Thursday, 11 October 2007

Book: The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins

Lowdown: The bible the way it should have been written.
Ancestor’s Tale is one of those books that you buy in order to look at. Its premises is exciting: the cover tells you it is a pilgrimage to the dawn of life; books don’t come more promising than that. However, given the book’s most obvious attribute – its thickness - it is more likely to stay on the shelf and handle the duties such as “look how smart I am given the books that I own” when guests come around. I am therefore proud to say I didn’t take the bait: let the record say that I read Ancestor’s Tale cover to cover and that I am grateful for doing so, because there aren’t many books around from which you can learn more; certainly not many that are so well written.
The idea behind Ancestor’s Tale is simple. Modeled after Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it is a story of a pilgrim on his way to Canterbury as he meets other people making their way there. There are slight differences, though: the pilgrims are us, modern day homo sapience, and instead of Canterbury we’re going back through evolution to the fundamental evolutionary unit that started all living things. On our way to this new Canterbury, which is basically a journey back through time, we keep on encountering existing species with which we share common ancestors (referred to throughout the book as “concestors”). Thus, as we set of on our journey, we encounter the chimpanzee pilgrim’s concenstor some 6 million years ago, followed by the gorilla pilgrim, followed by the rest of the apes, then monkeys, then fellow mammals, then lizards and such, fish of sorts, starfish, insects, plants, amoebas, bacteria – basically, all living things on earth – and up until that primary unit of evolution. Most people, even those that accept evolution, don’t think of it this way but we actually do share common ancestors with every other living being on the planet; it is quite surprising to learn just how not that far long ago the human with whom all currently living humans are related to lived, and it is also fascinating to think that something like your 300 millionth grandfather is also the 500 millionth grandfather of your pet snake Reggie (don't take my word for the actual numbers there; I was being figurative). It is also interesting to see that during this voyage of billions of years we encounter just 40 such concestors, which sort of puts us humans in perspective as to how grandiose we really are.
Throughout this pilgrimage Dawkins tells us stories about the concestors we meet. The stories vary significantly in nature and I was surprised to see just how interesting they were; you sort of think “OK, what can I learn from an amoeba”, but the answer turns out to be “quite a lot”. And as you read through the stories you sort of say to yourself “OK, now that we’ve covered this fascinating topic, surely Dawkins has no more interesting stuff up his sleeve to discuss during the next 500 pages”; but again, you’ll be wrong: Dawkins, and you might say evolution, are not exactly short in the fascination department. Overall, the stories cover issues such as the tools available for us to know who came in when in the grand evolutionary scheme and who has developed from what, stories with insight on human nature – as in things that we can observe in animals that shed light on us (I would say these are the most interesting), stories on life and evolution in general, and much more. Specific examples include things like why humans are bipedal, how did humans lose their body hair, racism, why are our bodies symmetric, how do different cells in our bodies know whether to become heart tissue or skin tissue, and much – and I do mean much – more.
Given that Ancestor’s Tale was written by Richard Dawkins you can trust it to be very well written, flowing, and full of Dawkins humor (e.g., his reference to Windows compatible computers as “virus compatible computers"). And given that it’s Dawkins we’re talking about here, you can also trust that issues will be presented in an interesting way and that as complex as the subject matter is the reading would still be a pleasure ride.
Then we come to the “buts”. By far the biggest but of it all with Ancestor’s Tale is its size. Given the premises I don’t think Dawkins had much of a choice, but as it is by the time we reach the smaller life forms around too many special long words pop up and the reading just borders the tedious side of things. It’s still fun, but you want to get to Canterbury, and let’s face it – hippos are much more interesting than bacteria that behaves like hair.
Still, Ancestor’s Tale is a mighty achievement. Educational and thought provoking, but also a major achievement in documenting history as we know it; I will gladly argue that Ancestor’s Tale represents the bible story the way it should have been told, because if people were to read it then a lot of the bible nonsense that encumbers us today would just fade away into redundancy. The comparison with the bible is not just random, as both books attempt to tell us where we should be heading for given where it is that we came from. However, the reality exposed by Ancestor’s Tale is much richer and way more fascinating than the petty stories of the bible; and the recognition of that, the richness of life around us, is – by far – the book’s biggest achievement.
Overall: What score can do justice to such a comprehensive effort? I don’t pretend to know. I can flatter its epic nature and the surprisingly gripping stories by giving it 5 stars or I can punish its intimidating length by giving it only 4 stars. So I’d settle for 4.5 out of 5 stars, while noting that regardless of the score Ancestor’s Tale joins The Selfish Gene as a book that is not only a must read but also something that represents my state of mind.

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