Sunday, 17 August 2008

River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins

Lowdown: Dawkins for beginners.
By now, whenever I approach a Richard Dawkins book I feel this phobia. Experience shows that reading a Dawkins book can be truly awesome experience; yet how long can the guy pull through? He has to have a dud in his history. And if there is a dud, it had to be River Out of Eden: published in 1995, before Dawkins' more popular releases (e.g., The God Delusion) but after the serious ones that established his reputation (e.g., The Selfish Gene), River Out of Eden stands out as a transition phase work. It's only 190 pages or so long; thrown in amongst those pages are pictures, and not serious scientific ones at that; and the font is on the larger side of things. As I picked River Out of Eden at the shop, for the sole reason that it was written by Dawkins and not because I have heard of it before, I sort of thought this book is Dawkins' kids version of a book.
Well, I was right and I was wrong. River Out of Eden continues the trend of Dawkins' excellent books, on one side, but on the other side it is also Dawkins' most approachable book thus far (at least by my limited experience). If you want to introduce someone to Dawkins and if you don't think they'd cope with the depth of The Selfish Gene, give them River Out of Eden instead; the ideas and the themes are similar, more or less, but River is that much easier to digest.
Even before starting to describe what River Out of Eden is all about, I already gave away the book's main potential issue: In pretty much all of his books, Dawkins is repetitively advocating the same things; the main difference between the books is the way in which he chooses to advocates his themes. Read enough of Dawkins' books and you'll encounter repetition. This, however, is not necessarily a drawback, certainly not when judging River Out of Eden in its own rights.
The themes Dawkins goes through in River Out of Eden are his usual themes in support of evolution by natural selection and a designer-less world view. River Out of Eden starts by providing a brief explanation on how evolution works at the gene level through the flowing/branching river of genes analogy that gave the book its title. It then explains how evolution can tell us a lot about us and what we are and goes on to provide Dawkins' evidence supported views on the nature of nature and the way a designer god doesn't really fit the picture, not in the least, whereas the theory of evolution explains it all and explains it well.
In typical Dawkins fashion, the fashion that has made Dawkins so great in my humble opinion, explanations are easy to understand regardless of their complexity. That talent of Dawkins' is not to be underestimated; if only more of my teachers and lecturers were like him. Not only are Dawkins' explanations easy to digest, they're also thrilling to read and ponder about: like most of his other books, River Out of Eden reads more like a thriller than the popular science book it is.
Two sections of the book have caught me the most. The first is Dawkins' witty answer to the accusation that pops up quite often, whereas scientists who defend science against religion are counter-argued that science is just another religion. I won't bother specifying Dawkins' reply here, as I am sure I will have plenty of opportunities to do so when I'm next accused of being a zealot practitioner of the religion of science.
The second section that caught me is Dawkins' explanation on the Mythical Eve experiment. You probably heard of Mythical Eve: It's basically this urban myth about how all of us have descended from this one woman that lived a couple of hundreds of thousand years ago, a woman so unique that many compare her to the Bible's Eve. Well, Dawkins has some clarifications to make on our behalf, and I'm happy to say he certainly fixed some bugs in my understanding of this Eve story. It goes like this: Some 25 years ago or so, DNA samples from many indigenous women was analyzed in order to find their most recent common ancestor. The research compared variations in mitochondria DNA to find that our most recent common ancestor of the female line lived some 250,000 years ago (give or take a generous safety margin); but that's it. That woman that lived some 250,000 years ago was not unique in anything from her peers, nor was she alone in this world; she was just "lucky" enough for her descendants to be able to propagate her genes all over the place while her peers weren't as lucky. More than that, we are all very likely to have a much more recent common ancestor than this Eve; Eve is our most common ancestor on the female only line, that is - the line that goes from mother to mother to mother etc without involving fathers at all. But the female only line is just one of many many potential lines.
If you didn't understand my point then by all means, go and read River Out of Eden. What I am trying to demonstrate with the Eve example is Dawkins' uncanny ability to explain things well and to explain them the way they are, as opposed to creating some myth around them; and in doing so, he makes it all that much more magical than the mythical, yet false, interpretation.
Overall: A thrill from start to finish that is warmly recommended to everyone who wants to acquire a quick yet definitive answer to questions about the nature of this world and our place in it. 5 out of 5 stars.

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