Monday, August 17, 2009


The last verse of an old Ernie Ford song, "Sixteen Tons," goes as follows:

Now, man came from monkey, some folks say,
But the Good Book, brother, don't tell it that way.
If you believe that monkey tale like some folks do,
I'd rather be that monkey than you.

Sigh. There are those among us who believe that people reject all or part of the theory of evolution because they don't understand it. I used to think that. But on reconsidering, I think that people don't accept evolution because
1. It scares them
2. It offends them
3. It doesn't square with some holy document

It's true that the entire concept of evolution is somewhat difficult to get one's mind around. Why are humans so good at reading faces? Because that's the way we evolved. This is getting it backwards. We need to think of what challenges our ancestors faced such that evolving such and such a characteristic or organ helped them survive. I can read faces because those of my ancestors who could read faces survived to reproduce.

One of the best of the new books which helps people understand how evolution works is Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale. It's good because it works backwards. It starts with us, then goes back to the first known split, where we and another species diverged from a root stock. So, let's say that we split from chimps about, what, 4 million years ago? Okay, so Dawkins looks at what the root stock was like, what we were like, what chimps were like, differences, similarities, drawing inferences, making hypotheses, sometimes guessing. Then he moves on to the next split, where apes split from root stock, and then to the next, working ever and ever farther back until he comes to the beginnings of life.

Doing it this way allows Dawkins to tease out the reasons we are the way we are. It's fascinating and very enlightening. Also, it's long. It may have the same problem that Darwin's Origin of Species has -- easy to read but very complete.


bekkieann said...

I've watched video of Dawkins speaking, and he is truly brilliant and a fascinating speaker. But I've never read his books. Laziness on my part. But if his writing is as intensely interesting as his speaking, I know I'd enjoy it.

You would point out how long this one is. Should I try it or wait for it to come out on video?

On both your houses said...

I'd go ahead and try it. Get a copy from the library. Once you've read some of it, you can see how the rest will go down. You don't need to go all the way through. I've never seen him speak, but he is a good writer, certainly not afraid to come right out and say what he means.