With this book, Richard Dawkins takes the place of the late and lamented Stephen J. Gould. His writing is dramatic, argumentative, humorous, even poetic. He connects the word "wonder" to the evolutionary story in a way which can hardly fail to inspire. Dawkin's peculiar views on religion (he believes all religions to be evil) should not place an obstacle to Christians (or anyone else) from enjoying this book. Except for an occasional slam at creationism and Intelligent Design, he refrains from expounding his philosophy. In one instance (page 550) he quotes from Kenneth Miller (Brown University), a dedicated Christian, with approval as he finds agreement with him in their distaste for Intelligent Design Theory.
The book is an expanded "just so" story in the tradition and structure of Chaucer's CANTERBURY TALES. Beginning with the concept of common descent (Dawkins would describe it as fact), he describes evolution taking place in a series of over 50 "tales," told by the farmer, the Neanderthal, the gorilla, the mouse, the Galapagos finch, the grasshopper, the sponge, and a host of other characters. Dawkins brilliantly conceived this book as a backward trek in time, beginning with us, and including other lines of descent as we encounter them in a trip to the past. Specular graphics are included to help one keep oriented.
He begins with an essay on hindsight, a position too often assumed by historians, particularly evolutionists, in which one's appetite for patterns and propensity to see the present as the inevitable result of the past sometimes blinds them to the fact of contingency -- a random change in the past could have changed the present immeasurably. What if Oswald's bullet had missed? What if the Titanic would have steered just 1/100th of a degree farther south? What if the mutation that created us had not happened? Dawkins argues that biological evolution has no privileged line of descent or designated end; in this, of course, he writes from his underlying non-theistic philosophy. There are those who argue differently, but this is not their story.
Common descent demands that at some point in biological history (1) there must have existed a common ancestor of all homo sapiens (us) and (2) there must have existed a common ancestor of both humanity and any other species one might think of -- aardvarks, for instance. Dawkins coins the word "concestor" for such beings; the oldest concestor is the ancestor of all life forms that have ever existed on planet earth, present and extinct. Moreover, at some time in the past there must be a moment when two animals of the same species existed, one of whom is the ancestor of all humans and no aardvarks and the other an ancestor of all aardvarks and no humans. Any two modern species can be substituted in the above statement; it remains true.
Dawkins tells his story as a series of forty "rendezvous," each with a different concestor. Something special, perhaps the origin of language, (The Great Leap Forward, according to Jared Diamond), happened 40,000 years ago. But homo sapiens' most recent common ancestor, discussed at rendezvous 0, is earlier. The date is in controversy but is at least 10s of thousands of years ago and perhaps as much as 100s of thousands. Yes, "Adam" and "Eve" actually existed, but they probably lived many thousands of years apart and almost certainly never knew one another!
At rendezvous 1, about 6,000,000 years ago, we meet concestor 1, our great*250,000 grandparent. From the loins of this person(?) have come not only all the hominid lines (us, Neanderthal, Homo Erectus, etc.) but also chimpanzees and bonobos. What did our ancestor look like? You'll have to read Dawkins (page 102) for his answer.
Each of the rendezvous points is fascinating in its own right. From concestor 2, 7,000,000 years ago, our great*300,000 grandparent, came us, chimps, bonobos and gorillas. From concestor 6, our great*3,000,000 grandparent, 40 million years ago, the new world monkey. Concestor 10, our great*15,000,000 grandparent, mice and rabbits. Concestor 18, our great*195,000,000 grandparent, the lungfish. Concestor 31, 800,000,000 years ago, the sponge. Plants at rendezvous 36; eubacteria at #39. The unity of all life described by a masterful storyteller.
At rendezvous 17, in "The salamander's tale," Dawkins talks about (pg 300) "the tyranny of the discontinuous mind." Ernst Mayr blames this delusion (philosophical Essentialism, inspired by Plato) as the primary reason why evolutionary understanding came so late in our history, and why arguments, such as those of ICR, continue to flourish in the face of so much evidence to the contrary.
At the close, Dawkins returns to his philosophical base. He writes: "My objection to supernatural beliefs is precisely that they miserably fail to do justice to the sublime grandeur of the real world. They are . . . an impoverishment. . . I suspect that many who call themselves religious would find themselves agreeing with me." Most ASAer's, I suspect, would agree. Most would also comment that it is Dawkins who labors in impoverishment.
One more note on common ancestry. It turns out, using reasonable assumptions, that any human born today has about an 80% chance of eventually becoming a common ancestor (not a concestor, of course) of all humanity! Dawkin's discussion of this, and related ideas, is priceless. You have to read it.
Reviewed by John W. Burgeson Rico Community Church Rico, Colorado 10-6-2005 www.burgy.50megs.com So let's look at the Evolutionary tree in detail. Here is the structure presented by Dawkins. Rendezvous # Split Years ago Greats*X also 0 humankind 50,000 Neanderthal, Homo Erectus 1 chimps and bonobos 6,000,000 250,000 2 gorillas 7,000,000 300,000 3 orang utan 14,000,000 666,000 4 gibbons, etc. 18,000,000 1,000,000 5 baboon, mandrill, etc. 25,000,000 1,500,000 langur, proboscis monkey, macaques 6 new world monkeys 40,000,000 3,000,000 spider monkey, howler, etc. 7 tarsier 58,000,000 6,000,000 8 lemur, etc. 63,000,000 7,000,000 bushbaby, aye-aye 9 tree shrew 70,000,000 10,000,000 flying lemur 10 rodents, rabbits 75,000,000 15,000,000 gerbils, beavers, squirrels, porcupines 11 mole, bat, pig, rhino 85,000,000 25,000,000 cat, dog, bear, seal, horse, sheep, whale 12 sloth, armadillo 95,000,000 35,000,000 anteater 13 elephant, manatee 105,000,000 45,000,000 aardvark 14 opossum, kangaroo 140,000,000 80,000,000 wombat, tasmanian devil, koala 15 platypus, echidnas 180,000,000 120,000,000 16 turtle, iguana, snake 310,000,000 170,000,000 crocodile, ostrich, chicken, birds 17 frog, toad, salamander 340,000,000 175,000,000 amphibians 18 lungfish 417,000,000 185,000,000 19 coelacanth 425,000,000 190,000,000 20 eel, tarpon, herring 440,000,000 195,000,000 perch, piranha, seahorse, cod, salmon, etc. 21 shark 460,000,000 200,000,000 22 lamprey, hagfish 530,000,000 240,000,000 23 lancelet 560,000,000 270,000,000 24 sea squirt 565,000,000 275,000,000 25 starfish, sea urchin 570,000,000 280,000,000 26 insects, rotifers 590,000,000 300,000,000 worms, barnacle, etc. 27 flatworm 630,000,000 ?? 28 jellyfish, coral 700,000,000? 29 comb jellies 750,000,000? 30 trichoplax 780,000,000 31 sponge 800,000,000 32 choanoflagellates 900,000,000 33 single cell parasites 950,000,000? 34 fungi 1,000,000,000? 35 amoeba 1,100,000,000? 36 plants, algae 1,200,000,000? 37 diatom, microbes 1,400,000,000? 38 archaea bacteria 1,800,000,000? 39 eubacteria 2,000,000,000?