Humanist Perspectives: issue 154: Books

reviewed by Gwyneth Evans

Richard Dawkins’
The Ancestor’s Tale:
A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life

Houghton Mifflin. 2004.
ISBN 0618005838
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Humanist, writer, renowned evolutionary biologist and holder of the Chair of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, Richard Dawkins contributes greatly to public thought particularly in the areas of genetics and evolutionary theory, and a new book by him is certain to be of interest to humanists whether or not they have a strong background in science. Like many of Dawkins’ books, The Ancestor’s Tale is aimed at the general reader rather than the expert, although he does weigh in with his reasoned opinion on many of the controversial areas related to his subject. The reader has the sense of being brought to the edge of current thought and discoveries in this vast field — for example, the feathered dinosaur fossils recently found by archaelogists in China. Dawkins is an engaging writer, and uses the many sides of his own personality — his humour, political passions, disdain for supernatural belief and delight in weird and wonderful life forms, as well as engaging anecdotes from his childhood, to draw the reader into his complex and often rather difficult material. Just when the reader may be feeling disheartened, trying to understand a rather technical explanation or a sophisticated concept, Dawkins switches the subject to something we can all grasp, like a description of an odd jungle creature, or a cheeky remark about George W Bush. His analogies are often very successful: in one of the familiar analogies to computers he compares the nucleus of a cell to the rom of a Mac. The reader-friendliness of The Ancestor’s Tale should not be over-estimated, however, as it was by a Vancouver bookstore which marketed it at Christmas as a book for children. It would be a rare child who made much headway with the text, though a mid-teenager interested in the subject might fare very well.

Dawkins’ central metaphor is the pilgrimage, a journey back in time to the Dawn of Life in search of the common ancestor of all living things.

I admit I was drawn to read The Ancestor’s Tale less by longing for a deeper understanding of evolutionary biology than by curiosity as to how Dawkins would link his subject matter with The Canterbury Tales. The link is a clever idea, and extends to structural parallels, running references throughout the text to Chaucer’s pilgrims, and even to his descriptive techniques and style. Dawkins clearly intended his Chaucerian parallel to interest readers whose background is in the humanities rather than the sciences, and in its tone and approach the book tries to help the general reader understand current thought on the major concepts and controversies of evolutionary biology. In this attempt, Dawkins’ central metaphor is the pilgrimage, a journey back in time to the Dawn of Life in search of the common ancestor of all living things. He takes the role of Chaucer’s genial Host, leading the diverse group of pilgrims to their goal (Canterbury/the Dawn of Life) and drawing from them a series of tales, which have various inter-connections and relationships to the pilgrims themselves. Whereas almost all of Chaucer’s pilgrims set out together from the Tabard Inn on their journey, Dawkins imagines himself leading his readers in the first group of pilgrims — all humankind, then having the group joined by others in a succession of 39 rendezvous stretching over many millions of years. Each rendezvous point is the approximate period of time at which Dawkins believes that, in the course of evolution, certain critical divergence of life forms had taken place. Travelling back in time, then, the human group is joined at Rendezvous 1, somewhere in Africa between 5 and 7 million years ago, by the chimpanzees; by Rendezvous 10, 75 million years into the journey, the primates and related mammals have been joined by rodents and rabbits; around 425 million years ago, at Rendezvous 19 the coelacanths join the pilgrimage. After the plants have appeared as pilgrims, and the time travel machine been greatly speeded up, the final few rendezvous occur in the world of microbes — eukaryotes, archaeans, and the eubacteria.

a glowing golden portrait of our oldest ancestor, a single-celled prokaryote.

Dawkins’ concept of a journey back in time to find common ancestors linking the divergent species can at first be somewhat confusing, and the confusion is not lessened by his fondness for inventing names, such as ‘concestor’ for the imagined creature linking two species just at the point before they begin to diverge. There are 39 concestors in the book, attractively presented in full-page paintings. For the later life forms, the paintings provide a background of vegetation appropriate to the era, and Dawkins warmly describes the probable appearance and life of each of these our ancestors. Genealogy — tracing one’s family tree — is a popular pastime these days, and The Ancestor’s Tale carries this enthusiasm to its logical, if amusing, conclusion — ending with a glowing golden portrait of our oldest ancestor, a single-celled prokaryote.

Ancestor’s Tale cover

Where Dawkins parts company with Chaucer is in the tales themselves. While Chaucer’s pilgrims tell their tales in their own voices, individuals among Dawkins’ more numerous pilgrims are assigned ‘tales’, but these turn out to be discussions by Dawkins of some aspect of evolutionary biology related to or illustrated by the creature. They are not usually narratives, and — perhaps wisely — Dawkins has not attempted to write them in the voice of the creature itself. While many of these little essays are fascinating illuminations of a concept, or a surprising life form, calling them tales is stretching the point. The Howler Monkey’s Tale is a discussion of the development and varieties of colour vision; The Elephant Bird’s Tale speculates on how an ancient family of flightless birds might have migrated among what are now the continents of Africa, Australia, Arabia and Europe; in the tale of The Handyman (Homo habilis), a comparison of brain and body mass leads into an explanation of logarithms. In his many tales, Dawkins wisely shifts between complex technical topics and more simply descriptive ones, and the text of almost every page is enlivened by marginal notes which don’t merely give further explanations but often draw illuminating parallels or make funny comments. At one point Dawkins ingenuously describes himself as dysnumeric (i.e. not good at math), but more truly dysnumeric readers will not find his explanation of logarithms easy. We may be cheered up, however, by a lovely photo of the larval sea squirt with a caption comment about how it “settles down to a sedentary life and eats its brain, like an associate professor getting tenure.”

While his tales may not be tales, Dawkins is truly Chaucerian in his wit and humour, his delight in colourful words, jokes, comic verse. His satisfaction is engagingly evident when he comes up with a good limerick or literary parody.

An itinerant selfish gene
Said ‘Bodies a-plenty I’ve seen.
You think you’re so clever
But I’ll live for ever.
You’re just a survival machine.’

He renames Shelley’s Ozymandias as “Ode to a Dinosaur,” and when quoted in the context of Dawkins’ account of the dinosaurs Shelley’s poem takes on a surprising new resonance. References to other well-known poems abound, adding an unusual dimension to an essentially serious presentation of scientific principles and theories. This presentation is illuminated in more conventional ways as well: each rendezvous begins with a phylogeny diagram (contributed by Yan Wong); there are many graphs, diagrams and coloured drawings; and the generous use of photos, particularly, helps the reader to share Dawkins’ conviction that “life on this planet [is] amazing, and deeply satisfying, to all whose senses have not become dulled by familiarity.”

Never one to shirk controversy, Dawkins is nonetheless courteous in registering his disagreement with other writers in related fields: for example, criticizing Jared Diamond’s overemphasis on the exploitation of the environment by agriculturalists rather than the widespread species extinction caused by hunter-gathers. Towards creationists he is understandably less patient, and the final section of this book presents a useful discussion of many current theories about the origins of life. Admitting his exasperation with “traditional piety, and my disdain for reverence when the object is anything supernatural,” Dawkins concludes his book with a stirring endorsement of:

the true reverence with which we are moved to celebrate the universe, once we understand it properly … My objection to supernatural beliefs is precisely that they miserably fail to do justice to the sublime grandeur of the real world. They represent a narrowing-down from reality, an impoverishment of what the real world has to offer.

In its presentation of the remarkable diversity of life forms, past and present, and the probable course of their evolution from The Dawn of Life, The Ancestor’s Tale is a fine attempt “to do justice to the sublime grandeur of the real world,” for the benefit of readers ranging from the mildly curious to the scientifically sophisticated.

Gwyneth Evans is Associate Editor and Children’s Book Review Editor of Humanist Perspectives. She is a retired college professor in English and she reviews children’s books for Quill & Quire.

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