Book Review with commentary
Updated 14 May 2010
Dawkins combines science with storytelling as few writers can. He brings evolution to life in its beauty and depth, its probabilistic meanderings, yet certain of some direction, even to a non-competitive dead end. His illustrations of species continuity and incremental evolution are the best we have seen. Species spreading around barriers or being isolated by them, meeting again as different species is drama to behold. And nowhere is there a broken link in the examples he illustrates! Species come and go even as their genes live on and on and on, some for a billion years and more. These are just a few of the dramas awaiting his readers.
Along the way we learn not only the sequences of evolution, but much about the biology and chemistry that explain it all. What biases Dawkins has, he owns up to while explaining views of others in the same passionate ways he expounds his own. His frequent digressions, apparently beside the point, have the end result of snapping the pictures he draws into place. This makes him convincing, even to the skeptic.
In his prologue, Dawkins begins introducing us not only to the complexities of life, but to the vast simplifications inherent in the 21 "words" whose combination possibilities comprise the entire tree of life. Life is truly a tree, according to the latest analysis in Nature and reported by Science News. These 21 words are 20 amino acids and one all important "punctuation mark." As it happens, many of these amino acids occur naturally, in outer space, in cool clouds of gas and dust--the debris of ancient exploded stars ( see Natural History). Then there are the catalytic enzymes that increase a biological reaction rate by up to a millions fold. Together, these features simplify the mystery of life while shortening the probabilistic odds against speciation.
Rather than begin with those histories and describe how life arose and moved "forward" Dawkins treats us to a pilgrimage back in time where we meet concestor after concestor [the last common ancestor of any two given species], with increasing fascination and amazement.
In the time it took for us to separate from Chimpanzees as we have, six million years, less than one percent of our mutual genes have diverged. That total is about 200, or about one mutation per 30,000 years.
In another example, he makes another vital point: If we view the "simple" ameoba, a one celled creature, through the eyes of bacteria that see only genes, an ameoba would hardly be distinguishable from a human being or a tree! In other words, eucharia, the "third root" in the tree of life to which we belong, shows dramatically less variability (or variation) among fungi, pine trees and people than there is between the whole of the bacteria. Archaea, the second, (or first) root in the tree of life, are also distantly related genetically to each of the bacteria and us.
Eucharia comprise all plants and animals--the two kingdoms. By contrast, the bacteria comprise dozens of kingdoms -- using the observed animal / plant differences as a criterion. And there is scarcely a biological process that humanity performs that bacteria did not beat us to.
To counteract such humbling, one of Dawkins concluding questions makes the entire 614 pages of text worth devouring: "What is so special about humans that we have managed to overcome our antisocial instincts [Authoritarianism] and built roads we all share? "Oh there is so much. No other species comes close to a welfare state, to an organization that takes care of the old, that looks after the sick and the orphaned, that gives to charity." These are not Darwinian behaviors.
Will Homo be the end of evolution? Certainly not. But just as certainly, humans now have the potential to reduce the randomness by which species evolve, and also to change the rate. Indeed we are already well along that new road, with our antibiotics, genetically modified crops, and gene splicing. The latter, of course, allows us to alter or create new chromosomes at will with new expressions. A basic re-creation of life may well come within decades as the end point of how life came to be.
Evolution does not recognize ethics; only humanity and the great apes do that. Evolution does, however, disturb mythos and its fundamentalist interpretation of how life arose. Dawkins does not back away from that issue. Thereby he shows his independence of thought arising from his internal Locus of Control.
Posted by RoadToPeace on Saturday, October 08, 2005.