tasmania is doing. (Both phrases are offensive in themselves, too, because both are so grossly and deliberately misleading.)

Any industry which released this much CO2 and particulate emissions into the atmosphere would be regulated and/or fined into responsible behaviour by any rational administration. But not this industry, not in Tasmania.

I don’t usually think of myself as a tourist, but that is just what I was for most of that week, visiting Port Arthur, Bruny Island and the beginning of the ‘Ten Days on the Island’ arts festival. Most of my week was wonderful. This wasn’t.

‘Tourist’ means ‘money’ – clean, renewable, job-creating, environmentally friendly (but environmentally dependent) money – to the people of Tasmania and their government. ‘Souvenir’ means, literally, ‘memory.’ This is one of my souvenirs of a week in Tasmania.

Googling ‘regeneration’ plus ‘Forestry Tasmania’ will get you hundreds of hits. Explore them as you like. Please also feel free to write to the responsible bodies about the issue: Forestry Tasmania and the Tasmanian government will not change their current polices without encouragement.

• This page was created in April 2005 and uploaded to my older website. Sadly, it is still not out of date now, in 2016. Here are three recent results from the Google search I proposed 11 years ago: Forestry to fire up 245 burns in autumn in The Examiner (2012); Bob Brown calls for ban on autumn Forestry burns in The Mercury (April 2016); and Smoke from forest regeneration burns in Tasmania seen in BoM imagery on ABC News (also April 2016). 

Western Queensland

• This is one of a few articles which I published elsewhere long before Green Path was conceived or begun but is still relevant enough to deserve a place on the blog. The date-stamp will say 2005, the date of first publication, although the article was only added to GP in 2016. 

If Australia is little known to the rest of the world, North Queensland is little known to the rest of Australia – and Western Queensland is little known even to most North Queenslanders. Most of the NQ population lives in the provincial cities along the coast (Townsville, Cairns, Mackay, Bowen, Rockhampton) and most of the rest live in the roughly 50 km wide strip between the coast and the Great Dividing Range. These pictures introduce some of the country on the inland side of the mountains.

Ewan, NQ
On the Hidden Valley – Ewan road – photo by Rodney Waterman, 2004

Landscape near Ewan, between Hidden Valley and Hervey’s Range, in late July, well into the dry season – and after a wet season that provided much less rain than usual. Ewan is less than 100 km north-west of Townsville.

Sawpit Gorge NQ
Sawpit Gorge, White Mountains National Park
Grevilleas in flower, April 2004, Burra Range,
Belyando Crossing, NQ
The Belyando River – with water

It’s not always dry. This is the bridge at Belyando Crossing, about halfway between Charters Towers and Clermont, in mid-January 2005. We walked down to the bridge, and took the photo, because the river was much higher than usual – it’s often a trickle between sandbanks. But there was more rain upstream a week or so later, and the bridge was under water for nearly a week after that.

Belyando Crossing, by the way, is the biggest place on the 400 km stretch of road between Charters Towers and Clermont. It has a permanent population of less than a dozen people.

• This page was created in April 2005 for my older website. Now that I have been blogging for five years and 600+ posts, there are several more pages about the West: Rainsby, Ravenswood, Hidden Valley White Mountains (again) and Mount Fox come to mind.