[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

    (Filed: 04/10/2004)
    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
    its fascination.

    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
    mystery remains.

    Anthony Daniels is a practising doctor.

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