[Paleopsych] Telegraph: (Dawkins) A Roadmap to the primeval slime
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Mon Oct 11 22:34:55 UTC 2004
A Roadmap to the primeval slime
Anthony Daniels reviews The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins.
Richard Dawkins is a man of the most formidable gifts. To his breadth
of biological erudition he adds a brilliancy of prose style which is
clearly the product of a wide literary culture. He is a spirited
controversialist and a tub-thumping evangelist for evolution. He is
the T. H. Huxley of our time.
This book is far from the glossy, beautifully illustrated coffee-table
production that it might at first appear. It contains vast amounts of
information and considerable quantities of theoretical biology (always
explained with the greatest possible lucidity). Instead of tracing
evolution forward from the primeval slime to the emergence of homo
sapiens, it traces it backwards, from homo sapiens to the primeval
slime, via a series of branching points on the evolutionary tree, or
rather bush, where we meet hypothetical common ancestors, or
"concestors" in Dawkins's terminology.
The first concestor is the creature from which both man and chimpanzee
(man's nearest biological relative) were descended; the second
concestor is the creature from which the first concestor and gorillas
were descended; the third concestor is the creature from which the
second concestor, the gorillas and orang-utans were descended; and so
on and so forth, back to the origins of life itself. According to
Dawkins, about 40 such concestors (each of which is the subject of a
chapter) are sufficient to take us back to the origin of life itself.
En route to the origin, we learn an astonishing number of facts about
life on Earth. Dawkins is infectiously enthusiastic about its variety,
past and present: spiders that spit glue to trap their prey, or
extinct sea scorpions that were two yards long. I never even knew that
many of the creatures he describes existed, and feel humbled by my own
ignorance. Moreover, Dawkins is at home with molecular biology as well
as with taxonomy and ethology. One of the strengths of his book is the
ease with which he moves and establishes links between these different
levels of biological thought and explanation.
Dawkins is not a dry writer, and makes many asides. These vary between
being charming, witty or wise, to being - at least to me - somewhat
irritating. When, for example, he says that as an undergraduate he
dreamed (as other young men dreamed of scoring a century for England)
of discovering a live placoderm, an extinct kind of fish that had
limbs, one is charmed. Another of his asides, almost an essay in
itself, on the question of human races, is a model of its kind.
But his repeated reference to the extinction of Tasmanian aborigines
as a genocide or holocaust accepts uncritically what is a matter of
great historical dispute. The fact that he refers to it at all
demonstrates how quickly what is probably a falsehood can become an
established truth among the right-thinking.
As is well known, Dawkins is a ferocious opponent of religion. This
sometimes gives him a smart-alec quality, rather like that of the
first atheist MP, Charles Bradlaugh, who used to stride on to the
stage, take out his pocket watch and challenge God to strike him dead
in 60 seconds. Dawkins's obsession with proving that God does not
exist makes me suspect that he cannot altogether disbelieve.
When he writes at the end of his book, "My objection to supernatural
beliefs is precisely that they miserably fail to do justice to the
sublime grandeur of the real world", he sounds not so very far removed
from religion after all. Indeed, I half-expect a deathbed conversion
in his case.
His book, however, should be given to all intelligent young persons
starting out on their exploration of the world. It will excite their
curiosity and awe and prove to them that the world is inexhaustible in
Like most evolutionists, Dawkins overestimates the human significance
of the theory of evolution. Explaining how we have come to be what we
are is not the same as telling us how we should live from now on -
which is a question of some importance. Dawkins sometimes give the
impression that, in outline, everything is already known and only the
details have to be filled in. I think he is mistaken: an essential
Anthony Daniels is a practising doctor.
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