The Ancestor’s Tale

Wednesday afternoon


This afternoon, I’ll go to the “A good read” session, where a panel discuss a set of books. As you might have noticed, I love to read books. The one I’ve got with me to read on the train, is “The Ancestor’s Tale” by Richard Dawkins. Nothing to do with the day job. I just find evolution to be fascinating. Darwin has really changed the way we see the world, as few people have done.

In the Ancestor’s Tale, Richard goes back in time to find the common ancestors (“concestors”) of different species. For example, the first concestor is the species from which both humans and chimpanzees descend. Then come the gorilla’s, and so on. I’m currently 425 million years from today, where I meet with the ancestor of the Coelacanth and us. The Coelacanth caused a bit of a stir when it was discovered in 1938, because everyone believed that Coelacanths had gone extinct a long, long time ago.

Dawkins makes it clear that there’s no strict, clear boundary between species. It’s all gradual evolution, there are no large discontinuities. “Species” are just arbitrary classifications invented by biologists to indicate that two types of creature are sufficiently different to make the distinction useful. We are not descended from Chimpanzees, but we had the same parents. We are all siblings of Coelacanths, even creationists.

I’m reading the Ancestor’s Tale because I liked “The Selfish Gene“, which argues that the reason for all life is to propagate genes. It’s a great book, the argumentation is very convincing, but I fear the metaphors he uses are prone to misinterpretation. For example, what does it mean for a gene to be selfish? If you look long enough (a few million years or so), it would look as if genes have some sort of will or goal. Of course, it’s all massive, random processes with feedback from selection.


I read the Selfish Gene after hearing Dawkins in Steve Reich and Beryl Korot’s “Three Tales” music video.

Part of Dawkins’ text is:

We and all other animals
are machines
created by our genes

A monkey is a machine
that preserves genes up trees

A fish is a machine
that preserves genes in the water

Hmmmm… How’s that for a metaphor that can be misunderstood? Read the book to understand what Dawkins means by “machine”.

How do you decide which books to read? What’s the story behind the last book you read?


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