Friday, May 30, 2014

The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution by Richard Dawkins

A frustrating hodgepodge of the elementary and the arcane
First of all, let me make it clear that I agree with Richard Dawkins on most matters religious and political, so I don’t have any axe to grind with him on that score. I admire his championing of science over superstition, and I respect his academic credentials. I just didn’t like this book very much.

In The Ancestor’s Tale, published in 2004, Dawkins imagines a pilgrimage back through time, following the evolutionary branches of the family tree of life. At certain stops along the way, humanity meets up with its cousins as their branches merge with ours. At each of these rendezvous points, Dawkins provides an essay discussing an issue related to evolution, taxonomy, or the scientific method. The chapters don’t necessarily have much to do with the particular species in question. In “The Grasshopper’s Tale,” for example, he talks about racism. “The Redwood’s Tale” discusses various scientific methods of artifact dating. This hodgepodge approach results in a lot of jumping around, which requires constant and tedious references to other chapters. There’s a Canterbury Tales metaphor running throughout the book that’s clever but ultimately serves no purpose. The backwards-through-time approach may be original but it’s not particularly effective in elucidating human origins. Much of the book isn’t really about our ancestors so much as it is about or cousins—that is, the taxonomic diversity that exists today. A linear, chronological approach may not be creative enough to win book awards, but it would have been a more useful and educational way to present this information.

What surprised me most about The Ancestor’s Tale was how little I learned from it. I’m not an evolutionary biologist—just a guy that reads National Geographic and watches Nova on PBS—yet I didn’t find a whole lot of new information here that I hadn’t seen before. Granted, I’m reviewing this book ten years after its publication, but I still find much to learn from century-old books by Darwin or Haeckel. A few passages come to mind as enlightening, like the discussion of the electrical sensory apparatus of the platypus, or the explanation of how the precursor to our spinal cord evolved from a ventral to a dorsal orientation, but such “eureka” moments are few and far between. Despite the fact that many of the topics covered are familiar, that doesn’t stop Dawkins from explaining them in the most complicated manner possible. Concepts like “most recent common ancestor” are not difficult to understand, but he goes on and on, page after page, beating that dead horse until its barely recognizable. At one point he even goes so far as to explain the structure of the atom. Those who don’t know that an electron revolves around a nucleus made of protons and neutrons are probably reading the wrong book, and it’s unlikely they’re going to get an understanding of the subject from Dawkins’ confusing explanation. Perhaps he intends to reach the broadest audience possible by idiot-proofing the text for readers who are novices to science, but the result is a book that’s too elementary for the science-savvy and too arcane for the uninitiated.

I have the utmost respect for Dawkins as a scientist. As a writer, however, he somehow managed to take a subject that fascinates me and bore the heck out of me with it. I agree with him that the natural world, and the process of evolution in particular, inspires an amazement and reverence greater than any religion could arouse, but unfortunately this book mostly inspired weariness.

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