Back to Bacteria: Richard Dawkins' Fabulous Bestiary
"FABULOUS" SUGGESTS A FABLE, but Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale1-a reverse journey of sorts from Homo sapiens to the primal blobis in large part fact, slightly smaller part inspired speculation, and still smaller part artful fabrication. Only a master of the game of evolution-ary history could have produced an opus as grandly magnum as this one. To create his journey back to the parent of us all, Dawkins has founded his six-hundred-page epic on an act of poetic license that probably causes more trouble than it's worth. Acknowledging that a retro-history of evolution back to square one could very well begin with any extant creature, he nonetheless (bowing to "human interest") chose Homo sapiens as his startup vehicle, while deciding to treat the journey as a pilgrimage in the style of The Canterbury Tales. In the persona of a Host, he picks up a "pilgrim" at each point at which a species branch reconnects (since we're going backwards) to a larger branch of the evolutionary tree, a point in other words where, in retrospect, we can identify a new taxonomic lineage as having arisen. These pilgrims are actually progenitors of the new species, common ancestors whom Dawkins has neologized as "concestors," most of whom, at least in theory, tell a "tale," like Chaucer's pilgrims.
One could wish that this literary device had worked out better than it does, since in reality there is no Host, no pilgrims, no tales and no Canterbury, just Dawkins as the grand narrator who speaks in a number of voices, not in order to imitate diverse pilgrims (who are nowhere in evidence) but to employ the rhetorical mode that his story requires at each turn. These modes range from genial, literary, knockabout informal discourse to highly technical set pieces in the specialized language of zoology. I would call this virtuoso performance an oratorio-with recitatives, stately arias, and maybe an occasional grand chorus-more like Haydn's The Creation than Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The result is a book that is at once awe-inspiring and not quite satisfactory.
A multi-modal performance such as this raises the question of what constitutes a "book," or at least a book that produces a distinct and powerful impression. The familiar Richard Dawkins, celebrated for such cultural artifacts as The Selfish Gene-ana The Blind Watchmaker as well as collections of essays and reviews such as A Devil's Chaplain, is here only fitfully in evidence, mainly in the meditative arias. The long discursive unwrappings of a single theory or insight that drives his well-known works provide them with a continuity of narrative and voice that serve as a motive force largely lacking in The Ancestor's Tale. There are a lot of dry (but densely informative) zoological recitatives describing the major life forms along the way, admittedly the heart of the book. The most gripping parts are the discourse-rich early pages presenting general ideas, the periodic "arias" in which Dawkins steps back from his ongoing bestiary to speculate and ruminate about the significance of its zoological particulars or to hurl political, religious, and scientific thunderbolts at his bêtes noires, and the final pages in which he attempts an overview and summation. But six or eight pages on the electrical fields of platypuses are bound to fatigue the most indomitable of nonspecialists. In the course of 600 pages, one is likely to wonder who is the intended audience.
Dawkins was justified in his supposition that starting at the beginning of reproductive life perhaps three and a half billion years ago and moving forward to the present would have given the impression of a progress toward us (an evolutionary no-no), whereas going backwards avoids such an anthropocentric assumption, squashing our grandiosity by reducing us to the blobs of bacteria from which we and all other life emerged. As he puts it, "We can be very sure there really is a single concestor of all surviving life forms on this planet. …