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it was amazing
On Monday, an old friend came round to lunch, and, while we were having a cup of tea in the living room, remarked on the number of Richard Dawkins books on my shelf. Somehow, I’d never heard that she’d actually had Dawkins as a supervisor for one term when she was an undergraduate at Oxford in the late 70s; it was in connection with the course she was reading on animal behaviour. I asked what he was like as a person, and she was unenthusiastic. Clearly very intelligent, but there was something a
I asked her which Dawkins she’d read, and, like most people, it was The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. She hadn’t particularly liked either one. I can sympathize with her point of view. But, as other reviewers here have said, Dawkins is a more complex person than he’s generally given credit for, and if you read The Ancestor’s Tale you’ll see another side. I suppose one could say that he’s attacking religion here too, but the strategy is completely the opposite of the blunt, in-your-face assault he uses in the The God Delusion; to my mind, it’s also far more effective. Rather than tell you what’s ugly and wrong about Intelligent Design, he concentrates his energies on showing you what’s beautiful and right about evolution, and how, far from contradicting traditional religious beliefs, it reveals them with a clarity that previous generations have been unable to see.
I kept thinking of Saint Francis of Assisi, and his love of all living creatures. “Brother bird, sister ant”… they’re beautiful poetic phrases. But what do they mean? Evidently, this finch can’t literally be my brother. There is no way that my mother could have given birth to him. The conventional explanation is that we’re both “children of God”, which is fine as far as it goes; the problem is that it doesn’t really shed much light on the nature of our relationship. The astonishing thing about evolution, which forms the core of this book, is that it shows how the bird and ant truly are my brother and sister. Well, not quite brother and sister – in fact, they’re very distant cousins. Dawkins traces the family tree, and shows precisely how we’re all related. He starts with the obvious cases (apes, monkeys), then goes back to other mammals, and then further through reptiles, birds, amphibians, insects, sponges, plants and all the way to protozoa. On the way, he tells you some extraordinary stories. Well, that shouldn’t be a surprise; think what interesting stories you hear when you meet up with a friend you used to know well, but haven’t seen for a decade. Here, you are in some cases meeting up with people you haven’t seen for several hundred million years.
At the end, I felt, as I had never felt before, how we’re all one family in the plain, everyday sense of the word, and how we’re linked though the genes we share, which we’ve inherited from our common ancestors. It’s a truly incredible thought. As Dawkins says on the last page: it’s not so much that he disagrees with religious people, it’s more that they’re saying it the wrong way. If you are yourself a religious person who wants to learn to be closer to God and His Creation, you could do worse than read this book.
There are some facts the simple knowing of which seems to me to be a supreme achievement of our species. The fact that we are all made of stardust. The fact that 99.9999999999999 percent of all matter is empty. The fact that mass and energy can be expressed in terms of each other. Stuff like that.
Pre-eminent among these to me, for sheer mind-expanding awe, is the fact that life on this planet has developed precisely once, as far as we know, and everything on earth has evolved from it. That means
it was amazing
Poor Dawkins – he gets a bad reputation. People think he’s mean and nasty and heartless and elitist.
Okay, I might have to grant people the “elitist” bit, because, well, I’m a bit of an elitist myself. But I dare you all to read this book and then tell me that Dawkins isn’t a total squishy.
Let’s just say this – he stops in the middle of the book to talk about how much he misses Douglas Adams, who was a dear friend of his. He waxes poetic about evolution and how much he wishes he could meet our