PostRoad magazine recommendation:

The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins, published by Houghton Mifflin


As a student, I ran away from the math that would have gotten me into all of the really interesting science and now I make up some of that lost ground by reading books like Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale. I confess I’m still not learning the science, but fishing around for metaphor and story that I can shoddily misapply—Dawkins is a great resource in that regard.


His book traces the evolution of all life in reverse by highlighting the forty points of rendezvous where different species branch off—starting with humans, Rendevous 1 is the chimpanzees, Rendezvous 2 is the Gorillas, etc., back to the earliest protohistory (in which, Dawkins speculates, life began not on the surface, and powered by the sun, but deep in crust by heat-loving bacteria that eventually migrated to the surface). It is full of the delightful cocktail party facts that always get me seated by myself: that the earliest ur-language is called Norastic, that all mammals spring from shrew-like nocturnal insectivores, why chimpanzees have proportionally huge testicles—all of the important stuff.

And, yes, there is all of the Big Learning that you need—current perspectives on evolutionary biology and chemistry, pocket refutations of creationism (it involves a 20 ft-long nerve in the neck of a giraffe that wraps around its heart), and enough obscure words to make you a Scrabble champion. There are also some great garage band names (my favorite: the Introns, after the sections of DNA encoded with meaningless information—it’s gold, baby).


The book is structured after the Canterbury Tales, with pilgrims telling tales at each of the rendezvous points (The Lungfish’s Tale, The Velvet Worm’s Tale (Rock band! Rock band!), the Mixotrich’s Tale, etc.), all the way back to “life’s scalding Canterbury” deep in the rocks. This structure brings out many odd affinities; one of the best is in the simple fact of our being alive rather than merely possible:
“There are many more ways of being dead than alive—all possible animals includes an almost infinitely large range of conceivable monstrosities as well as the small numbers of actual animals. . . . living creatures are islands of viability separated from other islands by gigantic oceans of grotesque deformity.” This may be the best description of finding friends after college that I have ever read.


A fundamental evolutionary split occurs very early in the development of all complex organisms at a moment called gastrulation. The ball of cells that will become a beetle or a Beatle forms a cup and that cup opening creates either the mouth or the anus. The Protostomes—snails, lugworms, insects—are those who get the mouth first. The rest of us---all of the other animals—are deuterostomes; it means “mouth second” or, as I prefer to think of it, “ass first”, although I’m guessing that doesn’t flow as well in the Greek.


How did this come to be? . He explains that there is one fundamental constant force shaping bodies on earth: gravity. Yet there is a fundamental split in body form between vetebrates (with our nerve bundles running down our backs—dorsal) and the invertebrates, with theirs running down their fronts (ventral). Back when we were all worms, or worse—that is, before vertebrates split off—our nerve bundles were all down the front. So how did one set of worms, in defiance of gravity, migrate its nerves to the back? Dawkins speculates that for some now-lost reason, a worm flipped onto its back—perhaps for better food, or access to light; over millions of years, its internal organs migrated to the back, and a new revolution of body forms began. And the profusion of vertebrate animals arose from that worm. We are The Worm That Turned—the innovator, the explorer, the maverick--defying gravity, convention, the jelly-like worm hordes that crawl belly to the ground.


Dawkins notes that the processes of evolution are driven by chemistry, and neatly links the fundaments of chemistry (wherein the bulk of the complex elements in the universe are created within stars) to the outputs of biological processes:
“Seeing is the kind of activity that can go on only in the kind of universe where what you can see is stars.” He goes on to explain later that eyes have evolved between 40 and 60 separate times in different species; life, he says “is almost indecently eager to evolve eyes.”


One final metaphor-nail from this dense, rich book: Dawkins points us early in the book to the Cro-Magnon’s Tale. It seems that for over a million years of human evolution we changed little—we had crude tools of bone or wood or stone—just small groups of hunter-gathers scraping their way along. Then, very abruptly, about 40,000 years ago, there was a flowering of human consciousness so striking that it has been called (by Jared Diamond) the Great Leap Forward. Suddenly there are carvings, music, cave paintings, domesticated animals, agriculture and the complex societies that it spawned. It is so remarkably sudden that, Dawkins argues, all of our modern technological and cultural achievement is essentially contemporaneous with the Venus of Willendorf and the cave painting of Lascaux.
He presents some explanations for this surge, including the invention of language; his own hunch, however, is that is may be rooted in a trick of grammar, like the invention of the conditional clause that would have “enabled the ‘what-if’ imagination to flower.”


And so there we are, maverick worms, making our way ass-first out of the rocks to see with our inevitable eyes the stars that birthed us and taking our place in this great Age of the Imagination.

 

Previous Selections:

Exercise #2: smear, pursue, waver

Exercise #1: brittle, lick, sparkle

Tag Team Fiction with Brian Hall: La Morte D'Ina

The 22nd March

For Melanie and Peter