The Pilgrim's Regress

A Review of The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution by Richard Dawkins


Michael J. Behe

This article was first published in The American Spectator v. 38 n. 3, April 1, 2005.

To appreciate the magnitude of Oxford University biologist Richard Dawkins’ latest feat, borrow a teenager’s high school biology textbook. If you’re like most people, after reading just a page or two your eyes will glaze over. Your mind will wander to thoughts of dinner or the evening’s TV shows. Regrettably, despite dealing with the world’s most fascinating topic — life itself — biology texts are pedantic, detailed, dry. Well, in The Ancestor’s Tale Dawkins translates that tedious textbook into much more readable, often entertaining prose. Colorful verbs (“dazzles”, “slew”). Interesting analogies (“The nucleus of a cell is like the ROM of a Mac”). Fun facts (“More than 40 percent of all mammal species are rodents”). Although lumps of pedantry remain, you know there is no final exam, so they can be skimmed with impunity until the pace quickens once again.

Dawkins’ book differs from texts in other ways, too, but these are less helpful. Instead of progressing from the simplest creatures to the more complex, the storyline regresses. It begins with humans and mammals, moves to reptiles, fish, and simpler vertebrates, and finishes with amoeba and bacteria. This approach is quite peculiar, like a book about mathematics that proceeds from calculus through algebra and down to addition facts. Dawkins’ reasons for the backward structure are alternately strained and tendentious. He says he wanted a hook on which to hang the history of life (as if “The History of Life” weren’t catchy enough). After casting around he finally decided to model the book after Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. In the fourteenth century classic, a group of colorful characters travels on a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, and along the way entertain each other with their stories. Dawkins’ conceit is to have a pilgrimage from the present to the dawn of life, where humans are joined at various time points along the trek by branches of life with which they share a common ancestor.

That’s cute. But the hook sticks Dawkins with a narrative structure that ill suits the story of biology. If he really wanted to use The Canterbury Tales as a model, why not just have a pilgrimage by the first cell from the start of life to the present, where it could meet up with more complex descendants ending with humans? Because, you see, he worried that would imply evolution was working toward a goal — us, which simply would not do. Dawkins knows in the marrow of his bones that evolution has no goal.

The second major defect of the book is that, other than a dust jacket photo of the author, it has no high quality, color photographs. Even the driest biology textbook these days includes plenty of spectacular photos and illustrations, which often can entice reluctant students into reading the text. Yet The Ancestor’s Tale grudges only the occasional, tiny, black and white photo or graph to accompany the discussion. This really is unforgivable, because it works against the whole purpose of Dawkins’ book — to evoke wonder at life. One figure legend touting “rustling rivers of green” refers to a black and white photo of leaf cutter ants. It’s hard to even puzzle out what’s going on in some pictures, such as those of the upside-down catfish (looked at from any angle) or Heron Island (what is that thing? a cell? a kidney?). The poor photos make it impossible to share Dawkins’ rapture over Venus’s girdle or the leafy sea dragon — they’re splotches of ink. Although Dawkins’ prose beats textbook writing by a mile, the texts win hands down on illustrations. All in all, then, I’d recommend a high school biology textbook over The Ancestor’s Tale, because great pictures of life can more than compensate for stodgy prose.

Which leads to the big question: what in the name of Darwin has happened to Richard Dawkins, that his current work compares unfavorably with a textbook? Over the years Dawkins has been both an innovative thinker and truly gifted expositor of complex biological ideas. His first book, The Selfish Gene in 1976, marshaled a (granting Dawkins’ assumptions) compelling argument for a controversial idea, that evolution can best be understood from the viewpoint of a gene — the “instructions” that get duplicated each time an organism reproduces. Looked at this way, plants and animals are just complex shells that genes build to help them propagate. He elaborated on his gene theme in The Extended Phenotype, contending that genes also affect the larger world around them. For example, the genes that push a beaver’s body to build a dam in a river are acting to ensure their own survival no less than the genes that build the beaver’s tail. (Such anthropomorphic language is well justified by Dawkins.) In 1986 The Blind Watchmaker — Dawkins’ classic defense of Darwinian evolution — painted a crystal clear picture of how Darwinists view the world.

Then the pace of ideas slowed. About a decade passed until Dawkins’ next books, River out of Eden and Climbing Mount Improbable. Both pretty much just reprised The Blind Watchmaker. A few years later in Unweaving the Rainbow Dawkins unveiled his sensitive side, like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock shedding tears, to explain why science can inspire emotion just as much as poetry does. A Devil’s Chaplain last year collected some disconnected Dawkins essays — book reviews, articles for newspapers — many of which were exercises in spleen venting, making a sustained argument for nothing. Now he writes a tome which, if it had been done right, would at best have made a great coffee table book, with pretty pictures to accompany the elegant prose, but which could have been assembled by the staff of National Geographic.

It seems apparent that Dawkins’ creative intellect is spent. He is no longer either willing or able to wrestle with big ideas. Now, as Oxford University’s unfortunate “Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science”, he is doomed to the life of a pedestrian science popularizer (he spends pages in The Ancestor’s Tale explaining radioactive dating to those who don’t know protons from neutrons), although an admittedly entertaining one given to frequent, superficial rants on religion and politics.

That is a pity, because there are a number of big ideas that make cameo appearances in The Ancestor’s Tale. About these it would be fascinating to read the coherent thoughts of an engaged Dawkins in his prime, the Dawkins of the mid 1970s to mid 1980s. For example, the contentious topic of whether nature points to a reality beyond itself lifts its head briefly at several spots in The Ancestor’s Tale. In the first few pages of this very long book Dawkins scoots by the so-called “anthropic coincidences.” These are the many physical laws and constants of our universe that have to be just-so for life to exist. They include such factors as the strength of gravity, the exact charge on an electron, and many others. Yet Dawkins hastily waves them all away by invoking the speculations of some physicists that, for unknown reasons, the laws and constants just had to be the way they are, or that there are actually many universes, and by necessity we live in one that allows for the existence of complex life.

The other intriguing possibility — that the laws have been set from outside nature to allow for life to grow on Earth — is peremptorily dismissed as “vanity”. Dawkins betrays no awareness of some recent books that bear on the topic. A few years ago, in Rare Earth, Ward and Brownlee argued that it’s not just the general laws of the universe that are peculiar; the exact position of our Earth in the cosmos is very special — so special that it may be the only world in the universe where thinking life can exist. In Nature’s Destiny Michael Denton extended the anthropic argument from physics down through chemistry and biology. Among many other requirements, Denton contended that only a creature quite similar in size and shape to humans could build a civilization. For example, even humanly-intelligent dolphins would have a tough time building a fire to smelt metal, let alone, say, manipulating materials to construct a computer. Far Side cartoons notwithstanding, non-human animals, even if they could think, don’t have a physical form that lends itself to building the structures a civilization requires. The paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, who like Dawkins is a Fellow of the Royal Society, argued in Life’s Solution that evolutionary convergences (where similar structures pop up in diverse branches of life) point strongly toward teleology in nature. Astoundingly, although Dawkins discusses Morris and his book, he breathes not a word of its controversial, explicitly contra-Dawkins theme.

Dawkins also flits around a point I made in 1996 in Darwin’s Black Box, that Darwinian processes don’t explain all of life. I argued that “irreducibly complex” cellular structures — ones that need many distinct parts to work — required deliberate design by an intelligent agent. An example is the bacterial flagellum, which is literally an outboard motor that some bacteria use to swim. Remarkably, Dawkins writes that “It is perfectly legitimate to propose the argument from irreducible complexity as a possible explanation for the lack of something that doesn’t exist,” but not for the presence of something that does exist. Dawkins’ reasoning seems to go like this: 1) everything that exists in biology was produced by Darwinian evolution; 2) irreducibly complex systems can’t be produced by Darwinian evolution; 3) therefore nothing in life is irreducible (no matter that it sure looks that way), but in theory things that don’t exist in life may be. Good thing he’s not Professor of the Public Understanding of Logic, else the public might never be told of the concept of ‘begging the question’.

Dawkins even muses about how space aliens visiting our planet after humans have gone extinct might try to distinguish between designed machines and living systems. “Might [the discovery of genuine irreducible complexity in life] suggest genuine design by a superior intelligence, say from an older and more highly evolved civilisation on another planet?” Great question. Alas, he dodges it, too, deferring to biologist Kenneth Miller. Miller’s argument is that because the flagellum is more complex than we thought, that because it can act both as a protein pump as well as an outboard motor, then it is not irreducible. If the motor gets broken, remaining pieces may still act as a pump. That’s like arguing that because, in addition to wheels and a motor, a car has a fuel pump, then it isn’t irreducible either. If the tires are flat, the fuel pump can still work. Therefore we can imagine that the car could have been put together in small random steps. Such is the rigor of Darwinian thought.

For my money the biggest idea that Dawkins whistles past is where he explains why we must at all cost avoid thinking that humans are special. Humans have big brains, says he, and so naturally think big brains must be the pinnacle of life. However, “a historically-minded swift, understandably proud of flight as self-evidently the premier accomplishment of life will regard swiftkind ... as the acme of evolutionary progress.” And in the same vein,

    ... if elephants could write history they might portray tapirs, elephant shrews, elephant seals and proboscis monkeys as tentative beginners along the main trunk road of evolution, taking the first fumbling steps but each — for some reason — never quite making it: so near yet so far. Elephant astronomers might wonder whether, on some other world, there exist alien life forms that have crossed the nasal rubicon and taken the final leap to full proboscitude.

Nasal rubicon — funny. Really puts us humans in our place. Yet Dawkins clearly means this not just as a joke. He treats it as a serious conclusion, so serious that it forces a bizarre structure onto his book to avoid giving any special emphasis to humans. So let’s think seriously about his humorous, drive-by comment. Let’s use those overrated brains of ours for a second to ask, what exactly does Dawkins propose elephants would employ to think about astronomy? Their trunks? How would they be able to conceive of history? With their outsized ears? How would a swift “regard” anything at all? With its wings? If swifts could regard anything, they would necessarily regard their ability to regard as the zenith of life. If elephants could write history, it would be a history of ideas. They would wonder much more about the grandness of their mental universe than the size of their trunks.

Contrary to Richard Dawkins, the power to reason is indeed the greatest possible attribute of life. The only greater talent would be the ability to reason better. The priority of thought is not due to human pride; rather, it’s because reasoning is a prerequisite to understanding. It is for this spectacularly obvious reason that almost everyone except the most besotted Darwinists regards thinking as unique, as deserving of special study, as qualitatively different from and superior to any other attribute of life, perhaps even as an immaterial ability, perhaps even as pointing to something beyond nature. Now, why would a professor of the public “understanding” of anything belittle the ability to reason?

Michael J. Behe is a Professor of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania