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.

Continued on Next Page >>




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