THE ANCESTOR'S TALE, A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, by Richard Dawkins. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 614 pages, notes, bibliography, index. Hardcover; $28.00. ISBN 0-618-00583-8.

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

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?

JWB's Home page