on 10 January 2007
Imagine a starting line, a long one, along which are lined up representatives of every single living species on Earth - whales, trees, snakes, vegetables, birds, bacteria, plus everything else alive at the moment. These are the pilgrims in Richard Dawkins' epic journey into the past. The pilgrimage starts and the pilgrims meander back through time to rendezvous with their own most recent common ancestors ("concestor" in Dawkins' terminology).
Because this is our, Homo sapiens', story Rendezvous 1 occurs between 5 and 7 million years ago with Concestor 1, the most recent common ancestor of us and the chimpanzee, our nearest living relative. By the end of the book, a very long time ago, at Rendezvous 39, all the pilgrims have met up again and we are exchanging limited small talk and shaking flagella with the latest arrivals, the eubacteria, our most distant living cousins.
The concestor concept tells us, often counter intuitively, how closely we are related to other species. For example, because mammals (including us of course) share a more recent concester with the ray finned fish (cod, trout, herrings etc), we are more closely related to them than they (ray finned fish) are to cartilaginous fish (sharks, rays etc) even though both types of fish swim, have fins and look, well, fishy.
Newly arrived pilgrims at each rendezvous have their own tales to tell, just as in Chaucer's original. Whether it be the meaning of "primitive" via the anything but primitive bill of the duck billed platypus, the workings (and shortcomings) of the molecular clock or the evolution of the wheel (yes, it has happened, once apparently) each tale illustrates some aspect of the story of life.
And Richard Dawkins is a master storyteller, with the gift of making complex arguments accessible to the non-specialist. This is a hefty, at times demanding, but eminently readable book, fizzing with evidence, anecdote, theories and speculation. For this reader, definitely not the sharpest hominid in the box, I must come clean and say bits and pieces did unfortunately go over my head. Yes, there is a lot to take in. Nevertheless, I finished the book satisfied and delighted that I'd been introduced to the main concepts of the story of life. For those who would like to take their investigations further, there is a comprehensive bibliography at the end of the book.
For someone who had carved out a reputation as an evangelical atheist, Dawkins is refreshingly open minded about the limits of our present knowledge. Despite what many people think, science does not deal in certainties (for that, consult a sacred text). As an honest guide, Dawkins marshals evidence, discusses conflicting theories, attempts a conclusion but isn't afraid of saying that, at this stage of the game, we simply don't know the answer to a particular question of when, where or how.
This book is a wonderful story of 4 billion years of life and a testament to the power of rational human thought to make sense of the world out there. With so many thought-provoking highlights, it's hard to pick out one in particular, but how about this little gem. Dawkins remarks that creationists gleefully point to gaps in the fossil record. Lucky for us, he reposts. "Without gaps in the fossil record, our whole system of naming species would break down. Fossils could not be given names, they'd have to be given numbers, or positions on a graph." Stop for a moment and try to imagine the implications of that observation. Nothing is constant, species merge into species; everything that doesn't become extinct is in a state of shifting flux. That mental image of all life in a process of continuous evolving change will, I'm sure, stay with me for a long time.
Excepting dyed in the wool, young Earth, creationists, this book will appeal to anyone with an interest in the history of life. No, on second thoughts, even if you are creationist, but harbour the slightest doubt regarding the veracity of the strange stories told by your co-religionists, then please take a chance and read this book. Go on, it could change your life.