Hippopotomus, the Whales’ first cousin

Oxford_rdawkins“Godless fellow that he is, and loudly proclaims himself to be, Richard Dawkins is not obvious pilgrim material; but The Ancestor’s Tale is a pilgrimage. Dawkins’s subject here is the history of life, how it evolved from the first chemical twitches – deep beneath the surface of a young planet, in the fissures of scalding rocks – all the way up to beings capable of understanding the process. But in telling the story from beginning to end, it is easy to fall into a kind of Whig Darwinism, and to speak as if evolution has a direction.  …

The cuteness of the Chaucerian conceit grates slightly. The great advantage is that you never lose sight of the fact that it is our family tree we are discussing. It’s easy enough to assent to the proposition that we are descended from primeval bacteria, but harder to feel any kinship with snakes or fish, let alone fungi. No other book I have read has given me such a dizzyingly immediate sense of the vastness and strangeness of the changes brought about by evolution over the eons, or how intimately all life is bound together – far more intimately than we could have conceived a few years ago.

Though The Ancestor’s Tale looks at things from the perspective of the species, Dawkins hasn’t slackened in his conviction, put forward in The Selfish Gene, that evolution is best understood at the level of the gene. From a gene’s point of view, the seemingly obvious divisions between species evaporate: the same genes may be found in humans, in chimpanzees, in pangolin and skinks. It is possible that the same gene has come down from a concestor to you and a chimp somewhere in west Africa – but that your sibling hasn’t inherited it. This sharing of genes has momentous consequences for our understanding of the history of life: we now find that some creatures are far more closely related than we suspected – the whale, for example, turns out to be first cousin to the hippopotamus. And by measuring the divergence between versions of the same gene in different species, we can estimate how long ago they diverged. “This by Robert Hanks of the Telegraph on Richard Dawkins’ fascinating new opus.

Professor Dawkins is currently touring in “mostly the blue states” (and I quote him) with a fabulously entertaining reading performed in conjuction with his wife, the actress Lalla Ward. You may check the Houghton Mifflin website for tour calender.

For more reviews:

Here Matt Ridley welcomes Richard Dawkins’s genetic pilgrimage.

Here Carl Zimmer of the NY Times reviews The Ancestor’s Tale