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."
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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.
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