Richard Dawkins – The Ancestor’s Tale

The Ancestor's TaleThis is an essential read. This is a mind-blowing book. This book will change you.

I believe all of the previous statements to be true.

Richard Dawkins has been a hero of mine for years, ever since I read ‘The Selfish Gene.’ So many things fell into place when I read that book, so many questions I’d had about evolution were answered.

Now, with ‘The Ancestor’s Tale,’ Dawkins has vaulted over that first classic and his other marvellous books as well. What’s it about? Well…

The Ancestor’s Tale is a pilgrimage back through time; a journey on which we meet up with fellow pilgrims along the route as we and they converge on our common ancestors. Chimpanzees join us at about 6 million years in the past, gorillas at 7 million years, orang utans at 14 million years, as we stride on together, a growing band.

The journey provides the setting for a collection of some 40 tales. Each explores an aspect of evolutionary biology through the stories of characters met along the way or glimpsed from afar – the Elephant Bird’s Tale, the Marsupial Mole’s Tale, the Coelacanth’s Tale. Together they give a deep understanding of the processes that have shaped life on Earth: convergent evolution, the isolation of populations, continental drift, the great extinctions.

The tales are interspersed with prologues detailing the journey, route maps showing joining lineages, and life-like reconstructions of our common ancestors. The Ancestor’s Tale represents a pilgrimage on an unimaginable scale: our goal is four billion years away, and the number of pilgrims joining us grows vast – ultimately encompassing all living creatures..
(Source: Simonyi)

I found this book incredibly hard to put down (also hard to pick up because it’s quite heavy). It was as gripping as any thriller I’ve read, I kept thinking, ‘I’ll stop reading in a bit’ and then I’d look at the clock and it would be 6am. There aren’t many non-fiction books that are readable for seven hours solidly.

Every page contains a new revelation, every sentence forces you to abandon conventional, sloppy thinking about life on Earth. And I don’t just mean all the bullshit religions that Dawkins has as little time for as I do. No, Dawkins slides the reader into new perspectives, makes us examine the accepted “truths” we’ve previously left alone. This book is as unsettling and intellectually subversive as anything written by Sartre or Marx.

Here’s a little example. Have you seen Ice Age? It’s a funny film, I enjoyed it. Apart from one part, the depiction of the dodos. Now, I know it’s only a bit of fun, I know it’s not claiming to be natural history. But I find it sad it reinforces the common stereotype of the dodo: that it died out because it was too stupid/tasty/ungainly. As Dawkins reveals, the truth about the dodo is far sadder and uglier:

The very name dodo comes from the Portuguese for stupid. Stupid is unfair. When Portuguese sailors arrived on Mauritius in 1507, the abundant dodos were completely tame, and approached the sailors in a trusting manner.

Alas for trust.

They were clubbed to death by Portuguese, and later Dutch, sailors – even though they were deemed “unpalatable”. Presumably it was “sport”. Extinction took less than two centuries. Humans introduced dogs, pigs, rats and religious refugees. The first three ate dodo eggs, and the last planted sugar cane and destroyed habitats.

So, don’t laugh at the dodo. It’s just another victim of the human talent for genocide. Or should that be species-cide? Imagine this relative of the pigeon, ambling up to the new arrivals on its island, quite un-prepared for their savagery and unable to fly away. But hold on – how could losing the power of flight ever be an advantage to a bird? Surely that’s against evolutionary theory? Huh?

The ancestors of the dodos had wings. They took a long time to evolve, why not hang on to them in case one day they might come in useful again? Alas (for the dodo) that is not the way evolution thinks.

Evolution, or its driving engine natural selection, has no foresight. In every generation within every species, the individuals best equipped to survive and reproduce contribute more than their fair share of genes to the next generation. The consequence, blind as it is, is the nearest approach to foresight that nature admits.

Wings might be useful a million years hence when sailors arrive with clubs. But wings will not help a bird contribute genes to the next generation, in the immediate here and now. On the contrary, wings, and especially the massive breast muscles needed to power them, are an expensive luxury. Shrink them, and the resources saved can now be spent on something more immediately useful such as eggs: immediately useful for surviving and reproducing the very genes that programmed the shrinkage.

Dawkins is masterly here: he draws the reader in with a good story and then explains the scientific background of that story, most often from an un-expected angle. That’s why this is such a surprising book. I’m not a scientist but I’ve read many books about biology and evolutionary theory by Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Susan Blackmore and others. And yet, I found ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’ to be a joy, a train of lovely surprises rather than a trudge through familiar territory.

There’s a brilliant bit about race where he demolishes the “scientific” argument for racism. How alike do any two chimpanzees look to you? Well, they’re many times more un-related than any two humans you chose to pick at random. Why? Because of an evolutionary bottleneck. Dawkins is compellingly clear and forceful in his argument here, giving explanations for our exaggerated “racial” differences in terms of adaptation and sexual selection. I only wish that Nazis could read.

I also love the way this isn’t a dry, academic tome. Dawkins lets his slip show much more than in his previous works. Within the first few chapters, he disses George W. Bush at least three times, as well as getting in his usual, welcome digs at religion and other irrational nonsense. If you’re a fundamentalist Christian, Creationist, Republican, Bush-loving nutjob, this isn’t the book for you. Stick to fairy tales like the Bible, then your head won’t hurt from ingesting inconvenient facts.

But if you want to understand yourself, humanity and the world around you more clearly, read this book.

In a world where men who believe in gods and ghosties control nuclear stockpiles, this book is a welcome beacon of reason and sanity.

Oh, and one final point. What do all religions have in common? They all place humans at the top of creation, lording it over the mere beasts. Funny that, innit? Humans just happen to reckon humans are the most important species. But have a look at this family tree (nicked from here) of Eukaryotes (organisms whose cells have nuclei):

Tree Of Eukaryotic Life

Can you spot where we are? Up in that little sub-branch of a sub-branch labelled ‘Animals?’ Surely if god existed and made his favoured species in his image it’s equally likely that god is a toadstool rather than a piffling human?

What’s the most important, dominant form of life? If you took a rational look at all life on Earth, if you acknowledged humanity’s unimportance in the great scheme of things, perhaps you’d have to conclude that god is a bacterium.