Thursday, November 17, 2005

Books (Science): The Ancestor's Tale (Preview)

I just picked up a book that's rather thicker than the other ones I've been reading lately: The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life by Richard Dawkins. At about 630 pages before the bibliography and index, it's around twice as long as most of the other books I've talked about here. So I'm going to do a little preview post now, and follow up later when I finish.

One of the images that says "evolution" more than any other to the average person is the much-spoofed drawing of a sequence of species running from fish to humans. This image bothers many scientists because it embraces a long-discredited notion that evolution is directed forward towards something (namely, us), when it is, in fact, purely driven by contingency -- what happens in evolution is completely dependent on the past and the present, with no looking forward.

In The Ancestor's Tale, Dawkins reverses things and runs the sequence back from us through the 40 major branchings that have happened in our family tree, towards the common ancestor to all modern life -- sort of like the recent Guiness commercial that made it's rounds on the Web (though the ad has some major mistakes in the species used). Since one can look back without suggesting predestination, this makes for a less misleading perspective on evolution.

As you might have guessed from the title's form and its reference to a pilgramage, The Ancestor's Tale's structure is based loosely on Chaucer's Cantebury Tales. Dawkins tells the tales of the modern descendants from each of the 40 branch nodes in our evolutionary history (for some nodes, he tells tales for many different descendants), just as the pilgrims in Chaucer's stories told their own.

For those who are curious, the 40 cousins of ours (actually, 39 cousins plus ourselves) whose tales are told are:

  1. Humans
  2. Chimpanzees
  3. Gorillas
  4. Orang Utans
  5. Gibbons
  6. Old World Monkeys
  7. New World Monkeys
  8. Tarsiers
  9. Lemurs & Bushbabies
  10. Colugos & Tree Shrews
  11. Rodents & Rabbits
  12. Laurasiatheres (hippos, seals, etc)
  13. Xenarthrans (armadillos, etc)
  14. Afrotheres
  15. Marsupials
  16. Monotremes
  17. Sauropsids (ancestors to birds)
  18. Amphibians
  19. Lungfish
  20. Coelacanths
  21. Ray-finned Fish
  22. Sharks
  23. Lampreys & Hagfish
  24. Lancelets
  25. Sea Squirts
  26. Ambulacrarians
  27. Protostomes
  28. Acoelomorph Flatworms
  29. Cnidarians (jellyfish)
  30. Ctenophores
  31. Placozoans
  32. Sponges
  33. Choanoflagellates
  34. DRIPs
  35. Fungi
  36. Amoebozoans
  37. Plants
  38. Uncertain
  39. Archaea
  40. Eubacteria

This list is just from the table of contents, so I don't yet know what "DRIPs" are (other than that they're on page 507) or why #37 is "Uncertain". Those details will have to wait until the next post.


t.overly said...

That's it...I warned you...God shall SMITE you and your city!! And your little DOG, too!! Erm...and your little CATS, too!! AND, you shall suffer from ingrown toenails and for the rest of your existence!!

Repent now, and email me everything in your bank and I just MIGHT be able to get the ol' man to leave your city and the cats alone, but I'm afraid there's nothing I can do about the toenails...

James said...

Have you been getting enough sleep, Tom?

Or is it too much Pat Robertson?

t.overly said...

Well, I think it's all the driving for hours in the snow with maniacs on every side of me.

As for the latter...that HAD to be a rhetorical question if ever there was one.

James said...

I don't really worry about Pat Robertson diverting his attention up here. Apparently people of his ilk can't tell Canada from Cuba to begin with, so what's to worry?

Keep a sharp eye on fresh developments in both Canada and Cuba, two countries with rogue, corrupt and repressive regimes that don't know when to cut their losses and leave town.

(from Michelle "In Defense of Internment" Malkin's weblog)