31 May 2008

The Ancestor's Tale - Richard Dawkins

Review by Jim Walker

The title derives from an allusion to Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, where the characters tell tales on their way backward to ancient Canterbury picking up pilgrims along with way at various rendezvous points. Dawkins Canterbury represents the origin of life, the oldest ancestor to our unbroken heritage. The pilgrims in Dawkins story describe our cousins the chimpanzees, gorillas, primates, mammals, animals, etc. The 'beginning' starts with us, the human beings, and the story goes backward in time, following the long branching tree of evolution from the outermost twig, the branches, the trunk, and finally to the root of all life.

Dawkins has a very good reason for describing the evolutionary path backwards rather than forward. Many laymen evolutionists (and religionists) have incorrectly concluded that evolution progresses linearly and has a purpose where we humans act as the target for a 'higher' form of evolution. If one looks at evolution in the direction of forward time, it can lead one to this false sense of progress. Because of Dawkins disavowal of aimed evolution, he chose to do history backwards to avoid this misconception. And it works. Looking at evolution backwards gives us a novel and new appreciation for the diverse and branching aspect of evolution. At each branch point (rendezvous point) we meet our ancestors (Dawkins invents the term concestors). The first rendezvous point, for example, examines our first cousins the chimpanzees, our closest relatives on the DNA chain. This backward way of looking at evolution shows us that humans did not evolve from chimpanzees but rather we evolved out of a shared concestor which gave rise to chimps and humans. A major rendezvous occurs with rendezvous 26 (about 590 million years ago), when all the insects, molluscs, and the worms join. Then we go on to meet the fungi, the plants and eventually the bacteria at some indeterminate time in the ancient past, where all life shares the same ancestor. It takes only 40 rendezvous points to travel back to the beginning of life on earth itself. This appears breathtaking when one considers that all living things trace their lineage back to a single ancestor, a bacterium that lived more than three billion years ago. All life as we know it consists of DNA and all living things, including bacteria, share common genes. (click for full review)

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