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 On the trail of our ancestors
On the trail of our ancestors

Evolutionary biologist and best-selling author Richard Dawkins talks exclusively to Venue about his forthcoming visit to Bristol to take part in this year’s Ancestor’s Trail in August. Interview: Tom Phillips Pic: Lalla Ward

You’re coming to Bristol in August for the ‘Wallace in Bristol’ event which is, in turn, part of The Ancestor’s Trail. What will you be doing at this event and what else will be happening on the day? I’ll be one of a number of speakers honouring Wallace, the “other Darwin”. The event is in aid of a good cause, raising a statue of Wallace to join Darwin’s in the Natural History Museum. My talk is called ‘Give the under surface to Mr Wallace, but yield the upper surface to Mr Darwin.’ Enigmatic, yes, intentionally so with a meaning both literal and metaphoric. All will become clear, and I shall leave plenty of time to answer questions at the end.

‘Wallace in Bristol’ is in honour of Alfred Russel Wallace: how important was his work to the study of evolution? Natural selection is a remarkably simple yet powerful idea, and it is astonishing that it had to wait till the mid nineteenth century before anyone thought of it. And then two English naturalists thought of it at almost the same time. Charles Darwin is well known. Alfred Wallace is often forgotten, but he really did have the same idea as Darwin, at almost the same time, and he expressed it in almost exactly the same terms. Indeed, in some ways Wallace’s way of putting it was even clearer – dare I say even more Darwinian (and, by the way, Wallace coined the word “Darwinism”) than Darwin’s own.

The Ancestors’ Trail is inspired by your book ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’ in which you relate the history of evolution using reverse chronology. Why did you choose to adopt that particular strategy? Forward chronology has a pernicious weakness. It can suggest, if we are not very careful, that evolution is “aiming” at some distant future target. It becomes even more pernicious if that distant target is considered to be humanity. Since we are human, it is entirely pardonable to be especially interested in our own ancestry. I wanted to pander to this, but at the same time the last thing I wanted was to suggest that evolution was aiming towards us, or that we are “evolution’s last word” etc. When you put it like that, a solution leaps to mind. Tell the story of evolution backwards. Begin with humans and work backwards to the origin of life. We could begin with anything, hornet, hippopotamus or hummingbird and work backwards. The end point would be the same in all cases: the origin of life. That is the beauty of working backwards, and that very fact tells us something important about evolution.

In the book you use the term ‘concestor’: could you explain what a concestor is? “Concestor” is an abbreviation of “most recent common ancestor”. Every pair of animals or plants on this planet has a unique concestor, even though we usually don’t know what it looked like. The concestor of humans and old world monkeys is a particular individual (looking much like a monkey) which lived some 20 million years ago. The concestor of hedgehogs (and all other mammals) and turkeys (and all other birds and reptiles) is a particular individual who lived about 300 million years ago and perhaps looked vaguely like a lizard. The concestor of rabbits (and all other vertebrates) and snails (and all other protostomes) was a particular individual who lived at a particular time (hard to know when, probably more than a billion years ago). The surprising thing is that, if you walk backwards along the human ancestral tree, you hit only about 40 concestors with other living animals.

You also use the phrase ‘the tyranny of the discontinuous mind’: what did you mean by that? Is there an evolutionary explanation for why our minds might have become ‘discontinuous’? There is a terrible temptation to classify things into discontinuous, “all or none” categories. Universities give degrees that are classified into First, Upper Second, Lower Second, Third. But the top of one class is far closer to the bottom of the class above than it is to the bottom of its own class. There is no need to classify people into tall, medium or short, for height is a continuous variable. There is no need to classify people as black or white: because of interracial marriage all degrees of intermediacy are seen. Sometimes, for legal reasons, we have to decide whether somebody is an adult, able to vote, or a juvenile. We arbitrarily draw a line at the 18th birthday, although we know very well nothing dramatic happens to separate the two sides of the line. I don’t know whether there is an evolutionary reason why we are so prone to the tyranny of the discontinuous mind, but I wish we would all grow out of it. And there is an additional connection with evolution. It is very probable that the discontinuous mind is responsible for humanity’s long failure to understand evolution. We were so used to seeing species as discontinuous entities, fixed for all time, that we failed to see that one might evolve, gradually and imperceptibly, into another.

Since then, you’ve established the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Could you say why? And something about its work? The God Delusion sold more than two million copies and made me a little money. I wanted to do some good with it rather than hoard it or pay it away in tax. The good causes that appeal to me foster education in science and reason, scepticism and critical thinking, helping to free humanity from the burdens of superstition and traditional or scriptural faiths. Those burdens afflict America especially, so I set up two charities with identical names and aims, one in Britain (where I pay tax) and one in America. The two are legally separate entities but they cooperate fully and pass money legally between them. The most expensive of our enterprises is running the website RichardDawkins.net. This is the hub of our activities, which also include producing DVDs, YouTube films and educational “vignettes” (3-5 minute films suitable for teachers of science to make specific points). At conferences we sponsor scientific lectures, and also child crêching facilities which make it easier for parent to attend the lectures. Other sponsorships of which I am proud include The Clergy Project, assisting the (surprisingly numerous as we are discovering) clergy who have lost their faith, become closet atheists and seek a way to escape their now empty, dead-end career. We founded Non-Believers Giving Aid (NBGA) providing a conduit for non-believers to belie their unjust reputation for lack of charitable work. In one month, NBGA raised half a million dollars for victims of the terrible Haiti earthquake of 2010. In Britain we commissioned an Ipsos MORI opinion poll immediately after the 2011 Census, demonstrating the embarrassing (to some) fact that Britain is truly a far less Christian country than the Census seemed to suggest. We also sponsor other educational and charitable enterprises such as the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, the Apostasy Project, various university secular societies, and others.

You’re publishing the first part of your autobiography later this year. How has writing that compared with working on your studies of evolutionary science? I’ve enjoyed recalling childhood with the help of my 96-year-old mother, whose memory of long ago is marvellous. This first volume is arranged chronologically and ends with the publication of my first book, The Selfish Gene, a watershed moment for me when my career switched into a new direction. I’ve tried to intersperse scientific asides in the narrative, and later chapters include some of the scientific work that I did before The Selfish Gene. The second volume may depart from chronological format and arrange the chapters by themes.

Richard Dawkins is the keynote speaker at ‘Wallace In Bristol’, Wills Memorial Building, Sat 24 Aug. Ffi and tickets (booking open now): http://www.entangled-bank.co.uk/dawkins-in-bristol.html The Ancestor’s Trail - a guided walk backwards through the story of evolution on the Quantock Hills – takes place as part of a weekend of events running from Sat 24-Mon 26 Aug. Ffi: ancestorstrail.net

The first volume of Richard Dawkins’ autobiography, An Appetite For Wonder: The Making Of A Scientist, will be published on 24 Sept by Ecco Press. Copies can be pre-ordered here: http://store.richarddawkins.net/products/childhood-boyhood-truth

Venue Publishing 2013; pic copyright Lalla Ward



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