The Long March

There is more I’d like to say about Robert Wright’s Nonzero, and I’ll be getting to it tomorrow, most likely, but meanwhile I’ve just begun reading The Ancestor’s Tale, by Richard Dawkins.

I admire Dawkins, generally; there is no question that he is a brilliant man and an excellent writer, and from his fertile mind have arisen two enormously important ideas: the notion of the gene as the unit of selection, and the concept of the “meme”. He can get a bit shrill from time to time, though – I find his militant atheism unseemly, and he does things like this (from page 27 of The Ancestor’s Tale, in a discussion of the origins of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent):

This is the cradle of civilization whose irreplaceable relics in the Baghdad Museum were vandalised in 2003, under the indifferent eyes of American invaders whose priorities led them to protect the Ministry of Oil instead.

Now I wholeheartedly agree that the looting of that museum was an utter disgrace, a shameful and easily preventable tragedy, and an enormous embarrassment for America (though the extent of the losses were perhaps exaggerated in early reports). But Dawkins’ mention of it is entirely gratuitous and has nothing to do with the subject matter, and we could have done without it very nicely, thank you.

Anyway, The Ancestor’s Tale, inspired by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is an interesting idea for a book: in it, Dawkins will take the reader on a “pilgrimage” back through time, traveling back through our biological lineage, all the way to our remotest forebears. Along the way, we will come to 40 “rendezvous”, which are the places where we pass through ancestors that are common to other branches of the tree of life. For example, at the first rendezvous we are joined by the chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest relatives among Earth’s surviving species, whose line diverged from ours between five and seven million years ago. Each rendezvous, then, becomes a meeting point for other groups of “pilgrims” – which will, by the end, include all the species alive today – who will then walk with us as we continue the journey. At each rendezvous, our new companions will tell their story. Finally, we will reach our most ancient predecessor, the common ancestor of all. And that will be our Canterbury.

Love him or hate him, Dawkins is a profoundly erudite scholar of natural history, and this book is fairly bursting with fascinating lore. It might take me a while to plow through it, but when I do I’m sure there will be much to share.

Related content from Sphere