Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2004-2005

The Ancestor’s Tale: A Voyage to the Dawn of Life, by Richard Dawkins, with Yan Wong


A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

reviewed by Dan O’Hara

Here are two excellent books, which should enthuse all who are interested in science, and which cover some of the same ground, though in rather different ways.

Richard Dawkins’s new book is, in several respects, his weightiest to date. Tipping the scales at just under 2kg (over 4lb), it probably contributed – in addition to my other luggage – to a pulled back muscle on a recent trip to France, where most of my review copy was read. Beautifully printed on glossy, clay-coated paper, and lavishly illustrated, it is the nearest thing to a coffee-table book that the author has yet produced.

Those who have read his earlier books will not find a great deal here that is completely new: but the approach to the subject matter in this veritable summa is distinctively different. Dawkins imagines himself, and all currently living things, setting out – like Chaucer’s pilgrims, though with different starting points – from the present day on a three-and-a-half-billion-year pilgrimage back to the dawn of life on our planet. At each point in the road where we and our closest living relatives meet a common ancestor – a “concestor” – he pauses to consider what that “concestor” must have been like.

So first we encounter early hominids, then the chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans, gibbons, old- and new-world monkeys, and so on through the rodents, hippos, armadillos, marsupials, monotremes, birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, crustaceans, sponges, fungi, plants and various forms of bacteria. At each juncture, genetic and environmental changes are highlighted.

Representatives from each of the 39 groups have their tale to tell, and at the end he surveys the journey and makes a lonely return to the starting point.

Everything Dawkins writes is well expressed, and he always makes a point of distinguishing carefully between that which is known with virtual certainty, that which is highly – or not so highly – probable and that which is merely possible or highly conjectural. He has lost nothing in his ability to choose an illuminating metaphor, where one is needed, and it would be difficult to imagine a more lucid exposition of sometimes quite complex and technical details. His enthusiasm can carry the reader with him where a more prosaic writer would leave many behind. And it is right and proper that he should – when necessary – highlight the travesty of certain creationist interpretations of the evidence, though I did find his occasional lambasting of certain current political figures (even if well-deserved) rather out of place in a book like this. Apart from unnecessarily alienating those who may take a different view of their actions, it is likely to make the book seem curiously dated in a few years’ time, and that will be a pity. I note that Amazon is currently offering the book for £15, which represents truly outstanding value for money.

Bill Bryson is first and foremost an engaging writer on travel and social mores, but he recently set himself a three-year project of reading all the important contemporary writing on cosmology, paleontology, physics, chemistry and evolutionary biology, and of personally interviewing many of the leading figures in those fields, before writing this universal history, which, if less detailed than Dawkins on the origins of life, certainly tells us more about the origins of the physical universe. It is a tribute to his comprehensive intelligence, as much as his skills as a writer, that he never for a moment leaves the reader puzzled, confused or otherwise wondering what he is driving at.

This is a book that anyone who aspires to a detailed, modern understanding of the universe and how we got here can read with both pleasure and profit. If I were responsible for selecting students for university places, I should not admit anyone who couldn’t give a clear account of its contents. The already very reasonable asking price has been halved by some booksellers, so yet again this represents phenomenal value for money. It is – as I write – deservedly topping the non-fiction paperback bestsellers list.

One of several points where Dawkins and Bryson overlap is on the origins and fate of the Oxford dodo. This unique specimen was donated to the Ashmolean Museum, where Dawkins actually works. In 1755, just seventy years after the last dodo died, it was sent to the incinerator by a museum director worried by the smell. Only the beak, part of the head and a few other scraps were retrieved from the flames by a far-sighted assistant. Bryson, perhaps surprisingly, gives us the more detailed account of all this, though Dawkins does include a colour photograph of all that remains of the hapless bird.

Those with sufficient time and interest will certainly enjoy both books; but, if you can manage only one, make it Bryson.

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Created : Sunday, 2005-02-13 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :