Monday, January 02, 2006

The Ancestor's Tale - comments

Today I finished the Richard Dawkins book The Ancestor's Tale. It was a long journey, taking several months of my time to read through billions of years of history.

It was well worth it.

Do not be fooled. This is not a book you'll rip through in a couple days. It's meaty, it's solid, and it's full of science. Some of it is nearly impossible to follow, and you'll forget half of what you read by the time you're done. But, if you're like me, you'll still be glad you read it. Dawkins brings together the latest thinking in evolutionary biology to create a compelling visualization of how life went from its earliest stages to where it is today.

He does this by starting off on a pilgrimage from humanity back to the common ancestor of all life. Along the way, he pauses to tell the stories of various others who join in. Primates. Mammals. Fish. It just keeps going, and along the way he tells the story of life's incredible ability to adapt and overcome. It's mind-boggling and eye-opening, and it's hard not to smile as you learn something new every page.

It's not all good, however. At times it's dry and inaccessible, but that's not the real flaw. The real flaw is that Dawkins is writing as a soldier in the culture wars, and it's hard not to see it. He takes jabs at organized religion, at creationism, and at superstition as often as he can. It's not that the jabs aren't deserved, and I'm sure he showed restraint in how he did it. But it's still distracting. Some call it preaching to the choir, but I'm more reminded of the phrase "mutual intellectual masturbation." I know he's right and he knows he's right, and frankly nobody who disagrees is wasting a couple months of their life reading his six-hundred-page textbook. So just relax and tell the story you're here to tell. I don't need the propaganda that comes with it.

Read the wikipedia article. Dawkins is a controversial figure, and he can't resist the controversy here. But the book is solid, and well-deserving of the praise it has gotten. On my binary scale, it gets a "yes," with the qualification that it might read differently to someone with no scientific background.

No comments: