Evolution's "High Priest" Returns With New "Tale"

James Owen in London
for National Geographic News
November 15, 2004
Zoologist Richard Dawkins describes his latest book, The Ancestor's Tale, as a pilgrimage back to the dawn of life. On the way he meets other pilgrims, starting with chimpanzees, our closest living ancestors, and ending up with primordial bacteria. He also pauses to blast U.S. President George W. Bush and "religious groups who actively work to prevent scientific education."

In telling the story of evolution, it might seem odd that Dawkins, a self-proclaimed atheist, should cast himself as a pilgrim. Then again, he has been called the high priest of evolution, with Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species as his bible.

Dawkins is a professor of public understanding of science at Oxford University, England. He is best known for interpreting Darwinian ideas on evolution for a wide audience.

In his first book, The Selfish Gene (1976), he encouraged us to think of animals as survival machines for genes. If genes are to be passed down to succeeding generations, he said, they must design an animal that's able to live long enough to reproduce. Genes that give an animal an edge over its competitors, such as faster legs or sharper claws, are more likely to be successful.

This is a way of understanding Darwin's idea of natural selection, the main mechanism that causes species to evolve.

In The Ancestor's Tale, Dawkins explores Darwinian evolution through the perspective of various species, which "tell" their own tales.

Nevertheless, Dawkins regularly returns to the level of the gene, where distinctions between species often become blurred. For instance, in the section "Eve's Tale," he tells us that for some inherited genes we may be more closely related to chimpanzees than to our own kin.

Genes also play a leading role in "Dodo's Tale," in which Dawkins recounts how pigeons that alighted on the predator-free island of Mauritius eventually evolved into heavy, flightless birds. Later, when humans arrived, the doomed dodo was a sitting duck.

"Darwinian evolution is not so much shortsighted as totally blind to the future," Dawkins explained in an interview with National Geographic News. "Short-term benefits in terms of gene survival are all that natural selection ever favors. Long-term benefits—for example to the species, the ecosystem, life itself—are irrelevant in natural selection."

Australia's Platypus

In the book Dawkins covers a host of adaptations that arise in response to natural selection. They include the extraordinary bill of the platypus, an egg-laying semiaquatic mammal from Australia.

The platypus is considered a primitive mammal, yet its bill appears to be highly advanced. The bill is packed with tens of thousands of electrical sensors operating to detect tiny electrical pulses that give away the movement of the animal's aquatic prey.

Asked to nominate a favorite adaptation, Dawkins said, "Oh goodness, there are so many good candidates. It is a shame to pick one, but if you insist, I might choose the African horsefly larva, which takes advanced steps to protect itself from cracks in the mud where it is about to bury itself."

The horsefly's larva spirals up and down through soft mud, creating a cylindrical column in which it pupates. When the mud gets baked by the sun, spreading cracks curve around the weakened edge of this column and so bypass the insect. Dawkins compares this to the paper perforations which prevent tearing across a postage stamp.

Of course, we humans have disrupted our own natural evolution: Medicinal drugs, education, and rule of law have largely eliminated the survival-of-the-fittest process. Yet this doesn't trouble Dawkins.

"Most of us have had our lives saved my medical science, probably more than once, and I am all for it," he said in the interview. "As an academic scientist I am a passionate Darwinian, in the sense that I believe Darwinian natural selection is the explanation for all life. But as a citizen I am an anti-Darwinian! I do not want to see the ruthless callousness of natural selection taking its toll of human life and happiness."

Likewise, in The Ancestor's Tale, Dawkins doesn't always come across as the dispassionate scientist. Given that the book covers four billion years of evolution, readers might be surprised by a number of critical references to President George W. Bush and the current U.S. administration.

"I think this may have been a tactical error on my part," he concedes. "Not because the critical references are unjustified but because they are ephemeral. I hope, and even dare to expect, that my book will still be read long after Bush is in the dustbin of history, where he belongs. And I fear that the book's few asides about Bush will seem dated and unworthy of its larger themes."

Darwinism Versus Creationism

Dawkins certainly isn't afraid to enter the political fray, especially when it comes to defending Darwinism.

The November 2004 cover story in National Geographic magazine is Was Darwin Wrong? The title refers to a 2001 Gallup poll, which found that 45 percent of U.S. adults believe evolution played no role in shaping humans.

Dawkins admits to feeling frustrated that so many Americans appear to reject Darwin's theory of evolution in favor of the creationist concept that God created humans in their present form.

He said, "I know perfectly well that these people are not stupid but ignorant. Ignorance is no crime and it is easily cured by education. What annoys me is the religious groups who actively work to prevent scientific education. And it doesn't just annoy me. It annoys respectable theologians who worry that creationism besmirches the reputation of true religion."

One species that didn't make it into The Ancestor's Tale is the newly discovered human, Homo floresiensis, whose remains were found recently on the Indonesian island of Flores. Some scientists suggest the three-foot-tall (one-meter-tall) human died out just 12,000 years ago. Others even speculate that remnant populations might still be living.

Dawkins says H. floresiensis fits perfectly the evolutionary trend toward island dwarfism. He refers to the examples of pygmy elephants once found on Sicily in the Mediterranean, and an extinct pygmy elephant which lived on Flores itself. The theory is that if there are no large predators around and a limited food supply, there is no advantage to having a bigger body, so species evolve into smaller versions of themselves.

Outspoken as ever, Dawkins is less than impressed with the nickname given to these little island people, adding "I hope the name 'hobbit' will not be adopted."

For Dawkins, the story of life on Earth is stranger and more wonderful than fiction.

James Owen is a freelance science and nature journalist based in London.

Don't Miss a Discovery
Sign up for the free Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top news stories by e-mail.

For more evolution stories, scroll to bottom.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.