Here are two books. One fills me with reverence for the creative power that caused life to appear on Earth and continues to guide the course of every living being. The other elevates man above all things, profanely denying the reality of the Source that created and sustains us.
That’s why I just finished reading Richard Dawkins’ “The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution” and hardly ever pick up the Bible. Truth inspires me. Fables don’t.
Unfortunately for the propagation of truth, Dawkins’ book is a challenging read. It won’t appeal to those who resonate with this Stephen Colbert-inspired summation of how life developed on Earth: “God made us in seven days. Case closed. What’s so difficult to understand about that?”
Evolution is complicated. I looked at every page of “The Ancestor’s Tale,” but I skipped over the excessively technical parts. It was the big picture that I primarily was interested in, not the details. Which is, in one line:
We all come from one.
A single ancestor (Dawkins says “concestor,” or common ancestor) of all surviving life forms on this planet.
Backward chronology in search of ancestors really can sensibly aim towards a single distant target. The distant target is the grand ancestor of all life, and we can’t help converging upon it no matter where we start—elephant or eagle, swift or salmonella, wellingtonia or woman.
…As things stand, it appears that all known life forms can be traced to a single ancestor which lived more than 3 billion years ago…back to the universal progenitor of all surviving organisms, probably resembling some kind of bacterium.
That’s humbling, isn’t it? Trace your family tree back 3.5 billion years and you encounter your primal bacterial parent. More recently, as this Wikipedia article illustrates, your ancestors were plants, fungi, and sponges. Then sea squirts, and lampreys.
Looking backward from the present, Dawkins’ “Rendezvous 1” is our first meeting with members of another species. Actually, two species: chimpanzees and bonobos. For about six million years ago humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos shared a common ancestor, and about two million years ago bonobos split off from the chimp line (“mya” in this figure from the book means “millions of years ago”).
What did this common ancestor look like? Dawkins’ answer was an eye-opener for me, because I had never questioned the over-simplification, “We’re descended from the apes.”
"The prudent answer is that Concestor 1 was more like a chimpanzee, if only because chimpanzees are more like the rest of the apes than humans are. Humans are the odd ones out among apes, both living and fossil. Which is only to say that more evolutionary change has occurred along the human line of descent from the common ancestor, than along the lines leading to the chimpanzees.
We must not assume, as many laymen do, that our ancestors were chimpanzees. Indeed, the very phrase ‘missing link’ is suggestive of this misunderstanding. You still hear people saying things like, ‘Well, if we are descended from chimpanzees, why are there still chimpanzees around?’"
Because we aren’t descended from chimpanzees. We’re descended from the common ancestor of both humans and chimpanzees, Concestor 1. Amazingly, Dawkins’ pilgrimage to the dawn of evolution requires only 39 such rendezvous with common ancestors until we meet the Eubacteria.
What is the proof that this actually happened? Dawkins lays out the evidence, which extends far beyond the fossil record.
If every fossil were magicked away, the comparative study of modern organisms, of how their patterns of resemblances, especially of their genetic sequences, are distributed among species, and of how species are distributed among continents and islands, would still demonstrate, beyond all sane doubt, that our history is evolutionary, and that all living creatures are cousins. Fossils are a bonus.
In the July 17, 2006 issue of TIME magazine Francis Collins, a genome mapper and evangelical biologist, explains why he, as a devout Christian, accepts the reality of evolution. The article, “Reconciling God and Science,” says:
Did Collins think it possible that all species are products of evolution—except for humanity, which God created separately?...That notion “gets you into a series of real problems,” he [Collins] replied. He sketched one out: the human genome contains nonfunctional elements in the precise spot where they can be found on the chromosomes of lower animals.
If God was creating humans afresh, Collins asked, “why would he insert a pseudo-gene that has lost its ability to do anything in the same place that it appears in a chimp?” Barring evolution, “you’re forced to the conclusion that God was trying to mislead us and test our faith—and I have trouble with that kind of conjecture.”
So any religion worth believing in has to meld its theology with the theory of evolution. Anyone who believes in God has to accept that the creative power works through processes of random mutations and natural selection over billions of years. Instantaneous creation is a fantasy.
A fantasy that deserves to be discarded. Even by—no, especially by—the religious faithful. For how is it possible to love the Creator without embracing the truths that science has revealed about creation? To my mind, it is heresy to substitute subjective human ideation for natural God-made reality.
Especially when that reality is so much more magnificent than the fables in the Bible and other holy books. Evolution points to the unity of all life, a brotherhood, sisterhood, and neuterhood that binds each human being to every other Homo sapiens, and each member of all the species on Earth to every other form of life.
Through our DNA we are connected to chimps, star fish, daisies, sea gulls, centipedes, and coral. We may also be united on some spiritual level to a God who is not of this world, but that is merely a hypothesis.
Evolutionary theory directs us toward reality—the oneness of life on Earth. What could be more sacred than that?